South-east Asia’s Internet economy on the cusp of big change, says Google chief

Mon, Dec 07, 2020 – 6:46 PM

CLOSING the digital divide and deepening partnerships between governments and businesses are key for a more inclusive digital economy that brings the benefits of the Internet to everyone, said Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

This comes as the South-east Asian Internet economy is on the verge of a “massive transformation” as Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of digital adoption by both people and businesses, he said at the Singapore FinTech Festival x Singapore Week of Innovation & Technology 2020.

“We’ve seen this year how online has been a lifeline in South-east Asia – eight out of 10 people said the technology helped them navigate the pandemic,” he noted.

At the same time, Covid-19 has also exposed the many people left behind, he added. Among them are the 1.7 billion people who are still unbanked, the “huge portion” of African households without access to broadband, as well as millions of women entrepreneurs who lack access to opportunity that their male counterparts enjoy, said Mr Pichai.

One instance of how Google is attempting to close the digital divide is by focusing on infrastructure. It is building subsea cables between western Europe and the west coast of Africa, as well as developing affordable devices to transform digital access, he said.

But Mr Pichai pointed out that it is not just about connecting to the Internet that is important. “It’s about what people can do with that connectivity.”

“One of the most exciting developments is financial connectivity, which ensures that everyone can participate in the economic system.” Its digital payment platform Google Pay, first launched in India in 2017, will be improved globally, starting in Singapore and the US, he said.

Google is partnering with various organisations such as the Gates Foundation to drive modular and non-profit-creating open-source tools so that any country can use to develop its own digital payment system, said Mr Pichai.

“Connectivity is the foundation of a more inclusive digital economy,” he added.

With that, he said that the next step is to ensure that everyone, including small businesses, has access to digital skills and tools. This is where partnerships come in.

Google is investing in the innovation ecosystem, including entrepreneurs and startups, to ensure digital economies are sustainable, he said.

Building a more inclusive digital economy will also require a spirit of collaboration, with digital trade a place to start, added Mr Pichai. It is estimated that expanding business and trade through technology could add US$1 trillion to overall gross domestic product by 2025, and help entrepreneurs grow across borders, create more jobs, and develop better services and new opportunities, he said.

Unlocking these benefits require the right frameworks, he noted. Singapore has been pioneering new approaches, with digital economy agreements that could provide a template for other parts of the world, he said. This is alongside broader trade deals like the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

“Our goal for the post-Covid world is to ensure the benefits of technology can be shared, as widely and equitably as possible,” said Mr Pichai. “If we can do that, 2020 will be remembered not as the end of the world we knew, but the beginning of a world that works better for everyone.”

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