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Singapore Finance Minister outlines 3 goals of an Inclusive and Informed Digital ASEAN

On 10 May, at the opening ceremony of the 14th Conference of ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI), Singapore Minister for Finance Mr Heng Swee Keat delivered his keynote speech outlining the three goals of an Inclusive and Informed Digital ASEAN.

Minister Heng highlighted the need for ASEAN to come together to prepare our citizens for the opportunities and challenges brought about by technological advances. He also emphasised the need to nurture ASEAN citizens with the skills to discern between facts and fake news, and to practise responsible behaviour when interacting online and exercising discretion when dealing with the vast amount of online information. Minister also reiterated that ASEAN could better ride on opportunities brought about by the digital wave by improving digital literacy among its citizens.

This year, Singapore’s AMRI chairmanship coincides with it ASEAN chairmanship. Minister Heng urged that ASEAN must continue to stay open and connected, and prepare to ride the new wave of growth which will be driven by technology and the digital economy.

According to Minister Heng, AMRI will play a pivotal role in leading ASEAN into the new digital age. With today’s age of information technology and new media, AMRI can encourage a shared sense of ASEAN community that transcends national borders by facilitating access to quality information in the digital age.

The theme of the 14th AMRI is an “Inclusive and Informed Digital ASEAN”. To catalyse discussion at the AMRI, Minister Heng laid out three goals:

(1)    Growing the digital economy

The goal of growing the digital economy is achieved by enabling businesses to make full use of digital technology to innovate new products and services. Minister Heng stated that such goal is “urgent”, as technology is transforming the global economy.

“It is heartening that many ASEAN member stats have unveiled plans to build up their capabilities,” he said.

Minister then gave the examples of Brunei’s Digital Government Strategy which includes programmes for enhanced delivery of digital services, Myanmar’s efforts in drafting a Digital Economy Development Master Plan to capitalise on its rapid growing number of mobile and internet users, and Cambodia’s plan to transit towards a digital economy.

“Building on these national initiatives, we must harness our strength as a region to develop a vibrant digital economy,” he added.

Some of the areas of cooperation Minister mentioned include the free flow of data across borders, mutual recognition of each other’s national digital identities, and integrate customs clearance.

(2)    Nurturing an inclusive digital society

The second goal of nurturing an inclusive digital society seeks to empower and enable people in ASEAN to access and navigate the digital world.

“As ASEAN goes digital, we must ensure that our peoples progress together, and we leave no one behind,” Minsiter Heng emphasised.

To build a participative digital society across ASEAN and foster a strong sense of community through information and media, ASEAN member states must take steps to narrow the digital divide and equip their people with the necessary skills to enter the digital age.

To achieve this, Minister said ASEAN will need a “coordinated approach” to share experiences and best practices with one another. At the AMRI meetings, the ASEAN Ministers will be discussing a set of proposed Core Values on Digital Literacy for ASEAN. The proposed Core Values have the catchy acronym “READI”, that stands for responsibility, empathy, authenticity, discernment, and integrity. The set of Core Values will serve as a guide for ASEAN to build values and capabilities and foster an inclusive and informed ASEAN digital community.

Minister Heng also shared that the Singapore Government is currently putting together a Digital Readiness Blueprint that envisions giving all Singaporeans digital access, so that they have the means to transact and connect with each other through digital technology. The city-state is also helping its citizens to develop digital literacy, equipping them with the skills, motivation, and confidence to use technology. These efforts are made with the aim of facilitating digital participation, which will enable Singaporeans to embrace and use technology to improve their lives.

(3)    Building a trusted digital ecosystem

“As digital channels proliferate, we must respond to new challenges such as fake news,” said Minister Heng.

“To have an informed public and inclusive online community, our people need to be assured that the information they read, learn, and use on the Internet is reliable and not deliberately misleading,” he explained.

According to Minister, digital media has become the primary source of information for many of people in ASEAN, especially youths. He pointed out that this shift towards online sources of information has brought about an increasingly fragmented media landscape across ASEAN, and a declining interest in traditional sources of news and information.

“We must nurture an informed society that can navigate this rapidly changing digital landscape and face new challenges head-on,” he urged.

One of such challenges is fake news. The trend of online falsehoods could be a result of selected narratives amplified by selected narratives social bots, echo chambers created by newsfeed algorithms, and the proliferation of sensational news articles due to the nature of online advertising revenue.

“Our people must not only be tech-savvy, they must be information-savvy. As ASEAN moves into the digital space, we must learn how to identify and guard against the risks that arise in an increasingly inter-connected world,” he highlighted.

Given the transnational nature of trends and threats in the digital world, Minister iterated that ASEAN must work together to cultivate a resilient, trusted digital ecosystem across ASEAN. One possible means to achieve this would be to establish and uphold an ASEAN Framework to Minimise the Harmful Effects of Fake News.

“ASEAN cooperation has enabled us to achieve economic development, regional integration, peace and security. In the coming years, ASEAN can and should build on this good foundation that we have and already achieved to go for even loftier goals, to be a vibrant digital economy, to be a trusted and closely-knitted online community with shared values. Together, we can give everyone in ASEAN a stake in our digital future, and take our people forward,” Minister Heng concluded.

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