VACETS Regular Technical Column

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September 6, 1996

National Information Infrastructures In Pacific Asia: Visions, Reality, and Research Inquiry

Over the last two years, there has been major conferences sponsored by high- level national and international organizations on national information technologies and policies in the Pacific Rim - from Beijing to Saigon, from Hikone, Japan to Singapore, from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur.. This increased interest in no accident. It has been suggested that we will soon enter a "Pacific Century", in which the world's economic center of gravity, having shifted from Asia to Europe and thence to North America early in this century, is now returning to Asia. But it is returning to a very diverse Asia, with many regional differences in language, culture, ideology, income levels and income distribution, and economic policies. Despite this diversity, most - if not all - of the leaders of Asian countries are firmly convinced that I.T. would help propel their country into the Information Age. Indeed, many nations in Pacific Asia have recently begun to design and implement their widely-publicized national information infrastructures (NIIs).

Examples are Singapore's IT2000 plan to transform the city-state into an intelligent island and Malaysia's Vision 2020 to create a "Multimedia Super Corridor". Similar programs, not less ambitious, can be found in other Pacific Rim countries such as the developing "Young Lions" (China, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam), the intermediate-stage "Growing Tigers" (South Korea, and Taiwan), and the more advanced "Mature Leopards" (Australia, Japan, and New Zealand).

The push toward the digital economy has further reached the regional level. In 1995, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (APEC) proposed the establishment of an Asia Pacific Information Infrastructure (APII). APII is intended to be a seamless interface between the NIIs of the various APEC nations, and it is also intended to interface with a global information infrastructure (GII) when and if a GII is developed. In part it is a technical effort, promoting interoperability standards. But it is also a human resource effort that promotes the training and exchange of technically qualified personnel, a regulatory effort that promotes the liberalization of telecommunication regulations to facilitate information sharing, and a development effort that reduces the disparity between the technological infrastructures of the advanced and developing nations in the region. In addition, APII recognizes the need to address specific issues of current concern, such as electronic data interchange (EDI) and the protection of intellectual property rights.

Several observations and conclusions can be drawn from these events. One is that, with their respective NII plans, the Asian countries have demonstrated their commitment to join the global trend of seeing digital information and communication services as a central aspect of economic, social, cultural and political life. To achieve this effort, and in spite of national differences, these NIIs share the following goals: * to establish a telecommunication infrastructure (i.e., voice, data and video transmission) * to build up the information infrastructure (i.e., national networked data bases) * to develop I.T. applications (i.e., software production), and * to provide value-added information and telecommunications services.

In a way, these goals are generic enough to suggest that they reflect the tradition that Asian countries are followers of technology - granted followers have their own advantages. Indeed , the four goals resemble a typical NII plan brought into existence earlier by Western countries led by the United States. Yet, the Pacific Asia NIIs differ from their Western counterparts in at least two counts. First, they seem to rely more on I.T. as an opportunity for them to "leapfrog" into the Information Age. Second, there is an apparent objective to use I.T. as a conscious national and regional policy to reduce the economic and social gaps. Most of these Asia Pacific nations believe that NII efforts should (1) be driven by specific development-oriented applications, (2) be joint government-industry partnerships, and (3) recognize the need for human as well as financial capital, especially in education in an government-guided but market-led framework.

At the time of this writing, the cornerstones of many NII efforts are at best in the early stages. Different nations are approaching their plan in different ways and at different rates of speed, but most have inclined toward deregulation and privatization of the telecommunication industry, and on fiscal policies to promote computerization. NII efforts are typically joint government/industry efforts, with varying degrees of government guidance and with varying degrees of internal and external (i.e., MNC) industry participation.

On paper, the Pacific Asia NIIs plans seem at first glance to have all the necessary ingredients for a sound development of an information-driven society. But on paper, much research is needed to transform these visions into reality. In fact, most plans remain at a high level, thus lacking concrete implementation plans, economic evaluation, risk management studies, and impact analysis of massive I.T. deployment on national economies, and more significantly, localization of I.T. diffusion, adoption and use. Only when that level of detailed research has been undertaken will it be possible to obtain a clear picture of the NIIs plan in the region.

Furthermore, and in practical reality, there are more challenges ahead. An Asian NII is typically more prone to problems related to the lack of necessary knowledge and experience to carry out the plan, market restrictions, political quagmires and vested financial interests causing vague and unstable legal and regulatory conditions. These realities, despite their paramount complexity, should be further taken into consideration if the IS/IT researchers are to venture into this region to conduct their studies. Needless to say, their research contribution will be most appreciated to contribute to this historic and massive effort.

About PRIISM (Homepage:

PRIISM is a non-profit organization, based at the University of Hawaii, dedicated to the study and research on Information Systems and Technology in the Asia-Pacific Region. The PRIISM Consortium is a collaboration of Universities and Research Centers from North America and Asia-Pacific countries to provide expertise and resources to advance the state of knowledge in those areas. PRIISM is seeking participation from government agencies, the private sector and research organizations that share an interest in information Systems and Technology in the Pacific Rim.

    Bui Xuan Tung
    PRIISM Consortium Director
    The U.S. Naval Postgraduate School Department of Systems Management
    Monterey, CA. 93943
    Tel. (408) 656-2630, Fax (408) 656-3068 t

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    Copyright © 1996 by VACETS and Bui Xuan Tung

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