This is a transcript of my speech delivered on August 28, 2021 at the Australia-ASEAN Strategic Youth Partnership Digital Dialogues.

The digital divide is an observable reality. We need not look far because living examples of how and where digital works and does not–and the magnitude of change required to make this highly digitally-enabled New Normal an accessible, inclusive and an empowering reality for all.

We are working towards that direction–but we are still aways out from achieving that goal. What you and I share here today as an experience–meeting on Zoom and having a confab across borders–is what to us is the New Normal, a way of life, but what, for many more, is simply an unattainable luxury. This is a luxury many can’t afford nor do because they do not have the requisite access to technology, reliable internet, or basic know-how.

And in this panic to adjust to this New Normal in which digitalisation, digital transformation, digital enablement have become the distinguishing feature of everyday living–unknowingly leaving the poor and marginalised even more disenfranchised by society and its institutions in a frantic rush to embrace digital.

In my talk today, I argue that addressing the digital divide is not just an economic but a moral imperative. More importantly, although we are caught in this frantic panic to digitalise and elevate even the way we think and do because it is necessary, we must not forget that the solution to making digital transformation meaningful is, in the first place, analogue. Moreover, I argue that these “analogue” solutions are necessary for ensuring that no person is left behind by what is inherently discriminating.

I discuss the topic in three parts: first, why the shift to digital is painfully discriminatory and exclusive; second, why digitalisation is necessary even in promoting vibrant and highly participatory democracies; and finally, what is required to drive a more accessible and more inclusive digital world.

Why the shift to digital is painfully discriminatory and exclusive

Connectivity has long been a goal of the ASEAN, with its vision of achieving a seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated ASEAN that will promote competitiveness, inclusiveness, and a greater sense of community.

It’s easy to think that the goal is digitalisation. But it’s not. We are concerned about promoting the welfare and well-being of people for which digitalisation must work as a means, not as an end in itself.

The progress towards ASEAN’s goal was by no means slow, but COVID19 further emphasised how essential access to reliable internet is. We went into a grand experiment of a forced shift to a digital mode of doing business and conducting everyday affairs.

Take, for example, the case of the Philippines, which for 17 months now is still under a stringent community quarantine policy. Yes, our community quarantine policies adjust according to epidemiological dynamics, but this has kept the industry performing at deficient productivity levels, leading millions of Filipinos to become unemployed and even more families to slip below the poverty line. Naturally, household consumption contracts as income become unstable and uncertain, overall, leading the country to its lowest economic performance since the 1940s. As health outcomes improved on the margin and mobility restrictions slowly loosened, the country recovers this year, officially ending a recession. Still, the base is just too low and the dip too deep to bring it back to its pre-pandemic level sooner. Even then, being an economy driven mainly by the services sector, matched with an anaemic vaccination roll-out despite rising demand and decreasing hesitancy, many are still without jobs or forced to work from home.

And not everyone can work from home. With an internet penetration of about 74%, one might think that, at the very least, 74% of the population can quickly shift to a remote setup. But that is not the case when internet access is mainly defined by access to Free Facebook. The forced shift to digital is already, in the first instance, exclusive and discriminating.

Many do not have access to the internet. That’s a fact faced not just by developing countries but also by people around the globe. Two thousand nineteen (2019) pre-pandemic data from the Philippines shows that an estimated 63% of individuals have never accessed the internet.  This proportion was smaller in more urban areas, but around 80-90% of Filipinos from more rural areas have never, in their lives, accessed the internet.

The most apparent reason why some do not access the internet is a lack of technical know-how, while the second most prominent reason is the high cost of subscription, and the third is unavailability.  The price of internet service in the Philippines is not affordable: a ten megabit per second internet in the Philippines costs around USD 20.

On the top end of the minimum wage range in the Philippines, which varies per region, is USD 11.17, while on the lowest is USD 6.57. Considering that other essentials need to be covered, including food, rent, utilities, transportation, education-related expenses, one needs to invest at least a dollar per working day to maintain what is even barely an acceptable internet speed for remote work.

Furthermore, with a high incidence of informality in labour, only middle-income households holding office jobs can make the shift to remote work—even making the liberal assumption that they have reliable internet at home. Based on a World Bank report, only 20% of jobs can be done from home, and this estimate falls to 3% in low-income countries such as the Philippines.

Let’s take the story of CALFAMCO, a large and successful agricultural cooperative in the Southern Philippines. At the onset of the pandemic, under a strict lockdown policy, access to markets was limited, production stopped, and the only way they could survive the shock was through emergency loans from the government. Yes, these loans were made available to help alleviate difficulties brought about by the pandemic. Still, the only way they could access emergency financial support was by filing their documents online. They were not ready for this shift: they had no computers, no internet, nor the skills required to do it.

It took their community of mothers to teach each other how to do things online, raise funds for tablets, and lobby for better internet access in their area, which is far and remote from the conveniences of their city centre. The cost of adjustment is tremendous.

In a Free Facebook Internet economy, we cannot imagine an easier shift to remote learning for students. Today, millions of children from low-income families rely solely on the manual distribution of printed modules to learn, leaving very little room to secure the quality of human capital production in this mode of learning. They, too, did not have the requisite technology for the New Normal. Even if they did, would they have access to reliable internet sufficient for synchronous learning sessions when higher-income families constantly experience disruptions due to low-quality internet services?

The shift to digital is necessary, but its sufficiency lies in making the internet accessible to more households whose livelihoods, both present and future (as in the case of studying from home), depend on being successful in digital.

Why digitalisation is necessary for promoting vibrant and highly participatory democracies

Let’s take a look at another dimension of the digital divide.

2022 is critical for the Philippines. We will be electing public officials at the national and local levels in May 2022 in the middle of a raging pandemic that is not showing any sign of abatement anytime soon.

The Philippines, the first democracy in Asia, suffered a tremendous loss in the age of fake news and trolling when the franchise of a leading broadcast network was not renewed by the ruling party in the House of Representatives last year. Amidst a pandemic, for that matter, which is arguably the time when mass media is essential in influencing both private and public action.

Media consumption in the Philippines is still mainly driven by free-to-air TV. The non-renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise signalled a shift in the media landscape, impeding the function of the press to correct distorted signals from fake news and propaganda-driven trolling. In the absence of a widely distributed and diverse mainstream, traditional media, the public lost a reliable source of information that has the power to correct such distortions caused by fake news.

Yes, Filipinos use social media the most, averaging 4 hours and 15 minutes of use every day, roughly twice the global average of 2 hours and 25 minutes which means that social media is a powerful source of information. However, the problem lies with social media being a lair of trolls and false information, which can distort truths, especially among less-educated individuals. And it’s worrying to note that more than 40% of Filipinos have not finished lower secondary education that could help equip them in determining the truth from falsity, especially when the fourth estate is no longer as effective in educating the public through facts. Furthermore, the absence of a diverse, highly liberalised mainstream media constrains the flow of reliable information to reach remote areas where internet access is absent or is unreliable.

Regardless of one’s political affinity and personal preferences on leadership, the election next year is nothing else but consequential. The country’s overall well-being—economic, health and social well-being—will be determined by the set of leaders people will elect.

And since this election will be conducted intra-pandemic, it is vital to appreciate how many of its attached processes, from voter registration to campaigning and mobilisation, the conduct and management of elections, will be facilitated AND fought digitally. 

Take, for example, the ongoing voter registration drive. As of July, there are already about 61 million registered voters out of a potential 72 million voters, as estimated by the statistics authority.

Recognising the constraints imposed by the pandemic on mobility, the volume capacity of registration sites is limited following minimum public health standards. With no available online registration mechanisms due to limitations in current election laws, people can only get registered by going to the nearest registration site, but which does not conduct registrations when the region or city is under a strict lockdown.

Here is an interesting case: to provide sufficient motivation for citizens to get registered. Civil society came together in a drive to promote voter registration throughout the pandemic—but because there are real constraints to mobility and even the extent to which information is distributed in media, these campaigns were done most, if not wholly, online. Those who do not have access to the internet and have no access to reliable information from traditional media are left without guidance nor external sources of motivation to get registered.

A simple correlation exercise reveals that areas underperforming in terms of registrations relative to population forecast have lower internet activity and a higher incidence of poverty. Consequently, areas with relatively better internet activity and lower poverty incidence are over-indexed in registrations relative to population forecasts. Interestingly, the National Capital Region, the country’s business capital and seat of the government, is also underperforming in terms of registrations relative to population forecast at 69% vs the 89% national average.

If National Capital Region has better access to the internet, it must be the case that it would have access to information and guidance regarding voter registration. However, it is possible that those who have not registered yet come from the urban poor. And they are from households that, like in the production view of digitalisation earlier, do not have access to the internet in the first place.

How might then the voice of the urban poor reflect in the mandate that the country will accord its elected leaders in the elections next year if they are disenfranchised from participating in a vital democratic process—due in large part to their lack of internet access?

Furthermore, for those who are registered but whose perspectives may have been distorted by fake news, how might they choose well if there is no fourth estate in the form of a free press to correct false information?

History has shown that mandate, say, for the presidency in the country could be won by a slim margin. Suppose it means that more empowered citizens can register to vote and use facts, not lies, as their weapon against the tyranny of false information. In that case, making the internet pervasive, equitable, and distributed is a moral imperative, especially in an election year so fraught by division, hate, and distrust in a system that has not successfully addressed the needs of the people, especially the poor and marginalised.

One could argue that a vibrant democracy in the 21st century, particularly ones that can thrive in exceedingly difficult times, can nonetheless suffer in the presence of a digital divide, where participation in it / is now determined by who has the requisite knowledge, technology, sufficient skills, and access to reliable internet. Said differently, today, the greater the digital divide, the greater the divide in our democracies.

What is required to drive a more accessible and more inclusive digital world

From the sketches I provided about the harsh realities that a shift to digital brings, especially for those who do not meet each of these requirements to fully maximise the efficiencies and benefits due to digital, to how strong, vibrant democracies can suddenly become fragile with the absence of a generalised digital sophistication to participate in democratic institutions, we now appreciate better why it is not only an economic imperative but also a moral imperative to recharacterise the internet and digital technologies as essentially a public good as highways and the provision of national security are. After all, digital technologies and the requisite access to them must be in place to promote people’s overall well-being and welfare in any country.

And much of the solutions to explore in addressing this moral imperative is analogue more than digital.

In a related article I wrote on the ASEAN Digital Single Market in which I proposed a digital economic integration framework, I argued that a whole-of-society approach at both regional and country levels must be taken to ensure a competitive, innovative and dynamic region in the 21st century: ensuring that fundamental human rights and freedoms are protected and promoted which includes that there is, at the very least, a concerted effort to bring digital literacy as a right to every person through both formal and informal channels. Second, ensure that affordable, reliable and secure high-speed internet is accessible in every household. Third, we need a set of harmonised policies and market-level standards that make not only trade and commerce flourish but ones that make even greater participation in the economy and institutions possible. And lastly, a platform ecosystem that is built to the task of making the internet a highly participatory environment at scale.

These “analogue” solutions are grounded on even more fundamental aspects that are not digital nor tech in nature: a shared vision, a culture of learning, openness to collaboration and fair competition, and to act fast. The absence of these perpetuates a socio-economic structure that will be hard to correct in the long run. The longer it takes us to make the internet a public good like highways, healthcare, and national security are, the more people would be left behind, as we see now more clearly because of the perspective that the pandemic brings.

As leaders of this region, before we act and get too excited about technology because of our frenzy on getting the digitalisation ball rolling, we must remember that lives, livelihoods, and the way we live are at stake. And for that, we cannot forget that many more are still currently disenfranchised, all due to a digital divide caught up precisely in that frenzy to go digital.

Special thanks to Vince Eisen Yao for the research assistance.

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