Budget 2023: Powering the digital economy by resolving the digital and data divide

For illustration only. A big data centre in China’s Anhui province/ Pix by Shanti Ayadurai
By Professor Dr. Hafezali Bin Iqbal Hussain

The term digital divide can be explained by looking at the gap between demographics and regions that have the ability and capacity to access modern communications technology relative to those who cannot. The division arises from technical proficiency, financial ability as well as access (or rather the lack of it) to the internet. A gap which has been widening with developing technologies. This has created a new category of inequality in this century.

In the early part of the digital revolution, digital divide often referred to the gap between those who had access and could afford mobile phones versus those who did not. However, in today’s context the gap refers to the division, which is evident in developing versus developed countries, communities living in cities versus those living in rural areas, segments of society which are younger and more educated versus those who are older and less educated as well as between men and women. The pandemic highlighted the digital divide between demographics as learning shifted online across the country, a student from remote parts of the country had to trek through the jungle and climb a tree to get internet signal. It serves as a poignant example where the innovation achieved from online teaching and learning, which took years to develop, is facing a technological bottleneck.

The data divide, an effect which arises from the digital divide, is a disparity between the ability to create commercial value from the use of data to gain wealth and solve social and environmental challenges.

This has created a gap between the data have and have-nots.  The traditional economic model which concerns output (production of goods and services) requires decisions on what to produce, how it will be distributed across the economy as well as what is done from the earnings of the production. In today’s world, the digital economy is redefining the main choices that need to be made in the context of a new model: the ability to monetize large volumes of digital data as well as platformisation. Digital platforms have now become central actors in the economy whilst data is the key resource in the economic process. The interaction between the two creates value and the ability to utilize the outcome of the interaction will affect the ability to capture the value being created.

In the Malaysian context, the digital economy has emerged as a key part of creating value and distribution during the pandemic and is expected to keep growing. Thus, businesses across the country will need to adapt and identify ways in which value is being created. However, the micro and SMEs have struggled to transform their businesses and partake in the digital economy. The main reason behind inability to transform arises from the access and use divide given the limited access to technology and the skills necessary to unlock the potential from digitalisation. In addition, the data divide also creates a gap between the Davids versus the Goliaths due to the quality-of-use gap where large corporations are far more able to harness opportunities from data relative to their smaller peers.

The digital and data divide points towards a structural problem in the nation’s strive towards harnessing the potential gains from the digital economy. These firms’ risk being left behind and missing out on the economic gains as the country focuses on reaping the benefits of digitalisation. Business owners facing these problems which require rapid adaption will be facing a dilemma as it triggers a flight, fight, or freeze response from the behavioural perspective. This is where fear and inertia may cause small businesses to adopt the freeze response rather than embracing change. These firms would end up doing nothing at all and focusing on survival. Thus, there also needs to be a greater push to increase the uptake of digitalisation by removing the scepticism which could prove costly for these small businesses and society. 

Given that SMEs employ most Malaysians it is critical that the budget aims to close the gaps in connectivity and skills given that it leads to differences in wealth. A widening gap would also potentially lead to greater gender discrimination as well as lower social mobility. Micro and small businesses are seen as riskier by traditional banks and financial institutions. In addition, considering that these firms lack the skills to prepare proper financials they would typically have limited financial history which is an important criterion for credit underwriting.

Incentivising these businesses to shift to a digital model allows a greater ability to now partake in the financial ecosystem given that transactions are now having an electronic trail. For starters, banks, and financial institutions and even the upcoming digital banks would be able to form partnerships with these firms to provide small ticket financing which are tailored to suit their needs based on the ability to harness transactional data which came about due to the shift to a digital model. To resolve affordability of smartphones and laptop computers among the micro and small firms, the budget would also need to provide interest free financing to make the shift affordable. In addition, internet tariff subsidies would attract a greater degree of adoption of platformisation among the smaller firms. The two-pronged strategy will enable greater interaction between the ability to monetize data as well as platformisation among entrepreneurial SMEs. Overall, it will lead to economic growth which is more robust and sustainable.

Professor Dr. Hafezali Bin Iqbal Hussain is the Head of Research in the Faculty of Business and Law and Director of Digital Economy and Business Transformation Impact Lab at Taylor’s University. Taylor’s Business School is the leading private business school in Southeast Asia for Business and Management Studies based on the 2022 QS World University Rankings by Subject.

The views expressed here are that of the writer’s and not necessarily that of Weekly Echo’s.