Unlocking the Untapped Potential in Asia’s Digital Economy

Rama-Sridhar (hires)
Rama Sridhar, Executive Vice President, Digital and Emerging Partnerships and New Payment Flows, Asia Pacific, Mastercard

Digitalization of Asia’s commerce brings choice to consumers and opportunity to businesses. It also provides the region’s societies with a path to greater economic growth and prosperity. Better government and business support of the digital economy is needed though, to fully reap these benefits. Greater public and private sector collaborations are also key to unlocking digitalization’s full potential.

While it can appear that the surge of digitalization in Asia – driven by better digital infrastructure, deepening internet and mobile penetration, and rapidly increasing discretionary incomes –  is already successfully driving market growth and development, there is tremendous untapped potential ahead. According to Bain & Company, the digital economy contributes just 7 per cent of GDP in ASEAN and 16 per cent in China (as compared to 35 per cent in the US) and stronger digital foundations could contribute an additional $1 trillion to the GDP of ASEAN alone.

To open new markets, the millions who are still excluded from digital marketplaces – particularly the elderly and the poor – must be addressed. Factors such as lack of access to the internet and training and education have left millions unable to participate in this digital market revolution.

Further, according to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report commissioned by Mastercard, the digital age divide and the digital income divide have meant that the societal gains from today’s digitalization have already been unequal. In each of the region’s economies, a greater share of those under the age of 35 has used the internet to make an online purchase or bill payment than those over 55. There’s a similarly wide gulf between the rich and poor.

Differences in regulations and the level of digital infrastructure across the region compound the issue and hinder Asia’s ability to fully reap the benefits of the digital economy.

Digital Inclusion

To successfully include all of Asia’s populations in the digital marketplace, it is imperative that people have the ability to acquire the necessary technological and financial skills, and governments ramp up investment and infrastructure.

However, this can’t be left to the region’s governments alone. For one, many governments don’t have the financial resources to allocate adequately to digitalization. Two, several simply don’t have the bandwidth to look beyond other more basic problems.  

This provides an opportunity for the private sector to step up and fill the void. Whether through partnering with regulators and policymakers to shape the regulatory agenda around what is still a relatively nascent industry, investing in people and businesses so they can leverage digitalisation, or helping bring digital infrastructure and services to those left behind, the private sector must play a more active role.

At Mastercard, we are partnering with fintechs as they take digitalization to the remotest parts of Asia’s economy, resulting in both digital and financial inclusion. Through our global accelerator programme Start Path Global, we support start-ups by providing mentoring, giving them access to our global ecosystem and helping them break into new markets with the help of our relationships and customer base.

We’ve also recognized the need for greater public-private collaboration. For example, in September last year, Mastercard’s Track, a global trade platform, was integrated with Singapore’s Networked Trade Platform in an initiative led by Singapore Customs and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore. This digital trade platform facilitates secure and efficient electronic transactions and payment reconciliation between buyers and suppliers, greatly streamlining and simplifying B2B transactions to facilitate more inter-regional trade.

While there is no one template for these partnerships, a number of similar ways can be found for companies to work closely with policymakers in offering digital solutions and enhancing digital skills. Governments, for their part, can also further support Asia’s digitalization by harmonizing regional regulations with the aim of supporting the creation of seamless, interoperable platforms with uniform governance across countries.

Ultimately, only a rising tide of collective regional effort that includes a combination of greater cross-border collaboration and increased financial and digital inclusion will unlock the full potential of Asia’s digitalization. It will also help create a digital economy that benefits all.  

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