Focus on promoting digital inclusion to speed up recovery — Jamari Mohtar and Afifah Suhaimi

AUGUST 6 — Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Malaysian economy is really doing well with a spate of good news these past few days. First on the list is Malaysia’s exports bounced back to record an increase of 8.8 per cent to RM82.9 billion in June from a decline of 25.5 per cent in May.

Next, our trade surplus widened by 98.7 per cent to RM20.9 billion in June — the largest ever recorded so far. According to the Department of Statistics, the previous largest trade surplus was recorded in October 2019 with a value of RM17.3 billion.

And in further signs of rapid recovery in Malaysia as factories keep up momentum, Malaysia’s manufacturing continued to outperform expectations in July to offer further indication that the country could be in for a V-shaped recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the IHS Markit Malaysia Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), the country registered a score of 50.0 for July to beat estimates of 49.0. A PMI score under 50 denotes contraction while a score above 50 signals expansion.

To hasten the recovery process, perhaps it is time to focus urgently on promoting digital inclusion. Regardless of the catastrophic loss of life, the damage done to economies and the effect on individual livelihoods that Covid-19 has impacted us, the pandemic has become a stark reminder of what people lose out on by being left out of the digital revolution and perhaps, has opened many eyes to promote digital inclusion.

What's more, as we move towards Malaysia 5.0 — a problem-solving approach to society's challenges and problems through the deployment and implementation of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, it is more vital than ever to ensure digital inclusion for everyone, so that everyone has the equal chances to participate in realising this mission.

Digital technology can support economic inclusion by breaking down barriers to information, broadening access and lowering the level of skills needed to participate in the economy — creating an inclusive digital economy.

When people can access and effectively use the technology necessary to participate in modern society, that is when digital equity is achieved. Seen from this perspective, digital inclusion denotes efforts to remedy deficits in digital equity.

While digital divide and digital literacy are the two common things that have been discussed among policymakers, digital inclusion is a much broader category that is meant to become a practical and policy-driven approach, which bridges and addresses the digital needs of everyone as a whole. 

Generally, digital inclusion contains three essential elements:

  • Access — the availability, quality, capacity and flexibility of an internet connection, hardware and sufficient data allowances;
  • Affordability — the necessary skills and consumer safety to use the technology and accessing the internet; and
  • Ability — the attitudes and skills to confidently use online technologies in diverse ways

Together, these elements would lead to the ultimate goal of creating a more digitally inclusive society – where everyone would have access to the skills, knowledge and devices needed to empower their lives through digital technology.

Apart from that, digital inclusion also gives the society opportunities to receive necessary services and essential goods such as education, employment, commerce and social interaction through the internet platform. 

In fact, with the introduction of the movement control order (MCO) to curb the coronavirus spread, people have turned to the internet to stay connected with their loved ones, access education or information during emergencies, and safeguard a small level of economic activity.

However, as for those who are digitally excluded, not only that they are struggling to access services, food or medical support, they are also putting themselves at risk and greater peril by being forced to step out of the house, just for the sake of seeking necessities.

In the same token, digitally excluded people are also at jeopardy of “technological unemployment,” as they might struggle to utilise technologies to find jobs as the internet becomes an increasingly pervasive tool for job hunting and recruitment — which will then increase the unemployment rate.

This concurs with the findings of EMIR Research Quarterly Poll for the first quarter of 2020 on the National Worry Index (NWI) as Malaysia's NWI score stood at 0.78 which denotes a maximum worried rakyat, where unemployment issue is one of the most significant worrying concerns for Malaysians.

In terms of education, digital inclusion could address the issue in Sabah, where about 52 per cent of the students in that state do not have access to the internet, smartphones, computers or mobile gadgets, which are needed to participate in the online learning during MCO. 

This, indeed, deepens the existing inequalities in our society. As a matter of fact, this matter has been raised by some participants in the focus group discussions of EMIR Research for its next quarterly poll.

Shockingly, research shows that other factors that act as a barrier to digital inclusion is not only because of the unavailability of internet access but also comes within the individual itself — as some people do not find any relevancy of using the internet, fear of online crime, lack of trust and even don't know how and where to start online.

Well, now, how do we promote digital inclusion?

It can be promoted in various ways; for instance, government institutions like schools and libraries should ensure that everybody could have access to digital technologies, including hardware, software and high-speed internet.

The government may also increase their spending to provide training programmes and practical workshops about digital literacy so that everyone can understand, learn and use technology.

As for the local government, an annual "Day of Digital Inclusion" could be hosted as

a way of working towards a digitally engaged community. With such an event, society can be updated with the current projects on technology while creating a fun environment to engage with them.

Lastly, relevant organisations need to prepare a curriculum that teaches online consumer safety to protect their privacy and personal information so that they can stay cyber-protected while utilising those technologies.

We all live in an increasingly complex environment and technology advances so quickly that all of us can't keep up.

Thus, by making the internet more accessible, affordable and giving people the skills they need to use it, the government can now bridge the digital divide and empower every individual to feel included online and equally enjoy the advantages that the technology has to offer.

It is important to note that as a whole, it is our duty to ensure that no one is left behind, even how daunting it might be — so that everyone is digitally included, no matter where and who they are.

* Jamari Mohtar and Afifah Suhaimi are with think tank EMIR Research,.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

Related Articles