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Regional Strategies > Book Reviews > Information Technology Diffusion in the Asia Pacific >

Information Technology Diffusion in the Asia Pacific: Perspectives on Policy, Electronic Commerce and Education

by Felix Tan, Scott Corbett, and Yuk-Yong Wong

1999; Idea Group Publishing, London (UK) and Hershey (USA)

376 pages

Review by Madanmohan Rao

The Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the fastest growing economies of the world, and some leading IT companies. The Asia-Pacific "adds its own tone and tenor" to the diffusion of IT which generally has tended to have a Western orientation, and this handbook provides an academic treatment of some regional IT diffusion issues in China, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The material from 25 contributors in the region and from North America is edited by Felix Tan (University of Auckland, New Zealand), Scott Corbett (Oxnard College, USA), and Yuk-Yong Wong (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). The material is structured into three sections: national IT policy, online commerce, and IT in education.

Almost half of the 21 chapters are about the IT scenario in New Zealand. Much of the data is drawn from the early to mid 1990s; there are unfortunately numerous typos in the manuscript.

"Computerisation, the Internet and information technology in general create new challenges for societies and cultures to define, perhaps continuously redefine: what is public and private, what is in the national interest and what is not, what are appropriate uses of resources and how limited resources should be allocated, and how all the modern and future tools of information and ideas can help us become better versions of what we are and want to be," Tan, Corbett and Wong begin.

NATIONAL POLICY AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Transportation and communications infrastructure has been a critical part of the Hong Kong economic success story, a region home to firms with geographically-dispersed operations. But studies in the early 1990s revealed a lack of technological innovation by hardware firms, and low government support for research and development. The government crafted an IT strategy for its civil service much later than some of its counterparts in the region, but has moved quickly since then with initiatives like an online trade database published by the Trade Development Council. Hong Kong has demonstrated a remarkable level of business entrepreneurship, and can boast of the world's first fully digitized telephone system as well as the world's largest smart card system (Creative Star, for transportation services). It is a useful development partner for the giant markets of mainland China, which itself has launched ambitious initiatives like the Golden Bridge communications backbone, Golden Custom trading system, and Golden Card currency system.

New Zealand appointed its first IT minister in 1993. Despite low IT promotion by the government, private sector adoption was not hampered, as evinced by the RealQuick kiosk network for real estate and e-finance initiatives launched by New Zealand Insurance. Thanks to IT, the "tyranny of geography" for remote countries like New Zealand can be overcome. At a micro-level, a study of the use of geographical information systems (GIS) in New Zealand reveals low levels of integration within local government practice; better choice of software platforms and increased IT training are called for.

India's strict regulatory environment has been giving way to a more industry-friendly one for IT in the last decade. Numerous government-funded computing organizations and higher educational institutes have also been created. Software parks and favourable tax regimes were facilitated, and some engineering firms have also spun off successful IT subsidiaries. Though software exports are well promoted, more needs to be done to promote the domestic market for IT products and services.

The Singapore government is an extremely active promoter and regulator of the country's evolution to an intelligent island - juggling advanced IT industries with the ongoing cultural ramifications of being a modernizing Asian society. In 1981, the National Computer Board was established, and computerization of secondary schools commenced. The Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore initiated projects like the Student-Teachers' Workbench. Harnessing the multiplier effects of manufacturing and IT have also led to a rethinking of urban land use patterns, flexible employment policies favouring women, and cost control measures for local companies.

For most of the developing nations of Asia, wireless technologies can play a key role in providing telecom connectivity. But the multiplicity of technologies and standards as well as their rapid pace of evolution can pose challenges to policymakers in terms of investing in sustainable and state-of-the art infrastructure.

E-COMMERCE

Though Internet access has been widespread and affordable in Australia, its adoption by SMEs (small and medium enterprises) is still low, according to studies in 1996; SMEs account for 96 per cent of the 800,000 businesses in Australia. Still, there have been notable local successes like Sausage Software and Aussie Lures (online sales of goods). Online government services have been launched for tax filing and trade promotion.

New Zealand has been a quick adopter of IT; EDI was quickly harnessed by industries like shipping and beef exports. Email services were launched in 1985, Usenet in 1986, and Internet access in 1989. But the global nature of the Internet poses challenges to legislation like the Privacy Act of 1993. Organisations like the Internet Society of New Zealand (ISCONZ) are active in debates over national IT security.

IT EDUCATION AND CURRICULUM

Malaysia has been aggressively pursuing its vision of becoming a developed nation by 2020, within one generation. Computer clubs began to spring up in schools in 1981, and since 1986 many IT projects have been initiated by the government in schools. The ISP JARING, launched by MIMOS in 1991, began to provide Internet access to schools. The MultiMedia SuperCorridor Project was announced in 1995. "Twinning" programs with foreign universities and distance education helped tap into the global village. Problems arose in the perceived lack of a well-formulated and comprehensive long-range plan for teacher training in IT; some critics note that IT diffusion must be planned in a holistic and integrated manner, recognizing its multidimensional nature and impact.

IT diffusion was quite rapid in schools in New Zealand, and distance education institutes like Massey University have also made online forays, but the education system has not properly addressed the combined issues of equipment purchasing, accessing, upgrading, maintaining, support, and continuous teacher training. The use of IT in classrooms has also on occasion caused concern among Maori communities that such technologies may be de-humanising and anti-social.

Singapore has aimed to increase school use of IT over the past couple of decades while also enhancing creativity and reducing the amount of drill learning by students; IT is being taught not just as a separate subject but as a learning tool. A "fan-approach" of training teachers to become IT trainers was adopted in 1996. At the administrative level, the School Link project interconnects school IT systems with the Ministry of Education's system.

Multiple models of learning and online student communities are being developed by distance education programs in Australia, which is simultaneously exploiting the campus education market for Asian students from the region. Australia is also exploring video-conferencing of classes, thanks to its location in the same time zone as its Asian neighbours. Distance education can help access the finest minds and best online information via the Net, but educational institutes also need to introduce incentive and reward systems for using technology in teaching by its academics.

The book also features comparative studies of current and expected important courses in IT curricula in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines; more emphasis is called for on human and socially contextualised aspects of computing, not just technical.

In sum, the book provides some interesting historical perspectives on the policies adopted to promote IT industries and usage in the region, along with useful comparative data and case studies of IT diffusion. An online companion would have helped extend the shelf-life of the book.

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The reviewer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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