There is a rapidly evolving Asian tech scene with the potential to leapfrog ahead in key areas
About the interview:
In March 2022, PRISM interviewed Lim May-Ann, the Director of the Fair Tech Institute at Access Partnership and Emeritus Director of Asia Cloud Computing Association. They discussed the future of Asia Pacific's tech sector, its influences from China and the US, and its unique trajectory. May-Ann also shared insights on COVID-19's impact on children, sustainability efforts, and progress in promoting gender equity in the region's tech industry.
Asia's tech ecosystem differs from the US, with a more optimistic perspective and mobile as the dominant platform.
SuperApps and payments drive digital inclusion for the unbanked and underbanked in Asia, potentially leapfrogging in innovation.
Fintech companies challenge cross-border regulatory frameworks, creating opportunities and issues for central banks.
Interoperability and technical standards development focus on solutions, potentially easing geopolitical tensions.
COVID-19's long-term impact on children growing up during the pandemic remains uncertain, with potential digital scars.
The interview has been edited for style and readability.
PRISM: Welcome to PRISM’s Future of the World Project. It’s great to chat about the future of tech in Asia. I know that you have an interesting background working on all of these topics, so I think a great place to get started would be for you to share a bit about yourself and then we take it from there. Does that work?
Lim May-Ann: Great! My name is May-Ann, and I work at Access Partnership as the director of the Fair Tech Institute, a research institute that talks about what a fair tech future might look like and how to make that a reality. I am also the Emeritus Director of the Asia Cloud Computing Association, which is an industry association that advocates for the acceleration of cloud adoption across the Asia Pacific region. That’s a position that I came into after being the Executive Director for eight years, while helping to build the association and developing it from a startup into something that is – I think – quite a healthy and robust organization. From that organization we are able to have pretty good discussions with regulators on cloud policy.
PRISM: Great introduction. I'd love to dive back into a couple of those parts as we go through our conversation, but I think to get started and to dive right into the “Future of the World” part of this conversation. I am eager to get your sense of what the direction of the Asia-Pacific tech scene is right now and where you think it is going.
LM: So, to get started, I am not so sure this is about long-term trends, but in reality it is about the interesting questions that are getting raised from the Asian perspective. I think that (in Asia) we have been adding technology users and consumers for a while now here, and we are actually seeing some interesting and unique approaches to technology that are quite a bit different than as in the West and East. Let me boil that point down a bit. If you take the gaming market, for example, in Asia, most people do gaming on their mobile phones, meanwhile in Europe and most of North America, it is still very PC based. That difference in what devices are being used is having a real impact. Here we are really much more of a mobile phone-based world. Interestingly, the younger people who are driving a lot of culture and startup communities are relying on these devices and that is making an interesting shift in the tech environment right now. I don’t necessarily think these are big, big trends, but it is an important difference between the regions and one that is worth paying attention to. I definitely am.
Another example is the shift towards a desire for more advanced technologies – and this is more on the commercial side of things – where a lot of the discussions are about artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), blockchain, quantum computing and the potential applications of blockchain. A lot remains unclear about how these questions play out within the region. We don’t quite know yet how they will evolve as it is still early. Right now, answering some of the deeper questions is still broadly led by the West (for lack of a better term). We are starting to ask these questions in Asia too. I don’t know that this generation will be the one that answers them, but we are definitely watching how things are playing out in “the West” with interest. Overall, there are differences in how tech is developing in APAC but the big questions are the same. Looking towards the future is more about understanding the big open questions right now, as answering them is going to be a bit of a wait-and-see game.
PRISM: On your general thrust of not trends but questions that are out there, I would be interested in speaking more about the role of Big Tech and more advanced technologies. From what you’ve said my take is that people are a bit more optimistic about tech in Asia compared to those in the West. There doesn’t really seem to be this sense that everything needs to be upended and that there are huge problems with tech and that all the big companies in the space are terrible.
LM: Yes, I would agree with that, insofar as we are not really seeing those same existential questions about the role of tech being asked in a lot of places in Asia. I think that it is partly because the ownership of the “Big Tech” companies is mostly in the West or China. There is not much that people here can actually worry or protest against. There might be some national-level questions that governments have to deal with (such as enabling cross-border data flows with proper safeguards), but those are not policies that consumers are concerned directly with. In fact, most consumers are really optimistic about using and consuming these products here.
There is a difference between what is happening out here in Asia, over in China, and the rest of the world. Many have observed that there is now the potential for China's development of new technologies and platforms to slow down. China has a super interesting economic landscape because it is driven by the central government and the rules of the capitalist system do not quite work in China for obvious reasons. With that in mind, the changes - and any observed slowdown - in China’s tech scene are driven by the government. And there are movements and decisions with regard to the technology industry by the government that we may not necessarily be privy to. Therefore, the uncertainty in how the Chinese technology industry will develop is being guided by the “invisible hand” of the Chinese government, who may be putting in place regulations in a way which is different to the drumbeats of a purely capitalist market.
But getting back to your point, the industry is a bit different in Asia than it is elsewhere; I still see a lot of optimism about the future of tech here.
PRISM: Super interesting. We keep referring to “Big Tech” in these conversations. It is very clear what we mean by Big Tech when we talk about it in the US or the rest of the West, but when we are talking about it in the APAC region, what falls into that category? Is it the same as in the US? Or does it include some large Chinese firms as well that are popular in whichever country we are talking about?
LM: Well, I think that the big conversation around “Big Tech” in the region right now is actually about searching for unicorns that are made in the region. Every government that I know of is pumping money into the local startup scene and saying that there are all these fantastic companies there. They are trying to say that they might have the next big e-commerce company. So, there is a lot of optimism within the region and discussion about the ability to foster the creation of these large tech companies at home. I wouldn’t call that Big Tech in the same sense of how we talk about it in the West, but the real conversation here is how to create big tech companies – that is big tech without the capitalized “B” and “T”.
PRISM: Interesting. Often, when we talk about the future the US tech companies have such a strong role that thinking about the future of tech depends on the way that their position evolves, if it does. So, along that line of thinking, I would be interested in knowing what your outlook would be for how that changes or if you think it will. There seems to me to be a couple paths: one where nothing changes, one where local champions emerge in Asia, and another where China’s equivalent companies look more outward and gain a larger foothold internationally. At the end of the day, how would you guess that American companies’ dominance in the region or even beyond is eroded?
LM: I think the discussion in Southeast Asia is particularly centered around apps – particularly super apps. So, for example, one of the most popular and largest apps out there is Grab. The most similar app that you might know would be WeChat from China. Basically, it's a big platform that people can do everything on from ordering food to paying bills, to getting a babysitter, et cetera. Because it does so much it has several issues. In one sense there is probably a market dominance problem, but it also ends up being an app that does so much that no single government regulator can oversee everything that Grab or a similar app does since so many sectors are intertwined and involved. There are more super app companies in Asia, and there are competition dialogues and conversations happening. I think these discussions are healthier and a bit more constructive than just protesting against “Big Tech” and asking how the other technologies or companies get pushed to the side.
PRISM: It’s one of the trends that I find super interesting and that has been slowly growing out of China and into the rest of Asia. I don’t really know why it hasn’t happened in the West.
LM: It’s definitely being driven by a connection to financial services, because everyone wants to be the app that connects to the payment services. That’s where the dominance comes in, once you have that, you have the Holy Grail. You just want to become the payment app of choice. So, a lot of that is the focus of what makes something big now.
I haven’t really thought about why these don’t exist in the US yet. In a sense, the big card payment companies were the super payment apps in the US before there were apps, right? Then came PayPal and Stripe and Venmo and others. So the payments infrastructure is sort of set up already - so perhaps having a mobile app that allowed you to easily make payments was not innovative for the US. Meanwhile in Asia, many people do not have access to credit or bank accounts, they may not even have a centralized identity system, so how would KYC checks be done, et cetera. There is a lot of friction stopping people from getting credit from traditional banks. In Asia, the super app allowed for a rapid leapfrog from the pre-app status quo directly to mobile-enabled access to credit. This is one of the reasons how super app development has successfully transformed and accelerated mobile payments in Asia.
PRISM: That’s a super interesting point about how advanced financial service industries just made these types of apps unnecessary in the US and elsewhere.
LM: It is the unbanked and the underbanked in Asia that is critical in this analysis. Then there is also the subset of the population that – and I don’t really know what to call it –, but there is this trend where people in some countries are using their telco provider as a financial service provider. This is happening in several countries where telecommunications companies are muscling in on the payments space because they figured out that people can use their mobile devices to make payments for goods and services. So, in that type of situation, your mobile phone is used to make transactions rather than a standalone app or some other payment account, like a credit or bank card. So, again, the threshold for jumping into this electronic payment ecosystem is lower because the incumbent card payment companies are either not present or not dominant like they are elsewhere in the world.
PRISM: I was sort of curious if you think that Chinese companies will have it easier to enter this space outside of China because they are there already.
LM: This is already happening; WeChat and AliPay are already widely accepted across countries in Asia. For example, when I visit Thailand and Vietnam before the pandemic, you would see these payment methods available as official payment modes. This has actually generated some really interesting cross-border financial regulatory problems. For example, since Vietnam is very close to China and they share a land border, there are a lot of people who will cross the border or companies that trade across it, who just use Chinese currency via AliPay or WeChat to transact. So the transaction is not legal since digitally, the payments are not occurring in Vietnamese Dong but in Chinese Yuan, but the transaction is occurring physically in Vietnam. These are tricky to detect and even harder to stop, and I know this was a major question for Vietnam before the pandemic. I suppose with borders closed due the COVID-19, it’s not as much of an issue as it was before at the moment.
PRISM: Is this purely a payments issue right now? Or do you see it spilling into other activities that you can do on these apps like buying airline tickets, ordering food, posting on a social network, and so on. As in, do you see this use of Chinese payments services in other countries bleeding over into other areas than payments as well?
LM: I would say that we are in a slightly better position than we were previously, since the pandemic happened and the issue that I discussed above is not quite as big anymore. That said, I think there will be more efforts to worry about geolocation. That’s obviously something that is very important to companies dealing with content license and distribution issues, like the major book publishers, and other content creators and distributors such as Spotify or Netflix for example. All those apps need to recognize when a person is in a particular jurisdiction, and so this definitely goes beyond simply just being a payments issue.
PRISM: How are the politics working on this type of thing? Are there actual discussions around concerns about China’s approach to digital technologies and maybe some worries on the national security side or among consumers? And if there is this concern, is there a similar type of skepticism towards the American tech companies?
LM: At the consumer level, I think that people can be discerning consumers or not. So, I think the level of skepticism probably has a lot to do with whatever-country-you-are-looking-at’s sentiments toward China or the US, since that drives how people think about other things.
From where I am in Singapore, a lot of the discussion around regionalism that I'm seeing from APEC, ASEAN, or in bilateral-level conversations is centered around system interoperability rather than cutting others out. To that extent, it’s not about geopolitics, it’s more about other questions: Do your systems fulfill the technical requirements for security? For good governance? For ensuring that there is a dispute resolution mechanism for e-commerce transactions? Et cetera. I think that at the face of it, these technical requirements then look at the issue objectively, removing personal preferences and geopolitics, because it then distills the discussion to the most basic level about being able to integrate everything and have it technically hold each other to certain system standards. At the end of the day, it sends the signal that we really just want the system to work.
PRISM: That’s super interesting, so to that extent, because everything is very standardized—using ISO standards or whichever others—the different industries and technologies are all very accessible and the rules are all there. To that extent, for the Europeans, Americans, and whomever else wants to join, it seems like it is very easy to get up to speed on the requirements. It then is not a regional approach, but instead it is more of a global one that at its core feels quite inclusive, right?
LM: You would still need to see how the standards are developed and which countries choose to adopt them. One example that came from Singapore are standards for parcel locker networks, which are networks of lockers that allow people who buy something to have their package left at a locker rather than at their address. So under Singapore’s leadership - driven by a need for this standard - there is now a security standard for parcel lockers. Because the standard is open, it was socialized with a number of other countries - they can choose to use it or not. Some countries adopted the standard; some didn’t, for various reasons. For example, some places did not need parcel locker networks. So, the standard has been developed, exists, but it is completely voluntary whether you want to implement it. But if you are in Singapore, and if you want to set up a network or to build these lockers, you are going to need to use it.
Another set of standards that Singapore has worked hard on are the green requirements for building data centers. These are really specific, and these were spurred by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) if I am not mis-remembering. As a tropical country, running a data center will take a lot of cooling capacity, and without some standards in place, there might be some duplication of efforts to build efficiently cooled data centers. Rather than have all companies start from scratch, we led on the discussion to set up these green DC standards.
PRISM: Just building off that, but we have spent a lot of time talking about China, and spent some time talking about Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. Are there any countries in the region that are doing interesting – maybe underrated – things related to tech policy?
LM: A lot of places have been very good at tooting their own horn, so I think it’s a bit difficult to call anywhere underrated. I think that a lot of people have really found out that Vietnam is a great place for technology. My gut feeling is that the programmers there are underrated and that more people should be looking there for their programming needs. I've been trying to figure out why they might be particularly good at it, and my guess is that because their alphabet is formed the same way as in English, they probably have an easier time than someone who is more accustomed to Thai script for example.
I have been spending more time exploring the gaming industry in recent months and there is a lot going on there and a lot of opportunities in the region. South Korea and Japan definitely have the edge there, but I wouldn’t write off Malaysia and Vietnam, there are a lot of people in those industries there. So, I think there is all of that, but I don’t know that I would call any of them underrated.
PRISM: Since you brought up gaming, I was wondering what the metaverse conversation is like in the regions that you are looking at.
LM: I was wondering if the metaverse would come into our conversation! I think that we can split up a couple of the gaming conversations into a couple of tracks. One is the competitive gaming industry, like esports, and how that gets admitted into a space like the Olympics, for example. Related to that is the technology itself, and I’m going to put the metaverse to the side for a bit. When you have AR, VR, wearables, and haptic technologies, you have a lot of fascinating stuff because these all play into training for esports but also other things. For instance, if you are an airline, you don’t want a junior pilot to crash a plane, so you might invest in better flight simulators. The more realistic those are, the safer flying will be, right? Then there are other applications, like creating terrains for indoor cycling or whatever else. If you are a company that does a lot of mapping and stuff like that, like Garmin for instance, you might sell terrains for people to race bicycles on. So, if you and I want to race each other and say “Okay, let’s race the Tour de France,” we could buy that map and do that race and really feel like we are there. And money could be made off that, say if you own that course. I think about those applications quite a bit, because I think they are quite different.
Then you can look at medical rehabilitation. That’s a big area for all of this stuff. It would also be for things like remote surgeries. Right now, I do volunteer work with assistive technology for people with disabilities, and there is a lot of potential for using this technology there right now, too.
But getting back to the metaverse idea. We have always had them. There have always been little universes. If you played Super Mario for example, you know that there are these little worlds that exist and that you can be involved with. The question at the end of the day is: Which metaverse are you looking for? Gaming? Something where it is all in one? Or something where each metaverse is curated by itself? If you are just looking from an avatar perspective, then it is just which universe are you going to visit? It’s an interesting and exciting space to be involved in. I think that the idea is new to some people, and there’s a lot to talk about, but I don’t think at its core, it’s really as new as some seem to believe.
PRISM: Wow, great. To that point, I think the real-world applications are super interesting and definitely not as hard to struggle with as some of the ideas put forward by Mark Zuckerberg. To me, all his announcements and talk of what the metaverse are super unclear and the point isn’t really clear. But when you have real applications, that feels useful. But let’s leave that there for now and jump to some more macro questions. First is COVID-19 and the pandemic, which really doesn't seem to be over; in China it is a big deal right now and things seem to be getting worse in Europe, too. What would you say are going to be the biggest trends that get maintained because of the pandemic?
LM: I'm going to be very honest with you about this. I do not have anything interesting to say about how COVID-19 has played out. I think a lot of ink has been spilled about what the future might hold, and I don’t know that I really have a lot to add to what they have said. Of course, there are going to be lasting impacts from the pandemic, and I think it is hard to say exactly what those will be since so much is still changing.
The one thing that I will say is that I think I am most worried about the kids that have grown up through a pandemic and lost a large chunk of their childhood to it. I'm really sad to see some kids right now; they get into social situations and get really nervous because 10 people is a big crowd if you haven’t been around that many people before. I am not sure what that looks like in the future, but I think it just means that the impacts of the pandemic are going to have a really long tail. I'm really hoping that because kids are so resilient that they are actually going to be okay, and I really think we are going to be okay. But I do think that the impacts of this are something that we really do not understand well, at least the really big stuff.
PRISM: I think that what you actually said is quite profound. We often talk about some of the more obvious things, like switching to a four-day work week or working from home, but it all feels really tactical and everyone is saying a lot of the same stuff. What you’ve said there is a great perspective. It’s actually great to say: “Hey, we don't know everything yet, but let's look at the kids because that’s being impacted right now, and how they adapt now will be really important for the rest of the future.” I think that's an excellent point.
LM: I think one of the other interesting conversations to have around children is how our interactions with technology are changing. There is this generational shift occurring, where people have preferences for different technologies. Like it’s hard for some people my age (40s) to imagine that people might not want to be on Facebook or some other (“older”) service. Younger people have no interest in that anymore, they’re on TikTok or some other “younger” application, and it’s something that many older people just cannot understand - myself included.
I am sure I am not alone when my friend told me that she took a photo with her daughter, and the daughter asked her NOT to post the photo on social media - kids today are that media savvy. There are other kids who curate the photos for their parents, only giving “approval” to post their photos if they look nice, and disallowing mom and dad to post up ugly photos. This has profound implications, particularly as there are some kids who never have a choice, and have been on social media from the moment that they are born because their parents created their social media account the moment they are born, or even before then. For example, some parents I know curate private albums such as “a photo a day” to share their kids’ development and life with their families around the world, so that everyone can stay in touch. What we are only beginning to scratch the surface of is the implications of this: that this child, their development, and their activities have pretty much all been captured by a private company online, and all that data creates a psychological profile for them, owned by a company. We don’t know how that information is being used and analyzed, and what impact it will have on a person’s future, and I think we are just starting to scrape the surface of what life is like when it’s lived fully immersed in technology since birth.
PRISM: I know that we are in the middle of it and things are changing so quickly, but I am interested in your perspective on Russia and Ukraine. Like, even though it is far away, what are the big takeaways for Asia when it comes to what the world is seeing right now?
LM: I think we are seeing more interest in self-sufficiency, and supply chain security issues - we already got an early push towards that discussion when that big container ship blocked the Suez Canal, but COVID-19 port and logistic backlogs has created a keener awareness that globalization and and interconnected world has to be mitigated by risk management strategies. The Russia-Ukraine situation’s impact on supply chains is troubling for many reasons, but the shock to our collective psyche could have been so much worse, had we not already had all these other shocks over the last several years. At this stage, everyone has spent the last few years working through non-traditional security planning and supply chain contingency planning, and shoring up their resiliency strategies, so I think we may be in a better place now to address the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict today, than had it happened before the pandemic.
PRISM: In terms of Russia banning Facebook and other companies banning internet access in Russia, how do you see this creating a model for a bifurcated Internet where we have vastly different views on what content should be displayed and can be displayed. In a sense, it feels like this is a push towards a national internet, which is something that already exists in China. Any thoughts on that?
LM: The fragmentation of the Internet has always been a risk that rears its head every so often. Early in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, there were some calls to cut Russia off from the internet. Interestingly, I think people have forgotten that in 2019, Russia conducted an experiment to create its own DNS, effectively cutting itself off from the internet because they wanted to divorce themselves from the potential to be cut off from the internet by the international community.
I don’t think that the internet will die off if there were a bifurcation. Some stuff may move offline to make it more secure, but the internet is going to remain the Wild West, so to speak. There may also be fragmented parts of the internet that aren’t that bad, like sections of the internet that are cordoned off for safety and security reasons. For example, much like a child lock on a car you might have a subset of the internet that is much safer for children, and then there would be “the rest” of the internet as the alternative, a “more dangerous” place. So I think fragmentation may occur, but that we won’t be ending the full interconnection of the internet.
PRISM: Great, we just have a few minutes left, and I really wanted to touch upon gender in tech in Asia and get a sense of where we are at and where we are going.
LM: I'm glad to say that there has been a lot of progress in this space over the last 5 to 10 years, not just within Singapore, elsewhere as well. When I first started getting involved in these discussions in Singapore years ago, a lot of these conversations were being led by Caucasian women who were living as expats in Singapore, and were reflective of what was going on at American tech companies and bringing that here. Today, I see a lot more local companies and individuals leading dialogues on the gender front and supporting these important initiatives. There is a lot more discussion around these topics now, and there is a lot more openness to discuss them. Whether or not this has translated into actual action is up for debate.
I am seeing some anecdotal evidence that there has been some resistance, but I feel like that is normal and natural when these gender discussions force change, which is uncomfortable for some people. You always find resistance, but I'm encouraged by the fact that there are more people talking about it, and more engagement around it. We still have a way to go, so we're not there yet, but let’s celebrate the victories made.
PRISM: Amazing. I guess since we are talking about the future, what would you say you are doing to play a role in shaping the direction that things are going? It feels like we are asking you a bit of a moot question since you do so much, but I’d be interested in hearing if you have anything to add.
LM: I am a mere cog in the big machine! One thing that I really love doing on the side as volunteer work is teaching people how to repair computers. There are a lot of different parts of this. There’s the chip shortage that makes it more necessary to be able to do this now and then there is the sustainability bit that I am interested in as well. I hope that the courses I teach help people keep their computers out of the landfill for a bit longer and allow people to get a bit more longevity out of the things that they buy. That's something that I feel like I'm contributing to: the whole sustainability discussion. I hope to continue that because I think it is important.