Analysis: Computing a course for Indonesia’s tomorrow

Posted on June 28, 2011

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Debnath Guharoy, Roy Morgan | Tue, 06/28/2011 10:34 PM

As I write, Premier Wen of Chen is in the United Kingdom executing a carefully orchestrated official tour. Two high profile dissidents were released just before his departure to dampen the usual crowds who greet him overseas with placards protesting his country’s human rights record. The BBC, in their Power of Asia TV series aired an episode Sunday rather ominously titled “The Chinese are Coming.” What does the trip foretell?

A Chinese flag now flutters outside the MG car company’s factory. More such acquisitions will follow. The country now is the single-largest owner of US debt, Europe is next. The Chinese know that they cannot be the factory to the world, producing cheap products flooding markets across the globe, forever. History shows that what Japan did to the United States, what South Korea did to Japan, what China did to South Korea will only repeat itself to China’s disadvantage, eventually. As an economic power, it must prepare itself for the future without depending on low wages year after year. Like China, India is also a mixed economy with public and private sector enterprises in business side-by-side, complementing, supplementing, and even competing for a slice of their ever-growing domestic markets.

The human capital in each country are paying dividends, strengthening their domestic economies, but much will depend on how productivity improves in the years ahead. Both these giants are looking at global markets, as have their fellow Asian countries before them. For all, the focus has shifted from “cheap” to “quality”. The evolution of each is not identical, but they have each built on their unique strengths.

Indonesia needs to find its own way forward, confidently into the future. Like its fortunate neighbor Australia, it cannot depend on its natural resources forever. If it is to emulate the other Asian giants, it needs to look at the various pillars they are leaning on.

One such pillar common to all is the computer. Today, that instrument is the nerve center for growth. Without it, excellence is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain, regardless of industry. Reliable numbers are hard to find but it is no secret that Japan, South Korea and now China have very high rates of computer usage not just at the workplace but at home as well.

India has made the computer a mainstay of its economic prowess, an achievement it will continue to leverage for decades to come. Though economic realities are a barrier to the use of computers, it is revolutionizing agriculture, trading and education through community centres sharing computers for the common good. It is the only country in the world to successfully stage elections right across the entire electorate and produce the results accurately and in record time, entirely based on the computer.

In sharp contrast, Indonesia is lagging way behind. With little encouragement, the people are moving towards the next decade, slowly but steadily. Today, 11 percent of the population owns a computer. That’s up from 6 percent just 5 years ago, adding a percentage point each year. Steady growth indeed, but much too slow. Desktops are now firmly ensconced in 10 percent of homes, notebooks and laptops have penetrated 3 percent. In the big cities, penetration has now reached 18 percent. Understandably, most of these computers are located in urban homes, but the growing interest in rural Indonesia is clearly visible as well. But Indonesia’s commercial sector has done too little to nudge the nation along. There is little scope here to point a finger at the nation’s favorite punching bag, the government. The most glaring example of Indonesia’s collective lethargy is perhaps best exemplified by the everyday use of the internet to book airline tickets, albeit by a small fraction of society. There are many budget airlines criss-crossing Indonesia’s skies today. Almost all have their own websites selling tickets online. But no frequent flyer who has tried a few would argue with the fact that AirAsia’s website works, very well, almost always. There isn’t a single Indonesian airline that can make a similar claim. AirAsia is a Malaysian venture, now rated as the best budget airline in the world. Why is it that Indonesia’s airlines are such poor comparisons on the internet? I think it is plain old-fashioned laziness. If this is the state of play in one of the most relevant, most popular uses of the web, what scope can there be to excel in those vital areas of education, healthcare and agriculture, let alone other industries?

With the country’s cellular companies now actively promoting mobile internet connections, the rate of penetration should climb more rapidly than it has in the past. While “ever accessed the internet” touched 25 percent of the population, regular users account for only 5 percent. This number needs to grow, the faster the better for Indonesia as a whole. Without that spurt, the country will lose its capacity to compete, not only on the world stage but in the domestic market as well. But users are only one part of the equation. What makes AirAsia’s website so successful, in comparison to Indonesia’s own? That one example is a warning bell, a sign from the borderless world we live in. Businesses across Asia understand that. Indonesian enterprises must begin to address the opportunities that exist online, before it is too late.

These opinions are based on Roy Morgan Single Source, a syndicated survey with over 25,000 Indonesians 14 years and older interviewed each year. The national database is updated every quarter, capable of tracking a myriad of issues. Almost 90 percent of the population is covered from across the cities, towns and villages of this vast country.

The writer can be contacted at debnath.guharoy@roymorgan.com

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