In Southeast Asia, artificial intelligence (AI) products and services are being leveraged across industries such as finance, healthcare, retail, agriculture, and manufacturing. Governments across the region are recognizing the benefits of harnessing AI and the positive impact of AI technology on economic development. As the rise in AI deployment creates opportunities for economic growth in Southeast Asia, regulatory and digital governance efforts should focus on ethical, inclusivity, and cybersecurity concerns to help ensure that the widespread use of AI technology in the region is sustainable. Two jurisdictions in the region that have already made significant strides in developing initiatives surrounding AI are Singapore and Thailand.
Due to its more advanced technological infrastructure, Singapore was one of the first countries in the region to address AI-related issues. Singapore has been aligning its data protection policies and regulations with the changing digital landscape since 2012—the year Singapore passed its Personal Data Protection Act. In 2019, Singapore unveiled its National AI Strategy to increase the use of AI technologies and deploy “scalable, impactful AI solutions in key verticals by 2030.” The goal is to align talent, regulation, and business growth to ensure AI applications serve society. Singapore’s approach is to facilitate innovation while safeguarding consumer interests, as it strives to become one of the regional leaders in the field of AI.
In terms of Singapore’s regulatory landscape, Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) oversees data and AI, including AI developers and AI-using companies, which consist of backroom operations, front-end usage companies, and distributors of equipment with AI features. The Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) oversees all laws applicable to AI systems and decides on issues that impact the AI industry.
Singapore has joined various bilateral and regional trade arrangements to facilitate research, development, and collaboration in support of its growing digital economy. Singapore’s Info-Communications Media Development Authority and Personal Data Protection Commission have developed A.I. Verify, an AI governance testing framework and toolkit that promotes industry transparency surrounding AI deployment. A.I. Verify provides technical tests and process checks, and it invites private sector participation, as some of the most innovative AI applications are deployed by enterprises.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) released five whitepapers in 2022 that detail the assessment methodologies for fairness, ethics, accountability, and transparency (FEAT) to guide the responsible use of AI technologies by financial service providers. The goal of the MAS initiative is to foster cooperation between public- and private-sector actors to achieve measurable results and strengthen capabilities in implementing AI technology for the benefit of Singapore’s fintech ecosystem.
Thailand has also implemented policy frameworks to strengthen its AI competitiveness within the region. The country’s AI strategy is geared towards improving the country’s financial wellbeing. In 2017, Thailand released the 20-Year National Strategic Plan to bolster the country’s long-term digital economic development. Under the country’s National Strategy (2018–2037), key drivers of Thailand’s economic growth include AI, Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, robotics, and drone technology. Similarly, the National AI Master Plan 2021–2027 focuses on strategy in five areas: ethical, legal, and social framework; infrastructure; human resource development and education; technology and innovation; and public- and private-sector application. The Plan’s first phase focuses on establishing key components and the second phase focuses on expanding AI research and applications across all target industrial sectors to foster a healthy AI ecosystem.
To guide its digital transformation, Thailand drafted its AI ethics guidelines in 2019 through a joint effort by the government, academia, and the private sector, led by Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society in partnership with Mahidol University and Microsoft Thailand. In 2022, Thailand published its National AI Strategy outlining the framework to strengthen Thailand’s AI competitiveness by focusing on four key areas: research and development, education and training, infrastructure, and public awareness. Thailand’s Smart City Plan is underway to achieve AI-backed urban development in designated smart cities—Phuket, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Chonburi, Rayong, and Chachoengsao—within the ASEAN Smart Cities Network.
This AI-backed digital transformation is also growing Thailand’s commercial sector. For example, Thailand’s banking, telecommunications, and retail companies have been leveraging AI to optimize operations and enhance customer convenience. Citing International Federation of Robotics statistics, Thailand reported having the highest number of industrial robots in ASEAN in 2019, with about 3,000 in operation. In the financial services sector, large companies, like Bangkok Bank, are launching accelerator programs to explore technology-driven solutions in financial management. Following the implementation of Thailand’s Cybersecurity Act, Personal Data Protection Act, and National ID Scheme, investment in cybersecurity technology reached THB 1.91 billion (approx. USD 54.84 million).
Part of this growth in AI ecosystem development in Thailand can be attributed to government policies and frameworks that support broader digital connectivity. In 2021, the Thai government designated the internet as part of Thailand’s basic infrastructure, pledging to lower internet costs and make the internet free for low-income workers. Thailand’s SchoolNet Initiative seeks to ensure internet connectivity in schools throughout the country. Thailand won a UN-sponsored award for its Village Broadband Internet Initiative to increase access to the internet across the country—a success that was built on past national plans for ICT resources management.
As Southeast Asia’s economic growth relies more on AI technology, governments must implement AI governance policies that promote equitable development. The Thailand Development Research Institute notes that 8.3 million Thais are working in occupations with a high risk of being replaced by AI, and the National Labor Development Advisory Council estimates that 16.9 million unskilled workers (or 45 percent of the total workforce) could potentially lose their jobs to digitalization. In Thailand’s case, the ethical guidelines for AI (mentioned above) are subject to revisions to protect against this risk, but additional regulation will be necessary to manage and mitigate the consequences of this disruption for so many Thai workers.
In fact, Thailand has recently taken its first concrete steps toward regulating AI technologies by drafting a royal decree on AI services. The draft was released for public comment in late 2022, and it is currently under consideration as it continues through the legislative process. The draft royal decree focuses on AI’s potential risks to public health, safety, and freedoms, and it lays out a framework incorporating risk assessment, reporting requirements, and specific measures and criteria to minimize AI risks.
The Thai government has also reinforced Thai digital laws with the Digital Government Administration and Services Law B.E. 2262 (A.D. 2019), which aligns Thailand’s digital inclusivity goals with the ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025. This law aims to enhance the way in which the public sector works for the Thai people and includes four objectives: 1) delivering end-to-end digital services to citizens, 2) improving ease of doing business via digital technology, 3) offering open data platforms, and 4) promoting public participation in the policymaking process. This law is among many initiatives implemented by the Thai government to ensure inclusivity and equitability as the country undergoes its digital transformation.
Collaboration among Southeast Asian governments, private-sector stakeholders, and regional consumers can pave the way toward facilitating strong AI-backed economic development in the region. As governments, businesses, and academia make rapid progress in the capabilities and applications of AI tools, there is a genuine and growing need to advocate for local laws and policies that scale with AI technology. Businesses can play a crucial role in driving ethical and inclusive AI adoption by prioritizing responsible AI practices and incorporating transparency, fairness, and accountability into their AI systems. Businesses should also engage in public-private partnerships and collaborate with government bodies and research institutions to address emerging challenges and ensure that AI benefits all segments of society.
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Nacha Srinakarin, Tilleke & Gibbins