ASEAN Beat | Economy | Society | Southeast Asia

Getting Digital IDs Right in Southeast Asia

Countries in Southeast Asia are racing to implement digital IDs, but governments must proceed with caution.

By Nabila Hassan for
Getting Digital IDs Right in Southeast Asia
Credit: Pixabay

Digital identification, or “digital ID,” can provide access to a wealth of services from banking and government benefits to education and healthcare. But, only five Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – have fully digitized their foundational identity systems. Within these countries, there are varying implementation agendas. As they and the rest of ASEAN begin implementing digital IDs, it’s crucial that they get it right to realize its full potential. 

McKinsey Global Institute research has found that carefully designed digital IDs can add 6 percent growth to an emerging economy’s GDP in 2030 and 3 percent to an advanced economy’s GDP. It is also one of the foundations of a digital economy. More importantly, a digital ID is more than just having an online presence – they empower people. Digital IDs implemented by governments allow citizens to contribute meaningfully across economic, political, and social dimensions. Digital IDs are also fast becoming the cornerstone of digital societies – an important component to realize ASEANs ambition to become an integrated digital economy. 

Digital IDs need to be transparent for citizens to trust them. While digital IDs can provide access to services and empower citizens, the interconnected nature of the digital ID system breaks siloed information. This information can be harmful in the wrong hands. To avoid challenges that befell the Aadhaar system in India – from identity theft to fraud – Southeast Asian governments must ensure data privacy and safety.

Most importantly, citizens must have control over their data. Countries like Estonia do not hold data centrally as the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your doctor holds its own data; so does your bank and your school. This compartmentalized approach to data and privacy empowers citizens to trust governments. Thailand should look toward this approach of securing its citizens data as it begins building its national digital ID company to identify and authenticate citizens’ digital ID. 

A middle ground to adopting digital ID can dilute its effectiveness. A mandatory digital ID system will give citizens full breadth of access to government services and serve as a forcing mechanism to fully incorporate technology in government. An optional digital ID system will limit government service delivery. For example, a user can verify their identity online using digital tokens and signatures, but will face challenges in accessing government benefits such as healthcare and education. Malaysia should be cautious about how it chooses to implement its non-mandatory digital ID initiative, as digital IDs can be complementary to Malaysia’s compulsory identity card for Malaysians aged 12 and over, rather than incompatible. While there may be infrastructure implications to ensure smooth service delivery, investments to enable a digital society is a long-term commitment that will have spillover effects beyond digital ID. Governments must take a citizen-centric approach to designing a digital ID because a good digital ID is too important not to get right

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Partnerships can work to enhance digital ID delivery. Governments, private sector organizations, and individuals share a common interest in having trustworthy systems that enable end-user identity verification. Public Private Partnerships (PPP) are an effective instrument of service delivery as the development and implementation of a secure and robust identity management system is technically complex and requires significant investment. Singapore’s online account management for access to government e-services, Singapore Personal Access (SingPass) has evolved as a gateway to allow access to over 300 digital services offered by more than 60 government agencies and some private sector entities. ASEAN countries should employ a similar approach to engage commercial services and partnerships both domestically and internationally. Building a more robust ecosystem can ensure the success of the digital ID program. 

Government-run mandatory digital IDs will allow seamless provision of government service.s But success boils down to long-term implementation. While countries in Southeast Asia race to implement digital ID systems, more needs to be done to ensure a citizen-centric approach to implementation. For digital ID to be meaningful, it must be developed to improve government services and enhance citizen data protection and security. ASEAN can play its part to facilitate the adoption of digital ID across the region by incorporating a comprehensive digital ID agenda across the region as part of the ASEAN ICT Masterplan 2020. A standardized digital ID system can also help facilitate skilled labor movements within ASEAN. As there are no “restarts,” it is imperative that Southeast Asian countries get it right the first time. 

Nabila Hassan is an MPA candidate with a focus on political development and technology at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University.