Big Tech races to leave their AI footprint in Southeast Asia

By Si Ying ThianYogesh Hirdaramani

Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Huawei are among those that have poured large investments in Southeast Asia around AI skilling and digital infrastructure, while local governments seek to build AI-friendly regulatory regimes.

Southeast Asian governments and Big Tech are partnering to tap on the latter's expertise to build the digital infrastructure needed to keep up with the technological arms race. Image: Canva.

Governments around the world face a delicate balancing act between ensuring digital sovereignty, and leveraging Big Tech’s expertise to build the digital infrastructure needed to keep up with the technological arms race.

As Southeast Asian countries roll out their masterplans around using and governing AI, they face challenges such as the digital talent gap and legacy infrastructure that need to be cleared out of the way for their people to reap the most out of the emerging technologies.

Over the last two years, GovInsider has covered the trend of Big Tech partnering with governments in Southeast Asia to build the region's capacities to embrace emerging tech, including AI, cloud computing, 5G technology and more.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Big Tech companies are in a race to leave their mark in the developing region when it comes to emerging tech adoption, and are increasingly pushing their academic and technological solutions to the forefront of these capacity building efforts.

To address the digital talent gap that countries in the region are facing, Big Tech is tapping on its academic and training arms.

Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella announces new upskilling initiative at the Microsoft Build: AI Day on April 30, 2024 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image: Microsoft. 

For example, Microsoft is targeting to train 10,000 Indonesian developers to become AI subject matter experts through its very own AI Odyssey programme, which would allow the developers to earn Microsoft credentials.

The firm’s upskilling efforts are part of a US$1.7 billion investment over a four-year period in Indonesia’s new cloud and AI infrastructure. For Malaysia, it has invested US$2.2 billion in similar efforts.

Huawei ICT Academy, on the other hand, is partnering with higher education institutions around the world to provide learners with courses on Huawei technologies and validate their learning with Huawei certifications, GovInsider previously reported.

Following the successes of their respective generative AI pilots with the Singapore government, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud have also ramped up their partnerships and investments around innovation sandboxes and upskilling initiatives.

Public-private partnerships remain unavoidable for the region

For many of these countries, nurturing the growth of the digital sector, attracting investments from Big Tech players, and grooming nascent AI capabilities are key economic goals – making partnerships with Big Tech a necessary strategic play.

Public-private partnerships are key to bridging the digital divide across Southeast Asia, said Nararya S Soeprapto, Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for Community and Corporate Affairs, at the Huawei Digital and Intelligent APAC Congress 2024. Image: Huawei. 

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation has partnered with NVIDIA to launch an AI sandbox in an effort to achieve a national goal of nurturing 100 AI companies and generate US$209 million dollars by 2030.

The importance of partnerships between the government, private sector and other stakeholders was also emphasised by Nararya S Soeprapto, Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for Community and Corporate Affairs, at the Huawei Digital and Intelligent APAC Congress 2024.

 At the event, he spoke about the critical role of ICT players in helping ASEAN member states achieve their digital economy goals. This is particularly true when it comes to to bridging the digital divide across ASEAN member states.

The disparity in the region’s AI readiness has also been highlighted in the Oxford’s Government AI Readiness Index 2023, which measures how ready governments are when it comes to implementing AI in public services.

 Singapore – being the most prepared for AI in Southeast Asia – has a score of 81.97 out of 100, which differs significantly from the regional average score of 55.49.

As they are at the forefront of driving groundbreaking AI projects, partnering with big tech companies - rather than academic institutions - is the path that makes more sense for countries looking to nurture their AI sectors.

In the case of talent development, a concerted effort between the public and private sectors is needed to nurture the skills necessary to meet digital economy ambitions.  

Crafting AI-friendly regulatory regimes

Unlike its EU counterpart, which rolled out the world’s first legally binding AI regulation in 2023, Southeast Asia has taken a business-friendly and more consultative approach with Big Tech in governing AI to encourage private sector innovation.

Google, IBM, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services were among the Big Tech players the Singapore government is partnering with for its AI Verify Foundation. Image: AI Verify Foundation. 

In the Southeast Asian region, regulators hence aim to ensure that regulation does not function as a barrier to innovation but an enabler.  

For instance, Singapore's AI Verify Foundation partners with Big Tech players such as Google, IBM, Microsoft, Red Hat, and Amazon Web Services to crowdsource best practices for ethical AI from the global open-source community.

Reuters previously reported that Big Tech, including Meta, IBM, and Google, were being consulted for feedback in the drafting of ASEAN’s AI ethics and governance guide a couple of years back.

While critics have warned of the increasingly dominating influence of Big Tech in public policy as AI systems proliferate, proponents argue that Southeast Asian countries will have to foster AI innovation even as they introduce regulation to manage AI risks.

“ASEAN member states should strive for regulatory convergence among member states with the forthcoming ASEAN AI regulatory framework and prioritise balancing the innovation and regulation of AI,” stated a commentary on LSE’s website.