Exclusive Interview: Minister of Digital Economy, Thailand

By Medha Basu and Apala Bhattacharya

Pichet Durongkaveroj, Minister of Digital Economy and Society, surfs through extensive plans for the digital age for Thailand 4.0.

Thailand’s economy is booming once again. Economic growth is above 5% and overseas companies are making big investments, with particular interest from China.

But Pichet Durongkaveroj, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, is unsatisfied. In keeping with the government’s Thailand 4.0 vision, he wants to use tech to tune up the economy. Every sector, from agriculture to tourism, should be modernised, he believes.

Speaking to GovInsider, he set out plans to introduce a new digital identity system, artificial intelligence platforms, and increased cyber security.

AI to predict public health

There is a substantial drive towards more businesses and services using AI and this is very apparent to the digital economy minister of Thailand. “I think it's unstoppable, and we need to understand it early on so that we know what we are getting into,” Durongkaveroj says.

Data analytics allow policymakers to gain better insights when making decisions. For example, the Minister wants to use it when planning for medical care.

Thailand is using AI to predict babies’ health and development based on their parents’ profile, he says. The government has amassed a “huge big data collection” on the first three years of newborn babies and the environment they grow up in, like sanitation levels, living environment and development of the brain. It also looks at parents’ education, employment and level of debt.

“Now we understand better how parents’ behaviour and livelihood can affect both the physical and mental development of the child,” he adds. “We can trace that, and sometimes to get healthy and quality babies maybe we also have to treat the parents as well.” This could help reduce medical costs for the government too, he thinks. “In certain cases we can save some budget as well because we get healthier babies, so we don't have to invest in them as patients.”

The Ministry of Digital Economy is setting up a “big data sandbox” where other ministries will be able to run similar experiments with data within a secure environment provided by the government, Durongkaveroj adds. The government will provide a “high level of network security” and ministries “don’t have to be afraid that the data will get lost”, he explains. The facility is available “for any ministry to use”, he says.

Digital identity to be launched

Thailand will also launch a national digital identity by the end of this year. As a first step, the government will work with banks and payments companies to create a “cashless environment” using this digital identity. This will build on the country’s PromptPay e-payments platform, which allows fund transfers using mobile or citizen identity numbers.

The digital identity could allow people to make payments using biometrics, like fingerprints, retina scans or facial recognition. “It will reduce cost; it will make transactions more efficient; and it's something that we have to prove”, he says. The service will be expanded to other sectors, he adds.

Currently, Estonia is a leader in this space, allowing citizens to access their bank accounts, check their medical records and even vote using their digital identities. Singapore has recently announced a national digital identity that will allow people to make bank payments with fingerprints.

Building digital skills

Top on the Minister’s list of priorities is to reduce the digital divide and increase digital infrastructure in the country. 75% of villages already have access to “high speed internet”, he says, with another 20,000 villages to be connected by the end of the year. In 2016, 47.5% of the Thai population used the internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

With the infrastructure in place, the minister wants to build up digital literacy in rural Thailand, where nearly half of the country lives. “This year alone we will try to reach this training to about 1 million villagers”, Durongkaveroj says.

The government wants to partner with universities and the private sector to help rural residents learn new skills “wherever they are”. These lessons can be informal in nature, more flexible than formal degree programmes, and can be taught from tablets or handphones instead of in classrooms, he explains. “We want to make sure that we can use this technique to reach farmers, millions of them.”
“We want to make sure that we can use this technique to reach farmers, millions of them.”

New cyber security agency

The Thai Parliament and the Ministry are also working to place a number of significant laws ranging from cyber security to personal data protection.

A new law will establish a new central cyber security agency. “It would also provide us to look into the defence through protecting our critical information infrastructure” in sectors like utilities, finance and healthcare, Durongkaveroj says. The law will put in place “penalties for those who commit the cyber crime” and also help develop talent and skills for the cyber security jobs.

Singapore has set up a similar cyber security agency in the Prime Minister’s Office. It recently passed a new law that gives the agency extensive powers to investigate threats to critical information infrastructure, including asking companies for their data.

Thailand’s Digital Economy Minister has drawn up an extensive to-do list which will need to transform all sectors. Agriculture, in particular, stands to gain as it has been hit by drought and rising costs to farmers in recent years, and employs about 40% of the country’s population.

The country's economic growth is now at a five-year high and its neighbours are watching closely to see what happens next.