If Thailand is serious about becoming a “4.0 nation”, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Estonia, a tiny country of 1.3 million people that has dramatically built itself into a digital wonderland. Estonia is a 5.0 nation while we are still groping for ways to hit 4.0.
An 80-strong delegation of high-level Thai executives is planning a visit there after hearing a talk on Estonia by its honorary consul-general Virachai Tejavichitr.
“I am sure Thailand can learn a lot from Estonia, the world’s most wired nation with a tech-savvy population,” Virachai told me during a chat on Facebook Live last week.
The most striking thing Thailand can learn from Estonia?
Bureaucracy can become a thing of the past.
What if you could file your taxes in less than five minutes? Think about possessing one secure digital ID that works for healthcare, contracts, banking, voting and even train tickets.
“Imagine a paperless government. Imagine free Wi-Fi across the whole country. Imagine every stage of lawmaking made viewable online, even edit tracking on bills. Imaging registering a new company in 18 minutes – from anywhere in the world,” Virachai said.
But of course, citizens must be given iron-clad assurance that their privacy will not be violated in this “open, smart and transparent society”.
In Thailand, the public still struggles to gain even basic access to information about government agencies. The Freedom of Official Information Act is outdated.
Data remains tightly guarded by bureaucrats who still believe that holding on to information equates to power.
With the authority to keep information from the public, technocrats can still wield power over ordinary people.
In Estonia, though, the law forces officials to provide information, since in a digital nation, citizens consider such access a basic right, not a privilege.
Estonia began its innovation drive after breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991. Back then it lagged behind Western nations in most aspects, especially technology. Natural resources were scarce. Space was limited. But the people of Estonia decided to turn these shortcomings to their advantage.
Virachai said: “I asked my Estonian friends about how their country managed to overcome all the barriers to become a shining example of a digital nation. And they told me: with no legacy systems to support, no baggage on their shoulders, and being newly independent, and with a reform-focused government with an average age of 35, they were ready to innovate.”
The Internet revolution was just beginning. The young nation could not afford a huge budget to invest in physical infrastructure, so chose instead to make a new start in web-based services.
Former prime minister Taavi Roivas said Estonian citizens save two per cent of GDP by signing things digitally. “Imagine if it could go global.”
“There is a reason behind each tech-savvy policy,” he said, pointing out that citizens can do practically everything online, from filing taxes to checking their health records.
The move also promotes democratic legitimacy. Online voting was introduced in 2005 for the first time. “Simple citizen-oriented solutions means more participation and more democracy,” explained Roivas. Estonian expats in 116 countries can now vote in their election.
Estonian tech leaders such as Digital Policy Adviser Siim Sikkut and CIO Taavi Kotka are also creating a whole new model of government. The keyword is “government as a service”.
Estonia is a very small country, but size doesn’t matter, Kotka argues.
“In a digital world, all countries are the same size,” he said recently – a declaration that made international news.
He explained that the services all governments should offer their citizens are the same, and the difference between 8 million and 80 million citizens really just amounts to the number of rows in a database. Cloud-based solutions and virtualisation mean that scalability and big storage are easy now.
But has it all been plain sailing? Certainly not. There has been major public concern over privacy from the outset. In 2007, cyberattacks launched from Russia added to security concerns. Meanwhile managing distributed IT from a centralised office has proved challenging.
The secret of success was not to be distracted by initial obstacles. Estonia persisted: The cyberattacks prompted security innovations that shored up public confidence in the drive towards national digitisation.
The next step was to leverage its digital advantages across its borders. Businesses and citizens from all over the globe were invited to join Estonia’s digital community. The most striking move was the decision to allow anyone in the world to become an “e-resident of Estonia”.
In practical terms, that means businesses can register operations in the country and take advantage of its streamlined tax system and operations. The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. According to official records, as of May 2016, 631 new companies had been formed by e-residents. The target is to hit 10,000 new companies by e-residents operating digitally from or through Estonia in three years.
The new Estonian model of “Government as a Service” and a global, virtual nation is changing the way the country thinks of itself.
“Citizenship is not the most defining feature of us anymore – rather, community feeling is,” Digital Adviser Sikkut said recently. “What we are keen to explore is to see how we can expand the community of Estonia really to be global through being digital – to make us larger in the world than we otherwise would be.”
As Virachai told me: “Thailand, with our own unique legacy and long history, may not be able to copy the Estonian model in all aspects. But if we could begin with thinking about making bureaucracy a thing of the past, that might be an encouraging beginning.”
The paradox is, of course, that most of the groundwork for Thailand 4.0 is being carried out by the bureaucrats, while most politicians operate with the short-term goal of getting elected in the next polls.