Unleashing the power of open source in Southeast Asia for stronger public sector organizations

Prem Pavan, VP for Southeast Asia and Korea, Red Hat  
Prem Pavan, VP for Southeast Asia and Korea, Red Hat  

It is clear that in recent years, Southeast Asia has emerged as a dynamic hub for economic growth and technological advancement, with a 2023 Google e-Conomy SEA report estimating the digital economy to be worth US$295bn at the end of 2025. At the same time, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has jointly reinforced the importance of digital transformation in the region to strengthen digital service integration and advancement.


These upward trends of growth and optimism shouldn’t be limited to private enterprises - public sector organizations in the region can stand to tap into good design of relevant digital solutions, to unlock the full benefits of digital transformation and boost citizen wellbeing and build a more digitally inclusive society.


At the same time, the promise of digital tools may not necessarily match the reality of implementation. The reality of public sector digital transformation also remains varied across the region. Data from the UN’s e-Government Development Index indicates that while Singapore for example ranks no.12 of 193, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia rank at varying levels of digital infrastructure and service maturity. This indicates potential for gaps that result in inefficiencies, outdated systems, and missed opportunities for service improvement.


As the region continues to navigate critical digital transformation, open source technology can be the catalyst to support growth of, and more inclusive, citizen services. Regional governments have already recognized this at a policy level, for example in Making Indonesia 4.0, Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiatives, and Thailand Digital Government Development Plan, all of which focus on leveraging technology for public welfare and common good. So where can we go from here?


Let’s explore three ways governments can better serve citizens, promote innovation, and enhance cybersecurity by leveraging open source to drive more efficient governmental services in the region.


The Digital Economy continues to grow in Southeast Asia, and the public sector shouldn’t be left behind. 


At a holistic level, Southeast Asia's growth indicators continue to look highly optimistic. The Asian Development Bank for example estimates growth for the Southeast Asia region at 4.7%. A high proportion of regional citizens are also navigating the internet mobile-first, with smartphone adoption in Southeast Asia being the highest in the world.


With such rapid digitalization come two new contexts. One, that consumer expectations around digital services are changing. Consumers across the general public will likely expect fast, agile, and personalized digital services that are as convenient as a touch of a button. At the same time, these positive digital experience developments cannot be confined to the private sector alone. As consumers’ expectations evolve, the public sector must keep pace with technological advancements to deliver greater efficiency and innovation.


The use of open source technology has enabled governments to build cost-effective solutions. The limited budgets faced by governmental organizations can be a constraint, but open source software is often freely available at community level and can be customized to meet specific requirements when that software is used at an enterprise level. Open source technology inherently taps into the knowledge base and quick updating of issues due to its collaborative nature. This type of cost-efficiency is particularly beneficial in a region where governmental budgets may be lean and must be managed judiciously.


An example of where enterprise tech can work together to support advanced digitalization is through the case of Thailand’s Government Savings Bank, a state-owned social bank, Red Hat's open source solutions played a pivotal role in modernizing the bank's IT infrastructure, enabling faster and more efficient services for end-customers. / Another example is from Indonesia’s Treasury with Red Hat, which can now deliver new services and features in 50% less time and scale quickly to meet growing demand. These initiatives are examples of how open source overall can streamline service delivery, reduce redundancy, and enhance efficiency in the name of public good. / Another example is from Malaysia’s PERKESO: With its new custom application running on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, 400,000+ of Malaysia’s employers can now use PERKESO’s digital channels, which has also boosted overall online engagement by 90 percent.


Open source supports the growing conversation around data compliance and regulation, supporting safety for public sector constituents


The rise of the digital economy in Southeast Asia can also increase the possibility of cyberattacks. As governments collect and store sensitive citizen data, cybersecurity is of paramount importance. One significant legislative development in this regard is the enactment of data privacy laws across several Southeast Asian countries. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia have taken steps towards comprehensive data protection regulations in recent years.


Open source also aligns well with the goals of strengthening cybersecurity by enabling governments to scrutinize the code for vulnerabilities and implement timely security patches. The flexibility of open source software enables the integration of advanced security features, such as multi-factor authentication and encryption, to safeguard sensitive data. Open source technology, especially at the enterprise level with aspects such as a Red Hat Trusted Software Supply Chain – with its transparent and iterative development model – can bolster the security posture of public sector organizations. In an era where data privacy and cybersecurity are paramount concerns, open source technology provides a strong foundation for safeguarding sensitive information.


Open source builds agility and resilience for Southeast Asia's public sector and citizens


Open source methodologies more broadly promote a culture of collaboration and innovation, essential for agile development in the public sector. Collaboration, transparency, and community-driven development are core tenets of open source methodologies. By embracing these principles, governments can create an environment that promotes innovation and agility. Red Hat's collaboration with a Singapore government R&D board demonstrates the benefits of knowledge sharing and open working methodologies, as well as their relevance to modern development approaches to support overall citizen services.


Moreover, open source has played an important role in Covid-19 response, a strong demonstration of the technology’s practical applications. Open source technology has helped build resilient healthcare systems, track the virus's spread, and enabled remote work and education. The implementation of enterprise open source at healthcare agencies BPJS Kesehatan Indonesia and Synapxe Singapore (formerly IHiS) for example improved both organizations’ agility and responsiveness, enabling them to better serve millions of citizens during a critical Covid response time.


In conclusion, Southeast Asia's public sector is standing on the precipice of a vast digital transformation. As digital tools, apps and software continue to reshape the region's economies, governments should embrace open source solutions to deliver innovative and more secure services, while adhering to key security considerations. Open source technology can support digital transformation while driving cost-efficiency, promoting interoperability, and enhancing transparency. In embracing open source methodologies, public sector organizations can strengthen innovation and collaboration - and build more agile services that better serve their citizens.