KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 17): Covid-19 has left a trail of disruption. The pandemic has altered the way we live, and transformed business models and consumer behaviours.
The world is starting to emerge from hopefully the worst of the pandemic. If the past few months have been a frantic attempt to contain the virus, the coming period presents an opportunity to rebuild and reshape societies for the better. As enticing as it may be to go back to life before Covid-19, the world before also had its share of problems such as income disparity and a growing digital divide. This is a rare opportunity to find more sustainable ways to cope with future pandemics, as well as to strengthen social and economic models across Southeast Asia.
Catalyst for innovation
Covid-19 might be the impetus governments need to deeply drive innovation. Many sectors that have for the longest time stubbornly resisted going digital are now compelled to digitalise to survive. Governments and businesses are now more open to experimenting and embracing technology to solve problems.
The priority now is to build on this momentum. Many of the current digitalisation efforts touch on obvious pain points such as the use of e-payment systems and setting up online presence in lieu of physical stores. But digitalisation needs to be much more pervasive. Businesses need to rethink their fundamental business models from back-end business process automation to using insights from data to improve their product proposition.
This is where governments and tech companies play an important role. Beyond encouraging businesses to take the initial leap in their digitalisation journey, it is important to open them up to the full potential of digital transformation. In Malaysia, the government is rightly doing that, with Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara (PENJANA) through initiatives such as Shop Malaysia Online and cashless adoption campaign. As a homegrown tech enabler and proponent of the digital economy, Grab is honoured to be a part of these initiatives. We hope to continue to leverage our tech solutions to empower Malaysians, local SMEs and traditional businesses to adopt the digital economy.
Now is the time for governments to push hard on this, whether it is steering businesses towards wider digital adoption or building a conducive tech ecosystem to support businesses digitalise for the longer term.
Looking ahead, sectors that have been most affected by Covid-19 will be most ripe for radical innovation. In healthcare, there is scope for greater automation and the use of robotics in the medical sector. Digital solutions such as telemedicine will be useful in situations where the patient must practise physical distancing or is unable to attend a healthcare facility in person.
In the logistics industry, digitalisation and advanced analytics can optimize operations and restart disrupted supply chains. The public sector also needs to keep up with digitalisation trends.
Building the future of work
Covid-19 has highlighted how gig work is critical. In Southeast Asia, many governments classified online delivery as an essential service. During lockdowns, people who are not able to commute depend on delivery services to meet their daily needs. With greater emphasis on health and safety, we have seen innovative measures such as contactless deliveries. We also saw a shift in social behaviour with customers showing their appreciation for gig work in the form of increased tipping and tip size across the region.
However, this period has also highlighted how gig workers can be vulnerable. Given the drop in ride-hailing volumes, many of our driver-partners fear losing their livelihoods more than the virus itself. But the way forward is not to force traditional employment models into the gig economy. This will only negate the benefits in terms of flexibility that gig work brings.
It is crucial for governments, platforms, and technology companies to come together to see how gig workers can be better supported in the “new normal”. In the short term, platforms like Grab are doing what we can to support our partners during this difficult period such as providing a financial assistance package that pays a lump sum to driver-partners stricken with Covid-19.
But longer-term solutions are needed to ensure the concerns of gig workers are sufficiently addressed. The first step is to better understand their needs because gig workers are not a homogeneous group — some are only doing it temporarily, while others depend on gig work for income.
We can then work towards practical solutions that address issues such as social protection and access to finance for different types of gig workers. All this while also balancing the needs of consumers and the sustainability of platform businesses that enable the gig economy. This will require innovation, policy adjustments and close collaboration across the public and private sectors.
Trade and collaboration — not isolation
Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented global standstill. Governments across the world have imposed movement restrictions, preventing non-residents from entering and even stopping their own citizens from travelling overseas. Amidst supply chain disruptions, the WTO predicted that world trade in 2020 will fall by between 13% and 32%.
While countries have understandably looked inwards to contain the pandemic, it is important to ensure that this is only temporary. The solution to Covid-19 is not to close off from the rest of the world, but to maintain strong collaboration amongst countries. Openness to foreign investment, cross-border data flows and digitalisation have allowed people and economies to remain connected despite border closures. As countries prepare to reopen, governments and tech companies need to continue finding ways to enhance cross-border digitalisation efforts.
Brave new collaborative world
Embracing a digital-first approach is critical to navigate future uncertainties. The journey will not be easy and there will be risks, but we need to come together. Many issues cannot be solved without collaboration and we will need to institutionalise closer dialogue among public and private sectors.
It is imperative to rethink how governments and businesses can better work together to prepare for when the next pandemic strikes. Platform companies like Grab offer the technology, agility and wide network that can help support governments maintain a strong digital culture. The new normal will need to focus on practical public-private collaborations to serve the greater community as we work towards rebuilding post-Covid-19.
About Lim Yew Heng, regional head of public affairs, Grab
Lim leads the public affairs team that supports Grab’s engagement with its public and people sector stakeholders including building partnerships with governments to drive their national building agenda, advocacy work with governments on harnessing emerging tech business models that Grab champions, driving thought leadership to contribute to dialogues that shape Southeast Asia’s future.
Prior to Grab, Lim was a managing director and partner of the Boston Consulting Group where he led the topic of Industry 4.0 across Asia Pacific, and is an expert in organisation transformation.