The Rise of Cyber Threats in Southeast Asia

Can we confidently say that ASEAN is ready to radically adopt technology across MSMEs and businesses? Connectivity in ASEAN is greatly fragmented and implementing technology will be a great feat. Cyber illiteracy and lack of information to business owners seem to be the biggest hurdle in the process of digitising ASEAN. That said, the ASEAN Digital Masterplan and ASEAN Connectivity 2025 hopes to serve and guide member states in transitioning into this emerging digital age.

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The ASEAN Digital Masterplan

Singapore Institute of Management-International Affairs Society (SIM-IAS) was honoured to grace an impressive line of panellists in November 2019, including Dr Alan Chong, an associate professor from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Hariz Baharudin, a tech journalist from The Straits Times, and Vesta Matveeya, Head of Cyber Investigations (APAC) from Group-IB.

The ASEAN Digital Masterplan centres around encouraging the adoption of technology by micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The ASEAN Digital Masterplan has been hailed by the panel experts as a “good stepping stone” for the region. Dr Chong believes that it is just a subset of the bigger Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025. However, one great challenge the Digital Masterplan faces is its implementation. Connectivity in ASEAN is generally considered to be fragmented, for various reasons such as certain economic sectors deliberately want to be a part of the informal sector. However, the term “MSMEs” is used loosely, as micro, small and medium enterprises can mean entirely different things in the context of Singapore. 

This begs the question: what does it mean across ASEAN? MSMEs are defined differently across the member countries, and most strikingly, some of these enterprises are deliberately unaccounted for (exempted from taxes) in official statistics. When these enterprises become digital-ready, they will be recognised by the government, and therefore be subjected to taxes. Dr Chong is sceptical of ASEAN’s ability to implement the Digital Masterplan, as the offline economic obstacles are still prevalent in ASEAN, and putting a digital cloak over them does not solve the issue overnight.

Rays of Optimism in ASEAN

It is no doubt that Singapore will be at the forefront of this initiative, taking full advantage of the advanced digital forms of economy, banking, and security that we currently enjoy. Singapore’s trade with ASEAN is heavily diversified; it accounts for no more than a third of Singapore’s global trade. The other two-thirds are made up of dealings with the United States of America, Europe, and the rest of Asia. However, acknowledging that the states within ASEAN are at different stages of digitalisation, Dr Chong shared some points of optimism on how they can coordinate their efforts to make the Masterplan work. 

While countries within ASEAN are at different stages of digitalisation, there are unifying factors that can coordinate their efforts to make this masterplan work. Take online shopping, for instance, sites like Lazada and Shopee operate across Southeast Asia markets and serve as an autonomous vehicle to push the integration of ASEAN economies. Dr Chong describes this as “digitalisation through market momentum”. 

Retail telecommunications is another way whereby economies in ASEAN are integrating and driving digitalisation forward. Telecommunications companies owning networks and subscribers will find it very profitable to provide the service of connecting their subscribers and cellphone users across ASEAN, and on top of that, users can travel and communicate anywhere within ASEAN with ease.

“So, there are these rays of optimism where I think little by little, these private sector entities will drive digitalisation forward.” – Dr Alan Chong, RSIS-NTU.

With that being said, developing countries are bound to face disagreements with regards to censorship and national security, both issues of which are becoming increasingly prevalent in ASEAN today. Although the organisation is made up of diverse states with varying skill-sets when it comes to cyber-security, we are beginning to see their commitments translate into actionable steps, ultimately bringing the Masterplan to life. 

“I am interested to see where we go moving forward and how these norms that have been agreed to will be translated into actions.” – Hariz Baharudin, ST.

Maintaining Good Cyber Hygiene

During the event, the panel spoke a great deal about the ASEAN Digital Masterplan and how Singapore fared in the cyberspace scene. It was mentioned how the city-state was not immune to cyberattacks. Ransomware (a type of software that blocks a user from accessing his/her computer system until a sum of money is paid) and malware (one that is designed to disrupt or gain unauthorised damage to a computer system) were identified as being the most prolific types of cyberattacks encountered by individuals and institutions based here. Cyberattacks and cybercrimes are often driven by potential financial gains, or by the desire to cause disruption and destabilisation of government structures. Most of these attacks are executed by organised crime syndicates, or large groups of high-skilled technicians, hackers, and security specialists.


No one person is safe from being compromised in the digital sphere, regardless of their location. There must be a standard set of policies put in place in each member country, with citizen-based measures on how to improve digital and cyber literacy among the population. From conducting free open seminars for students to attend to practising good cyber hygiene, the ways to protect oneself from such attacks are boundless. However, it all begins from your device.

Preventive measures can easily be implemented into your devices to strengthen your ‘firewall’. For example, installing reputable anti-virus software to protect all your Windows, Android, macOS and iOS devices and to keep malicious and fraudulent websites at bay. With a little bit of research, you can find a suitable anti-virus software that fits best to your devices. The use of virtual private networks (VPNs) is on the rise too, especially among young adults today. Software like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost has quickly climbed the ranks as Singapore’s top picks. At a small fee, you can surf the internet unconstrained without worrying about (virtual) prying eyes. 

Once you have equipped your devices with these software products, ensuring they are updated regularly with the latest security patches is imperative. Setting strong passwords and diversifying your passwords across websites and applications will help too. Some may go to the extent of generating strong passwords by using password manager programs like LastPass and Keeper. Rest assured, you do not have to remember those intricate passwords as the programs will store it for you. If not, the tried and tested pen and paper trick will do too.

Additionally, when logging into public Wi-Fi networks and devices in school libraries or internet cafes, remember to log out and remove any accounts that you have used to sign in with. Also, make use of the multi-factor authentication systems available on your devices – the very least you can do. 

Commentary by Ernira, writer

While Millennials and Gen Z are generally more aware of cyber-threats, it is also part of our responsibility to look out for the older generation in our lives who are more susceptible to cyber-attacks due to the lack of digital literacy and its unknown dangers. As we grow increasingly dependent on the Internet for networking and connectivity, we should try our best to stay vigilant and practice good cyber hygiene habits against any attempts of attacks on our data.

Digitalising strategies by MSMEs across ASEAN such as increasing online presence through social media, e-commerce sites, or the use of digital tools and software across their business are still relatively low. Understandably, digitalisation requires businesses to make significant changes in their operations, which may be daunting, despite the multiple benefits that come with it. However, the use of technology will help MSMEs expand their reach of customers and vendors locally and regionally. Technology will tremendously reduce their operation costs and optimise their efficiency and productivity.

The issue of reluctant MSME owners in ASEAN stems from the lack of accessibility of knowledge and information to guide them through the digitising process. The perceived risks of digitalisation such as costs are fragmented as well due to lack of information. Due to this, business owners are hesitant about digital adoption. However, this can be rectified by governments providing support programmes and seminars to the public and specifically MSMEs programmes to improve digital and cyber literacy. 

While there are still digital liberalisation and economic disparities between developing and developed countries in ASEAN, all things considered, on the basis of heightening cybersecurity within and across borders and adopting technologies in MSMEs, ASEAN might move forward positively with time to bring the ideas of the masterplan to life. 

While the world moves onward with 5G technologies and smart cities, the public is as weaved into this movement as is the rest of the world. It is our due diligence, as youths and young adults, to equip ourselves and our loved ones with preventive measures that protect our data and personal information. Bridging the gap of digital literacy for the generations before us, and preparing the generations after us for this digital age, is consequential.

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