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Mobile phones fuel change in Asia

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs 14 June 2010

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Although commercial mobile phones have been an emerging technology for more than 50 years, it was not until I first visited the Asia, starting in the 1990s that I grasped the dramatic effects that this communication device would have on Asia, particularly in Asean countries.

In most of the Asean countries, although there was telephone service, it simply could not keep pace with the rising populations of those countries. Pay telephones were ubiquitous on every street corner and were heavily used.

In most of the Asean countries, telephone companies were state-run enterprises and as often the case, they did not reduce the costs of telephone use or simply could not keep up with the demand for more lines.

I recall upon my arrival in Asia in the late 1990s, how widespread the use of the mobile phone was, while in western countries, they were less visible and regarded almost as an unnecessary novelty. In those western countries, telephone service was more affordable and more readily available. In Asia, particularly in countries such as Thailand, mobile phones and their increasing lower cost became the rule and land lines seemed increasingly outdated.

The societal impact of mobile communication has been profound, bringing with it both positive and negative trends.

The red-shirt protest that blossomed in Bangkok from March through the tragic events of May 19 used the phones and the social media available on the phones to further their cause. During the final crackdown, the Thai government attempted to disrupt the telephone signals not only to thwart the red-shirts, but to protect their soldiers from rapid deployment of the red-shirt adversaries.

On a more positive note, the mobiles helped the rescue effort in May 2008, when cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, the most severe natural disaster in the recorded history of that country, and prior to that, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that got a wide swath through Asean countries from its starting point off Indonesia.

In the business world, mobiles have become another tool to use in direct marketing. If you’re an English speaker or reader expatriate, receiving the text message sales pitch in Japanese, Chinese or Thai, just becomes another annoyance in daily life.

The current celebrity sex scandal in Indonesia has been largely displayed through videos on mobile phones, causing raids on student phones in some schools, according to the Indonesian media.

In Thailand, the mobile phone even played a major role in politics, when someone shot footage on a mobile that recorded village officials in northern Thailand being bribed by a political party to pay off voters. Under Thai law, that political party was later disbanded by a Thai court, eventually paving the way for the present Thai government to assume power.

Although now a universally accepted communications tool, the humble mobile phone along with the Internet has brought unprecedented change to Asia.


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