MR. SHANGKONG
Mr. Shangkong
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Lessons to be learned from tiny Estonia

Estonia is often cited as a showcase example of what ‘e-government’ should be like

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 November, 2015, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 7:17pm

What is the most  advanced digital society in the world? America? Britain? Or Germany?

No. The answer is a  little-known country in Europe – Estonia.

In fact, Estonia has grabbed a lot of attention in recent years, especially after its digital citizenship initiative which gave everyone in the world the potential to “virtually” become an Estonian so they could more easily set up a business online for market entry into the European Union, of which Estonia is a member nation.

Estonia is often cited  as ashowcase for what so-called “e-government” should be like. This concept is no stranger to Hong Kong officials as the city has been pushing for “e-government” for many years but little progress has been made.

A former Hong Kong official told me about 15 years ago that he heard some Estonian officials say in a conference that the vision for the Estonian government was to become the “Hong Kong of Europe”, referring to Hong Kong’s highly competitive advantages on the world stage, including low tax, rule of law, efficient business environment, and effective governance at that time.

I was in Estonia  last week and was quickly impressed by the country’s internet and technology-friendly environment. You can of course use a credit card to pay for your taxi fare, which you cannot do in Hong Kong – and apparently the government has so far got no idea how to fix this problem after so many years of public discussions.

All government-owned facilities from port to museums provide free wi-fi and I would rank Estonia’s as one of the fastest and most stable public wi-fi services in the world – and I do travel a lot. The private sector is also supportive of the government’s pro-internet policy by providing wi-fi access to everyone almost everywhere, from local restaurants to shopping malls.

You may argue free wi-fi is a small thing but I see this as  how the government views the importance for the country and its people to stay connected with the world at anytime. After you visit Estonia and feel the openness of the society, you won’t be surprised to know that Estonia is the birthplace of Skype, now a real-time multimedia messaging product owned by Microsoft.

Last week at SLUSH, Europe’s largest start-up conference in Finland, Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a journalist-turned-politician, spoke of  how the European Union should catch up with the fast-changing internet era to make it more open and adaptable to all the changes.

Estonia also had a booth at the event where its slogan was loud and clear – come to Estonia where the next “unicorns” will be born. Unicorn is tech jargon to describe new start-ups that quickly boost their valuations beyond US$1 billion.

I’m not sure if Estonia still keeps its vision to be the “Hong Kong of Europe” or whether it expects something bigger. But for Hong Kong, what lessons can we learn from the rapid rise of a small but now important country like Estonia on the world stage?

 

George Chen is the managing editor of SCMP International Edition. For more Mr. Shangkong columns: facebook.com/mrshangkong or follow @george_chen on Twitter