Transcript of Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Founders Forum Smart Nation Singapore Reception on 20 April 2015

20 Apr 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening and welcome to Singapore! At a time where grey clouds are hovering over the world economy, we are lucky. Firstly, there were no grey clouds in the sky this evening. Secondly, the tech industry is one of the bright spots in the world. There is a sense of adventure, there is the confidence that anything is possible. There is the excitement that the next bright idea can change the world. I am sure all of you feel that, and live that, and that is why you are here this evening.

The IT revolution and the Internet are causing immense changes to how we live - altering lifestyles, habits, social norms, how people communicate and learn about the world – not just through books, newspaper or television but through Wikipedia, Twitter, Snapchat, and the next start-up tomorrow, which are much more dynamic and can better keep up with the changing world. Or how we shop with online retailers like Amazon offering one-hour deliveries, or get around town with new services like Uber or Grabtaxi.

All these IT can only be a good thing for Singapore because we are well placed to take advantage of the technology and make a quantum leap forward. Why? I give you three reasons. Firstly, the ethos of our society is rational, technological and forward looking. We have always looked ahead, tried to look over the horizon to keep our economy open, and to use technology to overcome our physical constraints.

We are investing in R&D, over the past ten years we have invested SGD30billion, we have grown research institutes that work with companies to develop new solutions. We have pushed for e-Government – we introduced electronic tax-filing back in 1998, since ages ago, before anyone else did it, and today, 97% of tax payers file their taxes online. Because we have kept our tax code simple, you do not need to buy Quicken, Intuit or any of such things. Also, because we have automate the collection of information and populate the table for you, you do not need to work quite so hard – it is a little harder to cheat and so 3 in 5 taxpayers do not even bother about filing taxes. They just take in on trust that our Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has done their sums right. So e-Government works in Singapore.

There are other services too, for example, you can set up a company in 15 minutes, online. You can choose schools for your children, book sports facilities, apply for passports or visas online. Everyone takes it as the natural course of events and the way things are and that is how things work in Singapore. It is not only more convenient, but also more productive and efficient. It distinguishes us from many other cities in the world. So that is the first reason, the ethos of society, we are rationalistic, we are technologically drive and forward looking.

Secondly, we have a population which is IT savvy who understand technology, at least understand how to use it. Students go to school and have a strong foundation in maths and science. If you look at PISA maths and science results comparing student in the different countries in the world, as far as Maths and Science is concerned, we are ranked one or two, comparable to Shanghai. And if you look at where our people have gone overseas in companies like Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley, there are many Singaporeans holding key engineering positions. We have the talent, network and know-how to help us get a head-start.

Thirdly, this is a highly connected and wired up island. We have more mobile phones in Singapore than there are people. In fact, there is one and a half phones per person. On trains and buses, more than half the people are looking at their smart phones. On railway stations and platforms, we are now installing Wi-Fi so that from the Wi-Fi hotspot, we can tell how many people are standing on which parts of the platform. Our smartphone penetration is the highest in the world. We have rolled out national gigabyte fibre access, available to homes and offices across the country.  We currently top the Ookla chart as the nation with the highest download speeds. If you want to know how easy it is to get addicted to that, you travel overseas and book into a hotel and try to get Wi-Fi, and it is not very Wi-Fi.

That is why we have set ourselves the goal of becoming a Smart Nation. In order to bring all these advantages together, and become one of the top countries in terms of quality of life, vibrancy, and opportunities for our people.

Not just a Smart City, but a Smart Nation

There are a lot of Smart Cities around the world and many experiments in using technology to improve lives. For example, Kansas City is wiring up with Gigabit Internet, courtesy of Google Fibre. Rio de Janeiro has set up a central operations command centre for municipal and emergency services, I think done with IBM. Seoul is collecting public transport data to run the transport system more efficiently. New York City has NYC311, a one-stop shop for all government information and non-emergency services. So there are a lot of cities wanting to be smart, the difference in this city wanting to be smart, is Singapore is also a country. We can take a holistic national view, and not just a municipal one. We are mustering the full resources of our institutions, people and companies to focus decisively on big, complex problems, things which matter to us and our people. So it is not gee whiz high-tech, but can actually make a difference in people’s lives.

For example, as a city we could work with companies to develop solutions for tele-rehabilitation, have your physiotherapist across skype, but as a country we can integrate tele-rehab with the public housing infrastructure and the national healthcare system, and rally different communities to provide emotional and social support to patients. So we are trying something to be more than a smart city. Of course other countries have similar ambitions, for example UK has a tech nation initiative. Each country will stake out a different niche for itself. But our advantage is that we are compact, we have a single level of government, we can decide efficiently, and scale up successful experiments and pilots without any delay. Also we are able to take a long-term view, and see through big transformations to the end, until they bear fruit for citizens.

Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Founders Forum Smart Nation Singapore Reception at the Istana on 20 April 2015 (MCI Photo by LH Goh)

Smart Nation Programme Office

I have set up the Smart Nation Programme Office, to bring all the pieces together, within Government, and also between Government and the private sector, to use technology to achieve social and economic objectives, and to make a difference in all our lives.  The Smart Nation Programme Office lives in the Prime Minister’s department.  I take a personal interest in this. 40 years ago, after doing a math degree, I went on to study computer science, on my father’s advice.  He said there is a future in that, and he was right.  So for the Smart Nation Programme Office, I have put Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in charge, reporting to me.  Vivian is both a hacker and a dabbler – He used to be an eye surgeon but since he does not get to operate on eyes nowadays, he dabbles in building simple robots, assembling watches, wireless devices and programming apps.  His day job is to be the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and so when he builds apps, he uses the real time APIs generated by the Ministry.  That’s called user-testing.  I used to enjoy this; it is a long time since I’ve done anything.  The last programme I wrote was a Sudoku solver in C++ several years ago, so I’m out of date.  My children are in IT, two of them – both graduated from MIT.  One of them browsed a book and said, “Here, read this”.  It said “Haskell – learn you a Haskell for great good”, and one day that will be my retirement reading. 

Let me share three priority areas for the Smart Nation vision.  First, we want to help older Singaporeans to age-in-place and to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.  Our society is aging.  Already, today, one person in nine is elderly, meaning 65 and above – so I am just “un-elderly” by a little bit.  But within 15 years, by 2030, we shall be one person in five aged 65 and above, which is about where the Japanese are today.  Technology can help them to live independently in their own communities with their own support networks, and give their children peace of mind.  Especially if we can integrate sensors, apps, remote monitoring, to help our seniors to age in place, to connect with other seniors, and to stay in touch with their children and their grand-children, and their caregivers. So the first area that we are working on is support for seniors.

The second is to look for breakthrough solutions in mobility, transportation.  Land is scarce in Singapore.  Already, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and we can’t keep on building more and more roads indefinitely, becoming like Los Angeles.  We have got to find solutions, using technology, using data, to make our transport more efficient and to improve the commuting experience – through information for commuters, through responsive management of public transport systems, through smart city planning to minimise long and unproductive commutes.  So that is the second area – transportation breakthroughs.

A third area is to become a safe and secure data market place.  A place where companies can easily conduct testing, and extract insights on market research, on consumer trends.  A place where data can be shared in order to unlock value and innovation.  A place where the Government releases many data sets to the public to build applications and services.  We’ve been doing that.  People would like even more but if you compare us to other countries, I think we put out quite a lot of information.  We have an open data portal –, but we don’t always release information in the best possible way. Our APIs are not as polished and as standardised as they should be – sometimes there is no APIs, it is a tab-delimited text file, and then you’ve got to write your own API to manipulate them.  But we are working at this.

These are three verticals which we want to get right for Singapore – elderly, transportation, data, but there is one horizontal which is critical to any Smart Nation, and that is cyber security.  With more connectivity, with more systems going online and enabled by technology, we have to take cyber security very very seriously.  The threats are real.  IT systems in Singa­pore are constantly probed, regularly attacked, and unfortunately, from time to time compromised and penetrated, just like IT systems anywhere else.  So we have to ensure that our defences are up to scratch and that plug any holes that we discover as soon as possible.  That is why we set up a Cyber Security Agency recently to oversee all the national cyber security functions and make sure the interconnectivity between different sectors like water, healthcare, transportation and their vulnerabilities of this interconnect are covered – Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim is in charge of a very difficult job.  There are many opportunities for the Cyber Security Agency to work with the private sector and for companies like yours to make a contribution.  Not least, but please keeping your own IT systems secure, because your hole can be somebody else’s hole as well – your clients, your partners, and your counterparts.

I have outlined several ambitious challenges that Singapore hopes to tackle, but actually these are not very unique to us, other countries face similar challenges.  What is different here, is that here you can prototype and test-bed the new ideas, and you can scale.  It’s compact, it’s a little bonsai, you get it to work, you got the essence of the idea right, it is a rapid prototype, and you can develop the same idea elsewhere. If you can make it work in Singapore, you can have the chance to adapt and apply to other contexts.  If it doesn’t work in Singapore, it’s probably worth a rethink.  It is like how we pioneered electronic road pricing, how we have carved out a niche in water technologies, water purification, made it work here and offer an interesting example for others to look at and perhaps to pick up ideas from.

We are embarking on our Smart Nation journey with the same determination and with the same confidence. To make the Smart Nation succeed, we need an entrepreneurial culture.  You can import the latest technology, you can implement business-friendly schemes, but ultimately, you need a culture, that spunk, daring to dream, daring to fail, daring to take on big challenges.  Many countries have tried to nurture this culture, only a few have succeeded. America is one of them, Israel is another, perhaps there will be one or two somewhere in Asia.  But the places which have succeeded in doing this –  even in America, it is not everywhere but a few places – it starts a virtuous cycle – talent attracts more talent, more ideas and start-ups are established, the excitement builds on itself and you get more breakthroughs.

We are beginning to see such an entrepreneurial culture in Singapore.  We have a startup district called the Launchpad that brings together the government, the start-ups, the venture capitalists and the talent.  Launchpad has been described as the world’s densest startup ecosystem.  We have government support and schemes to help the start-ups. At the beginning, grants were chasing projects, from the point of view of the grant-giver, this is a very worrying thing.  Today, the projects are chasing the grants, and I feel much better.  Launchpad is almost full, with startups, incubators and VCs (Venture Capitalists).  We have some  home-grown successes like Zopim, Razer, Carousell and Viki, and more youths participating in hackathons.  Yesterday I just attended one organised by our Land Transport Authority, focussed on improving the commuter experience, especially for commuters with special needs.  Lots of bright ideas.  Young people got together, a team of one up to a team of six or seven, and good projects. 

Another important ingredient for building a Smart Nation is talent.  We have talent, in the wide sense.  There are lots of Singaporeans in the Silicon Valley, but we need more of them back home here in Singapore.  And we have to attract the best and the most dynamic people – Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans – to come to tackle ambitious projects, and to start up their companies here.  We also want to get more bright students to be excited by engineering and IT, and to aspire to become engineers and computer scientists, and not just bankers, lawyers and doctors.  This is quite a difficult job.  I was talking to somebody who knows Silicon Valley, he said the parents are all geeks, their children all want to go and do mind-expanding things in life.  It may be a generational thing but I think we must try hard to kindle that spark of excitement and an adventure in science, in IT, in technology and engineering amongst our young.  

The Government is leading the way.  We are upgrading our engineering and IT schemes, we are reorganising the way we work, trying to accommodate into a very big and structured organisation, small pieces which are chaotic in a constructive way. We are starting up skunkworks and data teams to work on interesting problems.  We may not provide massages like Google, or Michelin star chefs like Dropbox, but we can certainly offer challenges that are as exciting, and the wherewithal to make important things happen.  I believe this sense of challenge will bring more young people onboard. 

So this is what a Smart Nation means to us.  The Government will muster the resources, build the infrastructure, create schemes, and encourage companies and people to chase their dreams. But we need you, we need the companies and the people to step forward, to spark the bright ideas, to make progress on the challenges, and to change the world.  And I hope tomorrow’s forum, and the day after’s, will be another step in your dreams to change the world. 

Thank you very much.