Good evening again. My fellow Singaporeans, we have had an eventful year. We have been busy guarding against terrorism and strengthening our racial harmony, making friends and cooperating with other countries big and small.
Last year, I spoke about our economy: how we were working to develop skills, build capabilities, promote entrepreneurship, and take the economy to the next level and I am happy to report good progress. We expect growth around 2.5 per cent this year, higher than last year. Wages have been rising, gradually but steadily, and most encouragingly, productivity is improving. Last year, productivity went up by one per cent, after several years of almost zero growth. This year, we should do even better. This is important because productivity is the key to our prosperity, and to higher wages.
We still have work to do. Heng Swee Keat and the Future Economy Council are hard at it. Unions and employers are fully on board. And together, we are implementing Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), industry by industry. We are also pressing on with SkillsFuture, preparing everyone for the jobs of the future, helping workers and professionals with the problems of today when they are displaced from their jobs, retraining and reskilling them to take up new jobs. If we can keep up this path, we can create better jobs and new opportunities for our workers and businesses.
The immediate priorities are important and we will continue to focus on them but tonight I want to take a step back from these immediate priorities. Instead, I would like to discuss three longer term issues that are important to the success and wellbeing of Singapore, for the current generation and also for future generations.
One, building up our preschools so that every child, regardless of his family background, starts well and has a bright future. Two, fighting diabetes, because many Singaporeans suffer from it, not only the old, but increasingly younger people too, and three, making Singapore a Smart Nation, by using IT to the full, to create jobs and opportunities for all Singaporeans.
Preschool, Diabetes, and Smart Nation – these are the things we must do now, work on now, to build our future so that Singaporeans can start right, stay healthy and live smart at every age.
Let me start with preschool. Here, we are talking about infants to six year olds. Nowadays even two month old babies are enrolled in infant care, and that is part of preschool.Preschool is important to give our children a good start and the best chance to succeed in life. In the past, we started at Primary 1, when the child is seven. But now we know we have to begin much earlier, not to give children a head-start in Primary 1, but to build sound foundations for them for life. At an early age, there are specific windows in a child’s development and you must catch that window or you miss it.
For example, a child picks up language skills most easily and rapidly in his first three years. You miss that and it becomes much harder later on. In fact, it is best if they hear the language sounds as infants, before they are eight months old. Social and emotional skills need to be learnt early too: how to play with other children, how to be patient and wait your turn, how to behave when you do not get what you want.
Cognitively, young children need stimulation. Parents and teachers need to encourage kids to talk, not to tell them to keep quiet. Kids are naturally curious. Encourage them to wonder about the world around them, to ask questions, to explore, to express themselves. Of course, parents and family members are the first and best teachers for children, because they look after them, play with them, and talk to them most intensively. But a good preschool will help parents to make the most of these formative windows of a child’s development.
Preschool is also a great practical help to working couples because nowadays, both parents are likely to be working. Not all grandparents are available to become babysitters! They like to play with their grandchildren; they do not want to be responsible for their grandchildren.
Hence, five years ago, the Government moved decisively, to build up preschools, and transform the whole sector. We created almost 50,000 more childcare and kindergarten places, especially in young estates like Punggol and Sengkang. We increased subsidies to make preschools more affordable. We raised the standards of Anchor Operators. PCF Kindergartens have become Sparkletots, with better curriculum, and better trained teachers. NTUC’s My First Skool has also developed engaging programmes. Last month, I visited My First Skool’s campus in Punggol, built on top of a multi-storey carpark. It has an arts programme, coordinated by the National Arts Council. Artists visit the kindergarten to work with the kids and the kids were enjoying all sorts of art – painting, making things, doodling with coloured chalk on a blackboard. I joined them, some of them were doing better than me because I did not do art when I was in kindergarten.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has also started to run MOE Kindergartens, for children of ages five and six. They have developed a good curriculum. They have hired well-trained teachers, including mother tongue teachers – Malay, Chinese and Tamil. There are now 15 of these MOE Kindergartens. I visited one in Punggol. The kids are happy, and so their parents are happy too.
Every preschool a good preschool. As you can see, we have made good progress and a big reason is that we set up the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). It oversees the whole sector. It brings together all the ministries involved with preschool. It works with the operators to make sure everything goes well.
Now to take the preschools to the next level, we will roll out three more initiatives. First, we will create more places. As I said earlier, in the last five years, we have already created 50,000 more preschool places. But in the young towns, we are still short. In the next five years, we will create an additional 40,000 new places. This will bring the total number of preschool places to about 200,000, which will be almost double what we had.
Here is one centre, coming up in Sengkang West. The shortage of preschool places is mainly for the younger ones, ages zero to four, and those early years are critical for the child’s development. So Anchor Operators will create more places just for this group. For a start, they will build Early Years Centres in new HDB developments. We will call them Early Years Centres for zero to four. Each Early Years Centre will partner a nearby MOE Kindergarten. From zero to four, your child can go to an Early Years Centre and when he reaches five and six, he or she will have a place reserved in that MOE Kindergarten, if you want to take it up.
Second, we will improve the quality of preschool education for ages five and six, in other words the K1s and the K2s. We have enough places already for this group. Now, we want to raise their standards further and MOE will lead the way. MOE’s 15 Kindergartens have helped to establish a good standard at a reasonable price and parents know they can trust the MOE brand. MOE will scale up to 50 kindergartens over the next five years. And this way, MOE can make a bigger impact beyond its own MOE Kindergartens to influence and uplift the quality of the whole sector.
We want every child to go to a good preschool so that all children, regardless of family background, have the best possible start in life. PM Lee Hsien Loong
We want every child to go to a good preschool so that all children, regardless of family background, have the best possible start in life.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Thirdly, we will upgrade the preschool profession in order to attract good teachers and carers because teachers and carers make all the difference to our children. As a comparison, let us look at what we do with MOE teachers for primary, secondary and junior college. We train our teachers well. We have a National Institute of Education (NIE). Trainee teachers attend NIE programmes before they can start teaching. NIE does research and keeps up-to-date on the latest teaching methods. During their careers, periodically teachers return to NIE to upgrade themselves, and prepare for more senior roles. The MOE teachers do fulfilling work; they are paid competitively and they have good career paths. You can be a master teacher – showing other teachers how to teach. You can be a subject specialist – developing new curricula. Or you can be a school leader – like a Vice-Principal, or a Principal, or a Cluster Superintendent. Because teachers are trained well, paid well and have good career prospects, good people take up teaching and we have a good education system.
We will take the same approach with preschool teachers: train them well, reward them well, and attract good, passionate people. I am glad that since we started upgrading and expanding preschools, people have been switching careers, like Ms Marie Luo. I met Marie when I visited the MOE Kindergarten at Punggol View. Marie used to work at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), overseeing productivity. But Marie loved to take care of young children, so when MOE Kindergartens started up, she gave it a try. She has been teaching for more than a year, and can look forward to a good career.
To encourage more people like Marie to join the preschool sector, we will raise the standing of the profession. We will set up a new institute to train teachers well. Today, there is no centralised institute for early childhood development. Instead we have many different preschool training programmes – in Temasek Polytechnic, in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, ITE and the SEED Institute. We will now bring all these different programmes together, under a new centralised institute and we will call it the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC).
The NIEC will be like NIE but it will be for preschool teachers and carers. It will provide the full range of diploma and certificate programmes for preschool professionals. It will also have the scale to develop curricula, with different specialisations, like music, art, mother tongue or special education. Within a larger fraternity, the faculty will have more opportunities for professional development and progression.
We will provide training awards for students of the new institute. The awards will cover fees plus an allowance, so preschool teachers can make a strong start to their careers. We will also work with employers to ensure good career prospects and competitive pay. Over the last five years, as preschools expanded and upgraded, salaries have gone up. As we upgrade the profession, salaries need to improve further. And in particular, salaries must match career progression. Salaries have to be competitive not just for teachers, but also for the more senior specialists, supervisors and principals. Then you will have a career which is attractive, then good people will join. This will take a while but we must do it and we must get there. Only then can we upgrade the preschool sector and get good people to join and make it a career. Only then we can build a strong preschool system. So if you are passionate about kids, I hope you will consider this as a career.
In summary, we are doing three things to build up preschools and give young children a good start: More places for zero to four, better quality for five to six, raising the standing of teachers and carers. These changes will benefit all preschool kids. In addition, we are making a special effort for kids from low income and vulnerable families. These kids need more support, starting even earlier.
We have a programme for them: it is called KidSTART, which we piloted last year. Tan Chuan-Jin started this and is taking a close personal interest in it. Currently 400 families are on KidSTART. The mother gets onto the programme when she is expecting - ideally, in the first trimester. Even before the baby is born, trained officers visit the families at home, to support the expecting mother and impart practical skills and knowledge on health, nutrition and child development. After the baby arrives, the officers continue to coach the parents and they carry on doing so all the way through preschool. The early feedback on KidSTART has been promising. Parents say that their children are more talkative and expressive, and interact much better. And if these results are confirmed, we will scale up KidSTART to benefit more children.
I have described what we are doing to develop our children in practical ways but actually, we are emphasising preschools to achieve a broader social purpose because access to affordable, quality preschools will help level the playing field for young children. Today, every child goes to a good school. We want every child to go to a good preschool so that all children, regardless of family background, have the best possible start in life. We must do this because every child counts and if we get this right, we will foster social mobility and sustain a fair and just society. So it is a practical thing that we are doing but it is a strategic goal which we are aiming for.
And you heard or read ESM Goh at his National Day Dinner last night talking about this – social mobility – how important it is to make sure that we help all the kids, particularly those who do not have an advantaged background, to have a good start in life, not to be at a disadvantage, to be able to have equal opportunities just like everybody else. And we have to start early with KidSTART. We are starting before the baby is born, with preschools. And that is a strategic objective, and that is why I am talking about this subject at tonight’s National Day Rally.
That is also why the Government is investing heavily in young children. We have doubled our annual spending on preschools in the last five years. In 2012, we have spent S$360 million. In 2017, this year we are spending S$840 million. So it is actually more than double. And in the next five years, we will double spending again. So by 2022, five years from now, we will be spending S$1,700 million. It is a heavy investment but worthwhile and necessary.
But all this will be for nought unless young couples do your part. Please have more babies! The champions are Sengkang West families. Sengkang West’s Lam Pin Min told me very proudly he is the advisor with the most babies in his ward – 1,300 last year. PA organises “Embracing PArenthood” events for young parents and babies. Sengkang West has so many babies that Lam Pin Min had to organise multiple “Embracing PArenthood” events. I did just one. So here are some of his pictures - the first group, a second group, a third group, and the fourth. I think the only person who appears in more than one picture is Lam Pin Min. I assure you all the babies are different. So please go forth and do likewise!
My second topic tonight is our health, and specifically diabetes. You may not think diabetes is a major problem, but in fact, it is very serious in Singapore, particularly so for older people but increasingly for younger Singaporeans. Generally, Singaporeans think of ourselves as being fairly healthy. After all, we live quite long but it is not just about how many years you live, the quality of life matters greatly.
Let us take a close look with a live poll. You have got your Pigeonholes all set up. I would like to ask you two questions. If you are in the live audience tonight, please take out your phones and look at them and answer the questions. Are you ready? Let us begin. Question one – what is the life expectancy of Singaporeans? What do you think? Is it 80 years old, 82 years old or 84 years old? Make a guess.
Well, most of you think it is 84. In fact, it is 82 but for women it is 84; for men it is 80. But at 82 years, it is among one of the longest in the world. But this is life expectancy and life expectancy includes both periods of good health and ill health. And you know from your own experience with ageing parents that when people grow old, they suffer from many ailments and frailties, often dragging on for years.
Let me ask question two – on average, how many years of ill health do Singaporeans have in old age? What do you think? Four years, six years, eight years? I think most of you got it right. The answer is actually eight years – a bit shorter for men, a bit longer for women, but on average eight years. On average, we live to 82 years and out of these 82 years in old age, we experience eight years of ill health. Eight years is a long time to be in ill health. It is tough on the old folks, and on their families too, particularly the caregivers.
What causes this ill health? One big reason is diabetes. And unfortunately, here compared to other developed countries, Singapore is almost world champion – just behind the US. Overall, one in nine Singaporeans have diabetes. But the prevalence increases as you age. If you are my age, over 60, three in ten Singaporeans have diabetes. And since most Singaporeans will reach 60, that is a lot of us. In fact, if you look at yourself, and at the person sitting to your left, person sitting to your right, most probably at least one of you will have diabetes one day!
If you break it down by race, among the Chinese, 2.5 in 10 have diabetes; among the Malays, five in 10 have diabetes; and among the Indians, six in 10 have diabetes. These people age 60 and above. Half of Malays in my age group will have diabetes, and more than half of Indian in my age group will have diabetes, already have diabetes. This is a very serious problem, and especially for the Malays and Indians, is actually a health crisis. It is not an exaggeration.
The challenge with diabetes is that in the early stages, it is an invisible disease. You do not feel sick; there are hardly any symptoms. You may not even know that you have it. But if it is not treated, over time it can become very serious. If you look at the top causes of death in Singapore, diabetes does not appear there but actually, many common causes of death can be traced back to diabetes – heart attack, stroke, kidney failure – underlying causes, pre-disposing them to diabetes because diabetes damages all these organs. You may also lose your limbs, or go blind, and for the men, if nothing else worries you, diabetes can make you impotent! And that should cause you to sit up. So what can we do?
Typically, people will immediately ask: what is the Government doing? But with diabetes, the more important question is: What can I myself do, to change my lifestyle and diet, to minimise my risk? Personal choice and responsibility make all the difference to whether we get diabetes or not, and if we already have diabetes, whether we keep it under control. So what can each one of us do?
Let me offer four suggestions. First, please get regular medical check-ups. Find out whether you have diabetes or are at risk. Do not take the attitude that it is better not to know. You must want to know, because if you know your condition, then you can do something about it. Take advantage of the health checks at community events or MOH’s subsidised screenings under Screen for Life programme and do not stop there.
Health checks only tell you how healthy or unhealthy you are. They do not cure your illness, or make you healthier, unless you do something with the results. So if your health check shows something is amiss, please see a doctor. Take the medicine that he prescribes. Follow his advice and surely, he will ask you to exercise more, which is also my second suggestion: please exercise more.
Exercise is good for you. It helps with your blood sugar, you blood pressure. It brings down your weight. It makes you feel better. But if you prefer something more fun, join a group activity. PA organises all sorts of activities every weekend – Zumba, line dancing, brisk walking, taiji. Sign up to enjoy yourself with family and friends, and keep fit and healthy at the same time.
The easiest way to get more exercise is just to walk a little bit more every day. The doctor says to aim for 10,000 steps a day. But I know myself that 10,000 steps is not so easy to hit. I brisk walk for 40 minutes every morning. I walked this morning and today I checked and I am still only at 7,000 steps. The reason is because the rest of the day, I am sedentary – sitting down at the computer, either at work or at home. And many Singaporeans are like me. Only when I have community events or walkabouts, or go on jalan jalan in the evenings, then I reach the target. But let us all make an effort to walk a bit more and work it into your daily routine. For example, walk to the MRT station, rather than take the feeder bus. Some people get off the train one stop early and walk the rest of the way home, or climb the stairs instead of taking the lift. I do that: when I go to the office every morning, I climb up the stairs, and if I go out and come back I climb up the stairs again. Coming down I take the lift. Let us do it together.
To motivate you, the Health Promotion Board is giving everybody in the audience today a free gift. It is a step tracker; I am wearing one. I am taking part in the 520 Million Step Challenge. Please collect yours on your way out and start walking tonight.
My third piece of advice is to eat less and eat healthily. I was looking at some of my old school photos recently. And it reminded me that when I was in school, the children were not as tall, and some of us were quite scrawny. Perhaps we were not eating enough and were a little bit under-nourished. So there were school milk programmes to top up our nutrition. Today, nutrition has improved and our children are taller and better built. Some are too well-built! I cannot show you a photograph, you know what I mean. And already among 5-year olds, one in 10 are overweight. And unfortunately, often baby fat does not go away, but carries into adulthood.
One reason we are putting on weight is because we are eating more. 20 years ago, we ate on average 2,100 calories every day, which is about the right amount if you are not in a very active physical life. This is 1998. Six years later, by 2004, it had gone up to 2,400 calories – that is 300 calories more and that is equivalent to two extra scoops of ice cream every day. By 2010, six years later, it had gone up to 2,600 calories – in other words, another 200 calories, which means another extra scoop of ice cream, plus topping!
I have not done the latest survey yet – one should be coming in this year but I fear the trend is still up. Now, to burn off these extra 500 calories, these three extra scoops of ice cream, you need to run more than an hour every day! How many of you run more than one hour every day? Most of us do not, so obesity has gone up. The key is to be disciplined, and to make the right choices in food.
Start today, so that we can live healthily and live well. PM Lee Hsien Loong
Start today, so that we can live healthily and live well.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Mr Lee Kuan Yew was very disciplined about his food intake. Charles Chong told me a story: Mr Lee once invited him to lunch. He was the only guest. When the main course was served, the plate came up, he looked at the plate, one and a half pieces of steak – one small steak and one half, tiny piece, one and a half portions for two people. Charles Chong was the guest, so he was served first. He did not know what to do. So out of respect for Mr Lee, he took the tiny, half piece. Mr Lee stopped him. He said, “That is my piece. You take the other one!” So like Mr Lee, we all can decide to eat less, and watch our weight.
Unfortunately, not all of us do that. In fact, we are not just eating more, we are also eating less healthily. Lifestyles have changed. In the past, fewer wives worked. They could prepare healthy, home-cooked meals. Now, increasingly both the husband and the wife work. So families eat out more often. They buy char kway teow or roti prata at hawker centres, or increasingly fast food. But actually, even if you eat out, you can still choose healthier dishes like yong tau foo, sliced fish soup or soto ayam. There are such choices. More hawkers serve healthy alternatives – less oil, less sugar, less salt, but tasting almost as good. In fact, if you get used to it, tasting better, give it a try!
If you do cook at home, make small changes, like replacing white rice with brown or mixed grain rice. I know many of us are used to eating white rice but white rice is bad for diabetes because it has very high glycaemic index (GI), which means white rice may not taste sweet. But the effect of eating white rice is almost like eating sugar and when you eat white rice, your blood sugar will shoot up. If you have always eaten white rice, brown rice may take some getting used to.
Every week, my Ministers and I meet over lunch before our Cabinet meeting. We call it our PreCab Lunch. Some years ago when Khaw Boon Wan was Minister for Health, he suggested to me that we switch to brown rice because it is healthier. So I polled the Ministers for their views; everyone agreed. At least nobody objected. Ever since, I have been serving brown rice at PreCab lunches. But only very, very recently, I found out that some Ministers do not like brown rice. So when we come to PreCab Lunch, they do not have rice and they go home and they eat white rice for dinner! Now I will need another very serious Cabinet discussion to decide what we should serve at PreCab lunch.
As a compromise, I am thinking of trying white rice mixed together with brown rice. It is not quite as healthy but it is better tasting than all brown rice and it is healthier than all-white rice. So at the reception later, I am going to get you to try first. I am serving mixed grain fried rice – white and brown mixed together! Let me know what you think, and if you like it, please tell my Ministers.
I told Seah Kian Peng about our plans and he said that NTUC FairPrice will help me to encourage Singaporeans to eat more brown rice and healthy food. From tomorrow till the end of August, FairPrice will have special discounts and offers on healthy food, including brown rice, so do not hesitate. Let us start eating healthier today!
My fourth piece of advice is to cut down on soft drinks. Soft drinks contain a lot of refined sugar, which is very bad for you. Just one can of soft drink can contain eight cubes of sugar and that is more than you need for one whole day. If you drink soft drinks every day, you are overloading your system with sugar, and significantly increasing your risk of diabetes.
Our children are most at risk because soft drinks are part of their lifestyle. When a young man takes his girlfriend to the cinema, how can they not buy popcorn and soft drinks! And we are seeing more diabetes cases among young people, Type 2 Diabetes, including children, and that means big trouble for their health.
That is why in our schools, tuckshops can only sell drinks containing six per cent or less of sugar. But that does not really solve the problem because the kids then just go outside the school compound and buy the full-strength sweetened drinks at the convenience store.
We are scouting around for solutions. Some countries – several European ones, Mexico, Brunei – they have tried a sugar tax. UK and Chile also placed warning labels on drinks with high sugar content. But it is not clear yet if these measures work. Others have tried to limit the size of soft drinks – no more Big Gulp. But not sure that will work either because people may just buy two smaller gulps instead. Nobody has found an ideal solution yet but we are scanning the horizon and if someone comes up with one that works, we will study it and we will implement it. Meanwhile, we must do something about this problem of soft drinks and sugar.
As a first step, we have got the soft drink producers to agree to reduce the sugar in all their soft drinks sold in Singapore. This will help. But ultimately, what to drink is a personal choice. The best is to drink plain water. Better still, drink PUB water.
I just described four simple things each one of us can do: get a check-up, exercise more, watch your diet, cut down on sugar. It requires commitment, adjustments to our habits, our lifestyles and diet. But the payoff is large and can be done.
I give you an example, Mr Song Hee Pheow, who is a taxi driver. Mr Song got a check-up through a programme started by HPB for taxi drivers – “Check car, Check body”. Send your taxi for servicing. While you wait, send your own body for health screening. Kill two birds with one stone! Mr Song did that and discovered he had diabetes. His health coach told him to change his lifestyle. So he decided to do something about it. Instead of taking the lift to his flat, he climbed the five floors up every day. He also started exercising regularly. He ate less fried food, and cut his sugar intake. In six months, he lost 4kg. And when he saw his doctor at the polyclinic recently, the doctor said – Your blood sugar is good, well done!
If Mr Song can do it, each one of us can do it too. I am sharing this with you hoping that you will take it to heart but actually I am also preaching to myself because I also have to watch my own condition, because I have a family history of diabetes.
My paternal grandmother had diabetes. Several of my uncles had diabetes. My father did not but that is probably because he watched his diet and his weight very carefully and he was extremely disciplined about exercising. And for diabetes, genes play a part but your choices make the difference, and that is why I have to be careful.I do a test for fasting blood sugar twice a year. If the reading is below six, you are okay. If it is above six, well you need to investigate further. So far, I am okay. I am below six but I am not very far below six, so I know I have to be careful. And to stay in the safe zone I weigh myself every day, and I adjust my food intake. I exercise daily. I watch what I eat and drink – wholemeal bread instead of white bread, Teh O Kosong instead of Teh. Teh Gah Dai is completely out of the question. But if the dessert is chendol, it cannot be helped; I will just take a little bit. It takes effort and discipline but it can be done. So I hope you will join me. Start today, so that we can live healthily and live well.
My third topic tonight is a Smart Nation. What is Smart Nation about? Some think it is about each person owning two handphones, or learning to play Pokemon Go, or having the fastest internet connection. Others talk about e-commerce, the Internet of Things, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and big data. Those are all part of it, but not the whole story.
Smart Nation is about Singapore taking full advantage of IT. Using IT comprehensively to create new jobs, new business opportunities, to make our economy more productive, to make our lives more convenient. To make this an outstanding city in which to live, work and play.
We have a natural advantage. We are compact. We are highly connected. Our people are digitally literate. Our schools are teaching students basic computing and robotics. But while we have the right ingredients, we lag behind other cities in several areas. For example, electronic payments.
China has gone the furthest with e-payments. Lim Swee Say told me how he found out about this. He was in Shanghai a few years ago, queuing to buy gao lak, chestnuts, at a roadside hawker. He saw people in front of him waving their handphones before taking their chestnuts and leaving, without paying any cash. So being Singaporean, he thought there must be some special offer. When it came his turn, he confidently said, I do not need the special offer, I will pay the full price in cash! The hawker did not say anything – just gave him a quizzical look and pointed him to the QR code. And that was then he realised the QR code was for WeChat Pay and he was the suaku one!
Indeed, in major Chinese cities, cash has become obsolete. Even debit and credit cards are becoming rare. Everyone is using WeChat Pay or AliPay and these apps are linked to your bank account. To pay someone money, just pick up the phone, scan his QR Code. And you can use these apps for nearly all payments.
You can buy snacks from a roadside stall like Swee Say. You can see the QR code here, there is another one here. You can pay for a taxi ride. You can even tip the waiter at a restaurant. So when visitors from China find that they have to use cash here, they ask: how can Singapore be so backward?
In Singapore, we too have e-payments, but we have too many different schemes and systems that do not talk to one another. So people have to carry multiple cards, and businesses have to install multiple readers. It is inconvenient for consumers, it is costly for businesses. And the result is, most of us still prefer cash and cheques – 6 in 10 transactions are cash and cheques.
We must simplify and integrate our systems. MAS has been working hard at this – integrating the different systems into one – so now at last we have one single unified terminal that can read different cards. MAS and the banks have also rolled out a new service, called PayNow. PayNow links your mobile phone number to your bank account. So you can pay and receive money using your mobile banking app. You can pay money to somebody’s mobile number, if he is on PayNow. And if you are on PayNow, other people can pay you just using your mobile number. So you use your app you send $20, you know his phone number, you send it to him, it pops up on his account. It is done. Different bank, notwithstanding, money goes across. Does not matter if the bank is different. In fact, you do not have to know his bank account number, or which bank he is using.
Soon you will be able to use QR codes too. It is convenient, it is cheap. It is safe. There is no credit card fee. So next time I am at a hawker centre, I look forward to paying for my meal with PayNow. Then I will know it is fully working.
Singapore must always stay with the leaders to attract talent and business, to live up to our own expectations of what we ought to be and can be. PM Lee Hsien Loong
Singapore must always stay with the leaders to attract talent and business, to live up to our own expectations of what we ought to be and can be.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Another area where IT can help is public safety and security. I chair the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council. The Council met recently. The members, some Singaporeans, some international experts. I was struck by what one of the Council members said – that Singapore had a reputation as one of the safest cities in the world, so she was surprised to find that when it came to using IT to make a city safe, other cities were ahead of Singapore. I told her she was quite right.
Many cities already have comprehensive CCTV and sensor networks. And they also can integrate the inputs from all the sources, analyse and make sense of the information, and respond promptly if there is an incident or an emergency. Take for example the Boston Bombings. During the Boston Marathon in April 2013, about four years ago. Terrorists detonated two bombs near the finish line. There were many casualties. The Boston Police pulled together a huge amount of information from CCTVs, social media, license plate readers, plus video and photos contributed by the public. They combed through all this data. Within three days, the police identified the two bombers, and released footage of them. And this prevented the bombers from moving around freely. The police soon tracked them down, killed one, and arrested the other.
In Singapore we started building our own network of sensors, especially CCTV cameras, some time ago. The Police installed CCTVs at HDB void decks and lift landings to deal with loan sharks. And it has worked. We see fewer cases of “owe-money-pay-money” now. They do not paint your door but I just read in the newspapers the “owe-money-pay-money” has gone online now. But at least the physical harassment is down. Residents are greatly relieved.
Other agencies have different sensors. PUB has sensors to detect water levels in drains to know whether it is likely to flood or not. LTA has cameras to monitor traffic conditions and deter illegal parking. The camera is quite small, and the sign is very big. Hotels, shopping centres and office buildings also have their own CCTV systems. But we have not brought all the different systems together.
When the Little India riot happened in December 2013, we were caught a little flat-footed. There were too few CCTV cameras monitoring Little India. We had to rely on footage posted by the public on social media. Since then we have made progress. We are building an integrated national sensor network. We are making “every lamp-post a smart lamp-post”, meaning it can mount different types of sensors on any of the lampposts. We are installing more CCTV cameras in public places. We are combining inputs from different sources – police, LTA, hotels and commercial buildings, even handphones, which are effectively sensors on the ground.
And we are learning to analyse this combined data, for example, using artificial intelligence to automatically flag when something unusual is happening. So if I have 10,000 cameras, I do not need 1,000 people watching those cameras. I just need maybe just 10 people. Each person can watch 1,000 cameras and if the AI detects that something funny is happening, it will pop up and the man can pay attention and a response can be directed. So one day if we have an incident like the Boston Bombings, then the Home Team can assess the situation quickly and respond promptly, or even pre-empt it from happening.
This is a major project. Meanwhile, we are working on smaller projects too, to solve daily problems. Like paying for parking. We have ERP, we have mobile phones, and yet we are still tearing parking coupons, which we have been doing for 40 years. Dozens of other cities have parking apps. Why do we not? So I pushed HDB and URA to go digital. And I am glad that with GovTech’s help, we have now developed an app for street parking – and it is called parking.sg. Actually they should call it “parking lady lai liao”. You only pay for however long you park. If it is 18 minutes, you pay for 18 minutes, and the app will alert you when your session is about to end. If you want to park longer, you can extend your session remotely. No need to rush back to your car to add coupons before the parking lady puts a summons on you. We will launch parking.sg by October. And it will save motorists a lot of unnecessary parking hassles.
These small projects are instructive. They show what can be done. They help us learn and adapt to new technology in our daily lives and they prepare us to make bigger adjustments which are necessary later on.
I give you another example from the retail business. Traditional retail is being transformed by technology. People are shopping online. Delivery services like Redmart, HonestBee and Amazon Prime now have become popular. Online retailers are also setting up brick-and-mortar stores, with a twist. Like in Seattle, Amazon has just opened a drive-up grocery store. You order your items online. You choose a pick-up time, maybe when you are on your way home from work. At your allotted time, you drive to the store to do the pickup. A licence plate reader will register your arrival. Your groceries are brought out to your car. It is not available here yet, but perhaps it is not so far away.
This means retail stores will not disappear. But traditional stores and businesses must adapt and reinvent themselves. Use technology to offer customers more efficient, more convenient service. I am glad to see that our businesses are responding. Supermarkets have had self-service counters for some time now, which are popular with shoppers. FairPrice has taken it further. They have opened an unmanned, cashless Cheers store at Nanyang Polytechnic. There is no cashier in this convenience store, no staff at all. To buy an item, you simply take it off the shelf, you do a self-checkout. There is a back-end system which tracks the inventory and automatically restocks when the stocks run down. It saves manpower and costs for Cheers, offers convenience and savings for customers. I hear Cheers is going to push out another store like this soon.
We have got continue to push such projects. The world is changing. Unless we change with it, we will fall behind. Singapore must always stay with the leaders to attract talent and business, to live up to our own expectations of what we ought to be and can be.
To do such Smart Nation projects, big or small, we need engineers, programmers, data analysts, technicians. We need people with the skills. We need managers with the understanding. We need leaders with the dare and the courage and the organisational ability to make it happen. There is a worldwide shortage of such talent and skills. But we must urgently build up our talent pool. The Government is offering scholarships and sponsorships for engineering. The SkillsFuture and Professional Conversion Programmes will help Singaporeans build up and upgrade their skills. This is one direct way a Smart Nation will create new jobs and opportunities for our people.
When we started out with economic development, we put a lot of emphasis on engineering and science. In fact, when we gave scholarships, almost all the scholarships were for engineering but in the last decade, two decades, the trend has shifted. First it was balanced, from engineering to economics and liberal arts, which was a good sign. Then it went all the way and nowadays most of the students going on scholarship are not doing engineering and sciences. They are doing liberal arts, which are good subjects but I need a balance. We really must encourage our best students, a good proportion of them, to take up engineering, sciences and computer sciences. You come back, there are many things to do where your skills will be very valuable.
Smart Nation is for all of us, young and old. We are making every effort to bring everyone along - through our schools, through SkillsFuture, and through PA. Many Singaporeans are using IT to create jobs or solve social problems. In my Malay speech, I described how Syafiq grew his company, and now Riverwood employs 120 workers. In my Chinese speech, you saw how Gillian Tee’s company, Homage, gave many seniors and their families’ peace of mind, by providing on-demand caregiving services.
If you know about IT, you can share your knowledge with others, to help bring them up to speed, like Mr Tariam Singh. Tariam is 70. He does not look it but he is. He is a volunteer Silver Infocomm Wellness Ambassador. He helps fellow seniors learn new IT skills. Here he is in action.
Tariam speaks many languages. He teaches in Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, and Punjabi. He shows seniors how to use messaging apps and social media, to connect with family and friends. He brings people together to learn, and make friends with one another. And this is how we will become a Smart Nation together – by taking the initiative to improve ourselves; by helping others and bettering all our lives; by looking towards the future and making Singapore a happening place where people want to live.
Tonight, I have spoken about three things we are doing to build our future. Making our preschools better because we want every child to start well and have the best chance in life. Declaring war on diabetes so that we can stay well, live healthily, and enjoy the fruits of our labours. Building a Smart Nation to create opportunities for all of us and keep Singapore a leading city in the world.
Why are we so preoccupied with the future? Whom are we doing this for? Not just for ourselves, but for our children and future generations.
In January, I presented Edusave Awards to residents of Teck Ghee. It was a reward and an encouragement for the students who have done well and a proud moment for their parents who worked hard to support them and who encouraged them to excel.
Every generation striving and building for the next; undaunted by challenges and disruptions, instead working together to overcome every obstacle, seize every opportunity and realise a bright future for all of us. PM Lee Hsien Loong
Every generation striving and building for the next; undaunted by challenges and disruptions, instead working together to overcome every obstacle, seize every opportunity and realise a bright future for all of us.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
One family I met moved me. This is Adam, receiving his Edusave Merit Award. You can see the smile on his face. After the ceremony, I met Adam’s father, Aziz. He showed me an old picture. It was a photo of himself when he was a schoolboy, receiving an SBC House Union Bursary from me – we were both much younger – in 1986! So, I have presented awards to father and son, 31 years apart.
It was a special moment for Aziz, for Adam, also for me. Recently, I met the grandfather, Ahmad. Ahmad was a gardener with SBC, the old Mediacorp. This is Ahmad down here, Aziz and Adam. And that is why Aziz qualified for the Bursary all those years ago!
It is my Government’s duty to build for our future, so that every family can be like Ahmad, Aziz and Adam. It has ever been so, and it must always be so. In the beginning when we had little else, we had faith in our future. We believed every family should have the chance to work hard and do well, and improve their lives. We wanted every generation to outdo their parents. We strove mightily to make this happen.
This family’s story started with Ahmad, who belonged to the pioneer generation. When Aziz was born, he could go to a good school and receive every help to further his education. In 1986, when Aziz received his bursary, Singapore was going through a difficult time. We were just coming out of a severe recession. We had taken drastic measures to revive the economy, including a sharp and painful CPF cut.
But even as we dealt with the crisis, we never stopped building for the future. We continued to improve our schools, expand our polytechnics and universities, and upgrade the old Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB) – this is the Ang Mo Kio VITB, just across the road from where we are now – to build today’s ITE.
Aziz could work hard and do well. He graduated with a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from Singapore Polytechnic. He became an engineer working for semiconductor multinationals. He upgraded himself along the way and earned a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. As the new bio-medical sciences industry took off, Aziz was headhunted to be a senior maintenance engineer with GSK, a pharmaceutical multinational.
Now it is his son, Adam’s turn. Adam is growing up in a completely different world. He will need different skills to compete in the future economy. He will have to study and work hard like his father – there is no escaping that. But like his father, he too will have the opportunity to thrive.
Adam is now studying in Teck Ghee Primary School. He and all his TGPS schoolmates will learn how to code and programme, and if they are keen, to do robotics and digital media. We are giving children like Adam strong foundations so that when they start working, they can take up good jobs and seize the opportunities and make this a Smart Nation. Perhaps one day Adam may launch his own startup! Why not?
This is the Singapore of the last half century: Ahmad, a gardener; Aziz, a pharmaceutical engineer; and Adam, a bright future ahead of him. Every generation striving and building for the next; keeping our eyes on tomorrow and investing in our children; undaunted by challenges and disruptions, instead working together to overcome every obstacle, seize every opportunity and realise a bright future for all of us.