DPM Heng Swee Keat at Singtel's 'Unfolding a New Era' Event

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 31 January 2024

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at Singtel's 'Unfolding a New Era' event on 31 January 2024.


SMS Dr Janil Puthucheary
Mr Lee Theng Kiat, Chairman of Singtel
Mr Yuen Kuan Moon, Group CEO of Singtel
Mr Kai Nargolwala, Chairman of Singtel’s Regional Data Centre Business 
Mr Bill Chang, CEO of Singtel’s Regional Data Centre Business
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning, I’m delighted to join you today for the brand launch of Singtel’s regional data centre business, and to witness new strategic partnerships between Singtel and your ecosystem partners that will strengthen Singapore’s ambition to be a global hub for Artificial Intelligence and digital sustainability.

Over the last few decades, digitalisation has transformed the way we work, live, and play. In particular, it has accelerated the field of Artificial Intelligence or AI, providing vast amounts of data for training, and improved compute for complex algorithms.

As Bill mentioned, ChatGPT has captured the public imagination all over the world, and catalysed a flurry of interest and activities to adopt AI in all aspects of our lives. On the economic front, how do we harness digitalisation and the potential of AI in our region? Today, ASEAN’s digital economy is worth about US$300 billion. This is projected to more than triple to US$1 trillion by 2030. In fact, digital integration and harmonisation through the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement could enable this US$1 trillion figure to be doubled.

If we can achieve this, it  would be the world’s first for a regional grouping. AI can create new value by optimising production and operations, and boosting labour productivity. Goldman Sachs estimates that AI adoption could boost productivity growth by 1.5% annually over a 10-year period, and raise global GDP by 7%.

This holds exciting prospects for countries facing tight labour markets, including Singapore. An AI-augmented workforce could enable countries to surmount manpower constraints and secure the next bound of growth. This is why we’ve set out our ambition last month through our National AI Strategy 2.0, to harness AI as a force for good to uplift and empower our people and businesses.

As the world embraces the new opportunities that AI brings, we must not lose sight of a longstanding shared challenge, which is climate change. The window for addressing climate change is closing. By current estimates, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% by 2030 to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal that was set under the Paris Agreement. This requires a concerted effort to decarbonise across all sectors – from governments to industries, and also individuals.

We made positive progress at the Dubai COP28 last December, where countries agreed to transition away from fossil fuels and fast track the clean energy transition, by tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency. Singapore only accounts for 0.1% of global emissions, but we must do our part and contribute where we can. As a small resource-constrained island city-state, we are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, such as extreme weather patterns and coastal erosion.

Thus, we have always worked sustainability upfront into our considerations, when designing policies and planning for development, such as preserving green spaces and setting energy efficiency standards for buildings. 

We have stepped up the momentum by setting concrete targets for sustainable development under the Singapore Green Plan 2030. Our key commitment is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This is not an easy task, given our inherent constraints as an island city-state.

It will require a whole-of-nation effort to transition to a low-carbon future. Even as the government sets the pace through policies and programmes, we need to partner: Citizens to adopt greener habits such as switching to greener modes of transport and reducing waste; Companies and industries to transform their businesses to become greener and more sustainable; as well as Researchers and startups to push the boundaries of science and technology, to develop new breakthroughs for achieving a low-carbon future. 

The Digitalisation-Decarbonisation Duality

Digitalisation and AI have been, and will continue to be important enablers for sustainability and decarbonisation. Industries harnessing digital technologies like blockchain, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT), have been able to achieve greater efficiency in production and operations. In the realm of research and innovation, utilising AI can speed up drug and material discovery. Many companies now use smart grids and digital twins to optimise their factory design, operations, and outputs. 

Harnessing digital technologies to optimise resources can in turn help companies to reduce their carbon footprint, and contribute to the greening of various industries and sectors. At the same time, an AI-pervasive digital economy and society is also resource-intensive. AI requires significant computational power, which raises energy consumption and carbon impact. Electricity consumption by the infocomm technology (ICT) sector is accelerating. ICT currently consumes about 7% of global electricity consumption.

At its current trajectory, this is expected to rise to 13% by 2030. Global ICT sector emissions are estimated at 3 to 5%, which is equivalent to those of the aviation sector. And within the sector, data centres account for the bulk of ICT sector emissions. This figure is similarly accelerating, given the global demand to power AI adoption across economies and societies. This need to harness digitalisation and AI, while pursuing sustainability and decarbonisation, is a dilemma that all countries face, in varying degrees. How we frame this challenge matters – while trade-offs and choices may be needed in some areas, we must not allow ourselves to be locked into a limiting mindset. We should instead stretch our creativity and resources, to seek solutions that harness the potential of both sustainability and digitalisation. Sustainable digitalisation – the dual pursuit of digitalisation and decarbonisation – is key to unlocking new value for economies and societies, while safeguarding the environment. And by making sustainable digitalisation a key prong of Singapore’s sustainable development journey, we can create new solutions that serve our own needs, and can also be shared with others. 

Mobilising the ecosystem for digital sustainability

Achieving digital sustainability is a major undertaking. To succeed, we must have strong commitment and collaboration across sectors, to grow capabilities and achieve synergies for the ecosystem. Everyone has a part to play. On the part of government, we need to set out the key directions towards digital sustainability: 

Our 2030 Green Plan sets out targets to switch to greener and cleaner energy sources, including solar energy. One priority under our 2023 Digital Connectivity Blueprint is to push the sustainability envelope by setting standards for and developing a roadmap for green data centres. And under our National AI Strategy (NAIS) 2.0, one of the peaks of excellence that we would like to build up is resource-efficient AI, because reducing the energy and carbon footprint of AI is critical for a small country like Singapore.

We will work closely with researchers, industry and enterprises to execute and achieve these different prongs. We recognise the need to adopt energy-efficient digital technology across the public and private sectors, while harnessing this same digital technology to enable the rest of the economy to go green. Sustainability and the digital economy are also focus areas under our Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan, and we are funding R&D across the different research institutions and universities.

We plan to leverage our Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise, or CREATE, to bring together the best minds to tackle decarbonisation. It is equally important to ensure ownership and impetus at the sector and enterprise levels, so that digitalisation and sustainability considerations are worked into companies’ business plans. Our Industry Transformation Maps and Industry Digital Plans provide the broad frame and resources for companies to incorporate digitalisation and sustainability into their own transformation efforts.

We also have a suite of digital sustainability programmes and initiatives geared towards greening the ICT sector. IMDA’s $30mil Green Computing Funding Initiative facilitates collaboration between researchers and industry to solve challenges, while the green software trials help industry partners to reduce the carbon footprint of their digital applications. I mentioned earlier that green data centres is a key area we need to work on – IMDA has developed the world’s first Standard for Tropical Data Centres and is working with industry partners to trial this at live facilities. 

But even more importantly, we must tap on the innovative capacity of the private sector to push the boundaries and set the standard in pursuing digital sustainability.  
I am thus delighted to see Singtel showing the way in managing the dual challenges of digitalisation and decarbonisation.

Your regional data centre business is built upon the longstanding ecosystem of communications networks and partners that you have established in the region. This places you in good stead to fuel the growth of ASEAN’s digital economy. The ambition that Bill just articulated – building the next generation of Green, Sustainable, Hyper-connected, AI-optimised Data Centres – is valuable not just for Singapore, but also the region and the world. 

It is admirable that Singtel has taken an ecosystem approach to activate and enhance the entire value chain for green data centres. By setting the goal of achieving operational net-zero data centre operations by 2028, you have taken on the task of developing best-in-class, resource-efficient data centres.

By partnering local enterprises and global leaders to co-innovate solutions – such as IoT and digital twin platforms for better monitoring, management and optimisation – you are also setting standards and building capabilities across the sector and the region. At the same time, partnering energy companies to leverage their renewable energy sources is critical for achieving sustainable digitalisation. We must green the energy sources that power data centres, as the computational needs driven by AI compound.  

Beyond the hardware, I am heartened that Singtel is also helping to grow capacity and develop capabilities to drive Singapore’s AI ambition. Your collaboration with NVIDIA can lower barriers to accessing high-performance compute such as GPUs, to support the more pervasive adoption of AI by our enterprises.

By supporting our companies’ transformation efforts, this will in turn strengthen Singapore’s digitalisation journey, and our standing as a digital hub. A critical part of this effort is to develop our talent. We must grow AI- proficient talent, both to develop our peaks of excellence, as well as to support the more pervasive use of AI.

This must encompass both pre-employment and continuing education training, as reskilling and upskilling are critical to keep up with fast-moving developments. Singtel’s Regional Sustainable Data Centre Academy is a good example of partnership between the public and private sectors to drive national imperatives.

By jointly developing curriculum with our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), the Academy will be able to train industry-relevant and industry-ready talent. And given Singtel’s extensive ecosystem of customers and partners, there will be good pathways in Singapore as well as in the region.

Taken together, this is how Singtel can achieve yet another duality – deepen Singapore’s standing as a digital and AI hub, while also growing opportunities and capabilities for ASEAN, bringing us closer to unlocking the potential that the region holds collectively. 


Let me conclude. As we step up efforts to tackle the existential challenge of climate change, managing the digitalisation-decarbonisation duality will enable us to unlock new growth and productivity, surmount existing constraints, while building a greener and more sustainable world. This is a challenging yet worthy task, and we must take a collaborative approach across the ecosystem, to develop solutions for ourselves that can be shared with the rest of the region and the world. And when enterprises like Singtel lean forward to mobilise the ecosystem, this can set the pace and push the ambition for others to follow.

My warmest congratulations to Singtel on this exciting new phase of your development. I wish you every success as you drive digital sustainability to uplift businesses and peoples in Singapore, ASEAN, and beyond. Thank you.