DPM Lawrence Wong at the Asia Tech x Singapore 2023 (ATxSG)

PM Lawrence Wong | 6 June 2023

Keynote speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Asia Tech x Singapore on 6 June 2023.

Prime Minister Kallas of Estonia,

My Parliamentary Colleagues

Excellencies and Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am very happy to join all of you this morning for the Asia Tech x Singapore this year.


Let me start by extending a very warm welcome to all our overseas guests. It is good to see so many of you gathering together to discuss the most critical tech and digital issues of the day. This year, it is the first time since the pandemic where we are able to bring back our usual in-person conference free from any Covid restrictions. Obviously, the demand for face-to-face interaction is huge because we’ve also set a new record in the number of conference participants. So thank you for your support and for joining us this year.


The worst of Covid-19 is behind us. But our lives have been irrevocably changed in many ways. We have become used to new ways of working, new ways of consuming goods and services, and even new ways of learning.

Digitalisation is powering a lot of these changes all over Asia. In India, remote villages without access to traditional banking services received government assistance via digital platforms during the pandemic. And now, these platforms enable citizens to transact and even sell their crops online. The same story is playing out in places like the Philippines and Thailand, where mobile wallets are fast becoming the norm. Indonesia is now one of the world’s fastest growing e-commerce markets.


All these are just the beginning because there are so much more that we can do to unlock the full potential of the digital economy in Asia. In Southeast Asia alone, we expect the digital economy to increase fivefold to US$1 trillion by 2030, driven by new internet users and a rising middle class. So, there are tremendous opportunities ahead of us, particularly in this part of the world.  


But there are also challenges and uncertainties in the road ahead. In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of many different digital systems and standards across countries. This has been compounded by a growing divergence in the rules and norms in areas like data protection and privacy.  


Meanwhile, as digital adoption becomes ever more pervasive, there is a growing sense of unease in many societies. Because more and more people are worried that their jobs will be disrupted, and their skills rendered irrelevant. Others have started to worry about humanity’s place in a digital world and called for a pause to AI research.


How we manage these problems will define the future of our digital world. Today, I would like to share with you Singapore’s perspective on these important issues. We look forward to a digital economy which can drive sustained growth and prosperity for ourselves and all countries and which will be inclusive; one which will bring everyone along.  And to do this, we need to create a digital economy that is more interconnected, more trusted, and more inclusive.  Let me share my thought in each of these areas.  


First, the digital economy has to be more deeply interconnected.


To realise the full potential of transformative digital technologies, we will need to enhance our “hard” connectivity infrastructure. This will require substantial investments by all countries. In Singapore’s case, my colleague, Minister Josephine Teo launched our Digital Connectivity Blueprint yesterday which seeks to better connect us to the world.  And among other things, we will double our capacity for submarine cable landings and boost our nationwide network speeds to 10 gigabits per second. I’m sure we are not the only ones, many other countries in Asia are similarly looking to step up their investments in such digital infrastructure. 


But hard infrastructure alone will not be enough. We also need to boost the connectivity of “soft” infrastructure, or what we call “digital utilities”. These are the foundation layer of software that enables seamless, trusted and secure digital transactions. Many countries have their own systems. In Singapore, we have four sets of digital utilities: digital identity, invoicing and payments, data exchange, and document certification. India has a similar set of systems referred to as the India Stack. Other countries will have their own versions. Collectively, these utilities power the modern digital economy. 


But to go beyond working within our own country, we will need these digital utilities to be connected up and interoperable between countries. So, Singapore is working to do this with likeminded partners in our region and beyond.


For example, in the area of cross border payments, we have linked Singapore’s real-time payment system, which is called PayNow, with both Thailand’s PromptPay and India’s Unified Payments Interface, and this has enabled safe, cost-effective and real-time fund transfers between our countries. We hope to build on this to eventually achieve real-time payment linkages across Southeast Asia.


Another example is in the area of shipping. Domestic shipping is done largely electronically but for international shipping, the transactions are still largely conducted with large number of paper documents. All this imposes unnecessary costs to businesses. And that’s why we have created TradeTrust, a framework to support the digitalisation and trusted exchange of trade documents. We have been working to pilot its use in the shipping and trade finance sectors, together with countries like the UK, the UAE and China.


We are making progress through all these projects. But achieving full interoperability between different national systems is not straightforward. Because apart from the need to agree on the technical issues, linking up national systems often involve broader issues to do with data protection, governance, ethical principles and ultimately, trust.


And this brings me to my second point, which is the need to enhance trust in the digital economy. Again, this is a complex issue which we must address in different ways.


For one, we will need continued efforts to combat fraud and cyberattacks. This will be needed to significantly reduce and mitigate risks at the individual, industry and infrastructure level. This is crucial in enabling our citizens to feel safe and to transact safely and to uphold trust in the digital world.


Another important focus area is to facilitate trusted data flows. Today, countries are increasingly adopting different rules on how data should be stored, processed and transferred. And this makes it difficult for countries to link up their digital utilities, and also drives up the costs for businesses.   


So, we should work towards common ground on data protection standards – so that we can each safeguard personal data as they see fit, while still facilitating data transfers across borders effectively. Achieving consensus on this and other related issues will not be easy, and Singapore will do its part to facilitate this. This is one key reason why we’ve initiated Digital Economy Agreements with other countries to build common standards and facilitate cross border data flows. We have already signed such Agreements with Australia, the UK, South Korea, New Zealand, and Chile, and we are working towards a Digital Economy Framework Agreement for the whole of ASEAN.


Trust is also important in the area of AI, which promises to revolutionise not just the digital economy, but much of our economy and society too. We are already using machine learning to optimise decision making, and generative AI will go beyond that to create potentially new content, and generate new ideas. The potential is enormous.


Yet there remain serious concerns as I’m sure all of you aware. We have already seen how AI, used improperly, can perpetuate dangerous biases in their decision-making. And with the latest wave of AI, the risks are even higher – as AI becomes more intimate and human like, what is to stop it from being used to perpetuate falsehoods in society, commit hard-to-detect scams, or even undertake foreign influence operations? All this throws up difficult questions for regulators, businesses, and society at large – what kind of work should AI be allowed to assist with; how much control over decision making should an AI have; and what ethical safeguards should we put in place to help guide its development? In short, how can we develop AI that is trustworthy and, in so doing, engender a widespread acceptance of this technology?


There will be differing perspectives on these questions. What is clear is that no single person, organisation, or even country, will have all the answers. We will all have to come together to engage in critical discussions to determine the appropriate guardrails that will be necessary to build more trustworthy AI systems.


In parallel, Singapore will do what we can to ensure the responsible development and usage of AI. We were the first country in Asia to establish a Model AI Governance Framework (in 2019) that articulate guiding principles for developing AI that is explainable, transparent, fair, and human-centric. Last year, we also launched AI Verify, which is the world’s first testing toolkit to help companies objectively assess and verify whether their AI products are responsible and meet key international principles. So, we will continue to do more on this front, such as expanding the AI testing community, working with industry on pilot projects, and driving the development of AI testing standards.


Third and finally, we must ensure that digital economy develops in a way that is inclusive.


In the tech world, we sometimes assume that access to the digital economy is becoming more ubiquitous. But even today, nearly half the world’s population today remains unconnected from the internet. And in a country like Singapore, where we have widespread internet access and very high smart phone penetration rates, we still have some segments who are not fully connected. So, we must therefore do more to close the digital divide, both within our own countries and between countries. Failure to do so will exacerbate existing inequalities, and will impede our ability to harness the full potential of digital technologies. 


One key challenge is the impact that rapid digitalisation will have on jobs. This is not a new challenge – we have been facing this for centuries and deploying automation and digital technologies for a long time. And with every wave of technology comes the inevitable concern about job losses. I do not believe we will end up with a dystopian jobless future where machines replace humans for everything and humans become obsolete. Because technology can replace some tasks, but it can also make us more productive in performing other tasks, and by doing so it will create new tasks, and new jobs.


So, what will change is really the nature of jobs – both in blue and white-collar occupations. And the pace of change will accelerate, the scale of disruptions will increase with time. Understandably this will create anxiety amongst those less able to adjust and adapt.  So, all of us must do more to help workers, especially mature workers, refresh and update their skills, so they can stay competitive and relevant in an increasingly digital world.   


We cannot leave this for markets to take care of themselves. Nor is this the responsibility of employers alone to figure it out on their own. What is needed is comprehensive support in the form of jobs coaching, job matching, and skills development. Implementing these at scale across the entire country will require a concerted and proactive effort on the part of government, industry and skills training providers. All parties must work together to identify jobs at risk of disruption, and to help workers to continually reskill and upskill themselves. We are taking this seriously in Singapore. I suppose you can say that we have the good fortune for being a small country in this instance, so it is easier to coordinate across our entire nation, employers, workers, unions and industries, to put together comprehensive programme. But it is really something that all countries will have to take seriously.   


Another challenge is to ensure that everyone in society can make full use of digital tools and services. Because not everyone can move at the same pace. We must take extra care to cater to those who need more time to adjust. For example, in Singapore, we recently issued digital vouchers for households to use in supermarkets and heartland shops. It was a new initiative that we rolled out largely through the smartphones where they can use these vouchers to pay for items at supermarkets or grocery shops. We did it digitally, but we decided to provide an option for those who preferred hard copy vouchers. Not many of them chose it but there were still a number, particularly amongst the elderly who prefer the hardcopy, and we give them the option to do so. Similarly, in phasing out the use of cheques, we moved first to eliminate corporate cheques, and we decided to deliberately provide a longer runway for individuals to switch to alternative payment methods. Because there are, again, a number of people, particularly among the seniors, who are much more comfortable writing cheques and going to the bank branches. It is not uncommon; my mother is one of them, very hard to persuade her to use digital banking but I’m still trying. 


These extra arrangements and provisions may seem unnecessarily burdensome. But in fact, they are critical in ensuring a more inclusive approach for digital transformation. The tech world often wants to “move fast and break things”. It may be ok and necessary for startups, but at the national level, sometimes moving too quickly can backfire and even become counter-productive especially if we end up with a backlash against technology.  So as countries embark on their digital journeys, what’s equally important is the need to slow down from time to time, to make sure that everyone is on board, and things are done right, so that all citizens are able to move forward together. 


To conclude, the fast-growing digital economy promises to bring many modern conveniences and new opportunities for millions in Asia. But if we want to sustain this growth, we must confront the many pressing challenges and issues that beset us. We must find ways to instil confidence in emerging technologies, and reassure people about their place in a digital world.


No country can deal with all of these issues alone. Only by coming together, and drawing on our collective wisdom and experiences, can we hope to succeed. So I hope all of you make the most of this opportunity here today to do just that. We have brought together policymakers, industry, and thought leaders in this conference. Each of you have a unique and important perspective to share and we can all learn from one another. And I am confident by working together, we can shape our global digital commons for the better, and continue to grow and prosper together.


Thank you very much and I wish you all a fruitful conference ahead.