PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the "Keynote & Q&A: Technology as Singapore's Strategic National Priority" session at the virtual Singapore Tech Forum 2020 on 17 November 2020. The Q&A was moderated by Ms Karen Tay, Regional Vice President of the Singapore Global Network.
Hello everyone. Very happy to be here with you today. Will share briefly about what has been happening in Singapore, then have a dialogue and take your questions through Karen.
Dominating tech and everything else this year has been COVID-19. It has been a big fight for us in the last eleven months. he situation in Singapore is now stable, but it has taken us a tremendous effort to get here. First, we had to have a two-month circuit breaker in April where we practically locked down the economy. Also, we had a major outbreak in our migrant worker dormitories, where several hundred thousands of migrant workers live, and we had to deal with that in the safe way to keep the migrant workers safe, and to keep the rest of the population safe. Our priority was to minimise the casualties, fatalities, and ensure that our healthcare system could cope. After enormous efforts, we have now reached that position. We are in a better state because we have better defences – testing, contact tracing, safe distancing measures so that we can progressively and carefully resume economic and social activities, including some overseas travel. Looking forward, like everybody else, to confirmation of a safe and effective vaccine, which will be a will be a big part of the solution but not the whole of it. Meanwhile, we have to stay vigilant and not get tired of all the safeguards and precautions that we have to take.
Technology has been a crucial part of this journey. Certainly, biomedical science played a big part, analysing the genome of the virus, understanding the virus, understanding disease patterns and trends, developing tests and treatments for COVID-19, a lot of it involves IT and bioinformation. But infotech, by itself has been crucial. We needed it to track the status of our patients and our cases, their well-being, locations, large numbers of people, including hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. We have had to collect and analyse data for COVID-19. For example, who is getting sick, what are the hotspots or patterns, what inferences to draw, what trends are developing, what actions are working and not, and what we should do next. Even to ensure compliance with stay-at-home notices – not such a high tech requirement, you would have thought. But technology comes in very useful to know what they are and to keep track of who is up to date and who is not. Contact tracing, for example, we also used tech in many different ways. The last time we had to do this when we had SARS in 2003, seventeen years ago, it was a manual and labour intensive business.
For COVID-19, we dealt with much bigger numbers to trace, and had to identify and quarantine contacts as soon as possible because it is such an infectious disease. We have developed all kinds of solutions for this. We developed TraceTogether – a bluetooth-based tool to identify close contacts, and we have also open-sourced the code so that others can look at it and develop their own applications, which some countries have done. We have developed SafeEntry, which is for you, when you visit a shop, to register your presence there, so that you know you have been there, the shop knows you have been there, and if somebody is positive, we can check who else was there at the same time.
We have developed databases like VISION, which has brought together all the different sources of information. We have different databases from telecom companies, information from interviews, information from contacts of contacts, and put it all together to speed up contact tracing and to be able to issues quarantine notices promptly. Because every hour you are slow, means many more people might be infected by COVID-19. Our response was not flawless, we have discovered blind spots as we worked it out. Our IT systems in the government have been built over the years, not all are fully up to date, and they don’t all work seamlessly together. For example, not all of them could be updated continuously. Many were updated in batches, three to four times a day, using Secure FTP or even Excel spreadsheets to transfer information from one system to another, because not all our systems were using up-to-date techniques like APIs or client server models, much less to be on the cloud where they are scalable.
When cases were multiplying, all these delays and inefficiencies make a difference. We had to build our new products (VISION, TraceTogether apps and Tokens) and we had to develop them in a hurry. They are more than Minimum Viable Products, but they are far from polished versions, and still a work-in-progress. But they showed we had some in-house capability and it was making a significant contribution. Most importantly, through building them, we and our people learnt – both the tech side as well as the ops side, – the importance of “Ops-tech”. That means operations must be enmeshed with technology requirements right from the start. Tech people must be involved early, and work closely with operations people to understand the operating conditions and understand the requirements to be able to meet the requirements and make sure that the technical side is fully taken into account of, and we go to the limits of what is possible, and we are realisitc to know how far we can go.
It is an iterative process, you have requirements, you must adapt them and streamline them as we develop new capabilities, bring them up-to-date, situation changes, but we have to work on a very tight loop in the Ops-Tech. So tech has been central to our COVID-19 response. In fact, this goes beyond COVID-19. It is a command function in a lot of our government, because to do many of the government functions, you need full use of tech – whether it is in healthcare, in pension systems, administrating public housing, dealing with taxes – without tech, you are sunked. It is a command function and senior leaders must understand that technology is central to their role in governing in Singapore, doing public administration. All of our public service leaders need to appreciate technology, more need to understand technology, and we must have enough of them who can provide technical leadership on complex engineering projects, while taking into account the social and policy aspects of the requirements, so that the tech part is fully made use of, but at the same time, understand the non-tech purpose to which this is for. This is a challenge for every public service. But compared to other countries, Singapore is fortunate to have an environment that supports science and tech.
First of all, we have quite a tech-literate population. If you just look at the use of technology, smart phone penetration for example, we have more more smart phones accounts in Singapore than there are people. It is almost two to one. We are familiar with tech, and if you have a good product, an app or an interface, it is not hard to get people to use it.
Second, we have good infrastructure which we have built over the years. For example, we have a nationwide fibre broadband network, fibre to every home. It is not by chance, but it was a conscious political decision that we will do this, and build ahead of demand, and roll it out as a national network, which all service providers can use, and sell services on this backbone. Therefore, we have very high Internet connection speeds, it is pervasive, and when we had to lockdown the migrant worker dormitories, it was a lifesaver. This enabled us to give everybody SIM cards, broadband access, and they could stay sane, keep in touch with home, with the news, watch movies and know what is happening. We build ahead of time. We did not have a killer app but we decided this was a matter of faith – that one day we will need it, and sure enough we did it.
Third, we have been building up IT engineering capabilities within the government, particularly through GovTech. It is a long-term effort, we have been doing this for five years or so, we have rudimentary capabilities at the central government level. Our agencies and departments have their own, but we did not have an outfit which will look after the whole of the government. We outsourced, and we eventually decided that we cannot outsource everything, and we have to build our own, and that is what GovTech has been doing.
Finally, we have the whole tech eco-system and digital industry in Singapore. Many major tech companies are now based here, doing engineering work, not just sales and marketing. Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon Grab, Stripe, SEA and Lazada. We are in areas like cybersecurity, software engineering, data science and AI, creating a vibrant industry cluster, and good jobs for Singaporeans.
The pieces are all gradually coming into place, but the key thing that will make it all work, is talent. We need more tech talent to grow the industry and to tackle the urgent problems that we have and that tech can help us to solve. The pipeline of our students doing tech in our polytechnics and universities is growing. Students are getting the message. Entry to computer science, IT and computer engineering courses has become much more competitive today. You practically need straight As to get into the course, and the graduates are in demand. The pipeline will grow over the years. Meanwhile, companies are also bringing in talent from overseas, not just young people but also at the mid-to senior-levels, especially where we need people in Singapore. People experienced in building, developing, managing large projects and systems who can mentor young talent, build world-class teams and shape the culture in engineering outfits, companies and organisations. Therefore, enlarge our talent pool and our capabilities, raise our standards, and strengthen our tech ecosystem, and I hope, get into a virtuous cycle.
Of course, when you have large numbers of foreign professionals in the industry, there will be social issues which will arise. Singaporeans in the same field particularly, will feel a sense of competition and even discomfort. Social frictions can develop, especially if there are large concentrations of the foreign engineers from a single source, and when economy is down, people feel worried about their jobs and these anxieties rise up to the surface. This is not unique to Singapore. It happens in Europe, America, and yet this is an industry which depends on talent and diversity on talent, not just from one place – no matter how talented that society may be, but people with a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and cultures coming together in order to be able to cross fertilise and come up with new ideas and breakthrough products. It is a problem that there are such issues in Singapore, we acknowledge them candidly and we do our best to address them.
It requires both sides to work at it and it requires the non-Singaporeans to make the effort to fit in, both at work and socially. Singaporeans on their part, have to be able to understand that this is how new jobs and more jobs can be created in Singapore, and have to feel assured that they are fairly treated and not discriminated against. That they will have a fair chance at the jobs, opportunities, and promotions. They must see that the tech companies are bringing in expertise and experience, and building up our industry and capabilities, so that our own people can learn from them, upgrade themselves, and eventually build up our own talent pool.
This is how our policies work, this is how our work pass system works in Singapore. We issue Employment Passes (EPs) to qualified professionals from abroad, more liberally than work passes at lower levels of the workforce, and more liberally than most other jurisdictions, for example, the H1B visas in the US where there is a quota. We do not operate that way. We maintain standards but we watch the demand. We make sure that if there is a strong demand and the economy needs them, and we need these people and their experience and expertise, we are able to bring them in.
Now on top of the EPs, we have just launched the Tech.Pass scheme. This scheme is aimed at highly accomplished tech talent, the movers and shakers of the tech world. People who usually play different roles at once – founder, investor, employee, consultant, academic. People who can contribute to multiple parts of the ecosystem with their capital, networks and knowledge, and if you are one of them who has this Tech.Pass, you come to Singapore, you choose your niche, you fit in and develop your role as you go along. Unlike an EP that is tied to a particular job or employer, and if you have to change jobs or decide to do something else, well you apply again. The Tech.Pass is personal to the holder, and will give you flexibility to move between roles and employers, and we are going to have 500 slots, valid for 2 years in the first instance, and it can be extended. Applications open January 2021. I hope to make people sit up and take notice, and will help us to attract such talent to Singapore.
Southeast Asia is a different place from Silicon Valley. In face, everywhere in the world is a different place from Silicon Valley. But Southeast Asia has a lot of potential, not just in Singapore with the ecosystem around us in other countries where there are markets, demands and effervescence and companies starting up and meeting the needs of a population which has growing purchasing power and demands. Many Southeast Asians are returning home because they sense the opportunity to make a difference with their skills and experiences. There is excitement, and also some passion to it. But even if you are not Southeast Asian, I hope you will consider Singapore as your next destination. There are many like you who are already here, building great teams and doing fabulous things. If you are seeking a new challenge, come take a look at us and join us in Singapore. Thank you.
Karen Tay (Moderator): Prime Minister, thank you for joining us. I would like to ask you on a more personal level, I noticed that you are very involved in pushing the technology agenda for the government, as well as for the broader Singapore. What makes this such an area of passion for you, PM?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: Well, first of all, I did tech at university. I did mathematics and computer science a very long time ago, it was before the Internet. It was at the time when people talk vaguely about something called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which was on the other side of the Atlantic in the US, but it gave me a sense of the challenge, excitement, and the potential of IT. I have not kept current as an engineer, but I have kept an interest in it over the years. I have watched how it has transformed beyond recognition in one lifetime and is continuing to transform very rapidly every year. It is an enormous advantage for a society which is able to take full advantage of this to maximise its capabilities, and to be competitive in the new world.
In Singapore particularly, it is an area where we have a natural strength if we put our minds to it because we are small, we have the technical infrastructure, we have the education, our people can absorb this. If we can get it in to our systems, not just individual apps and programs, but get it fully into our government, into the private sector, and into the way we operate and live, then it can be an enduring advantage for Singapore. That is why I have been pushing it quite hard over these last few years, building up within the government, but also encouraging it nationally, with the Smart Nation initiative.
Moderator: There has been more scepticism about smart cities globally and I recently came across an article in The Economist on how the UK government’s digital services was criticised on their bureaucratic resistance and the lack of tech talent in the senior levels, as well as the cohesive strategy. You have mentioned several times that we are not moving fast enough to your vision that you laid in 2014. Are we facing similar challenges as the UK?
PM Lee: We have some of the similar challenges, I read The Economist’s article too, it rang a bell, it is a challenge when you are trying to move a whole society and the whole very big government organisation with many legacy systems and many settled ways of doing things, and to transform that and to do it differently. It is very challenging. You need the determination, you need the engineering capabilities, and you need the talent in order to make it work. In the case of Singapore, in the civil service and in the public sector, the senior management is fully sold that this is an essential thing to do – that we must make full use of tech, that we have to reinvent, and it is not just making use of tech, but also changing the way we do things, so as to be able to capitalise on the new efficiencies, shortcuts and ways of operating which we were totally unable to do before. The will is there but talent is an issue, and the fact that you have a lot of legacy systems which are settled, built over many years and are very complicated – when you are keeping a live operation going, and then trying to change the parts and update it without dropping the ball, is not easy to do at all. Watching it happen, you feel a sense of impatience and may ask why this was not done yesterday. I can understand the intellectual reason why, but I still wish we could go faster.
If you just have the engineers but the government is still operating in a non-digitalised way, the engineers will get frustrated. They will not be able to make full use of what technology is now capable of, unless the government changes its way of working. We are trying to do this and re-engineer our processes, so that you can make full use of IT. At the front-end, which the user sees – the app or interface, it is just the surface of it. Behind that front-end to make the back-end work seamlessly and all the different pieces truly to be integrated together, rather than just a front-end and behind that you have got somebody shuffling Excel spreadsheets. That takes a lot of work and that is what we are struggling to do and making progress gradually.
Moderator: Yes, so it is definitely as much as the human organisational problem as it is a tech problem.
PM Lee: It is a tech problem too. Well, outside the government too. I mean we have been trying to push digitalisation – to do things online, shop online, use cashless transactions – it moves, but not so quickly. With COVID-19, it has moved faster. That is the one good thing which has come out of this enormous pandemic. People have found that they are able to make use of tech and it is not so hard to learn, even the old people have learnt to use tech, either to watch YouTube videos, to communicate with their grandchildren, or to order food. Once you have done it, you will keep on doing it I am sure, even after COVID-19 is gone. It is a social process. That means we have to look at the human part of it, and if you are talking about inclusivity, that especially is another human aspect because you want to carry everybody along and you do not want some segments of the society to feel that they are not up to speed and they have not been cut out of this. We are making a big effort on that.
Moderator: That is the unique role that the government can play in making sure that tech develops inclusively, as a society.
PM Lee: Yes, we pay a lot of attention to that. We have got tech ambassadors who go out and teach hawkers how to use apps, teach seniors how to log on to their SingPass mobile and teach people to be comfortable with it – that you do not have to code, but to use the thing and not to be afraid of it.
Moderator: PM, I would like to switch gears a little because we are talking to a global talent community. I want to jump in to our talent strategy. You know with more economies turning inwards, especially in the US, for example with the US-China bifurcation in technology, I noticed that talent has been thinking harder about where they should settle and build their careers. You mentioned that Singapore is open, we have the new Tech.Pass, but maybe I want to talk about value proposition.
There are three things generally that talent look for in finding a job. The first is the breadth of opportunities in the ecosystem. Second is on liveability. In Singapore we do quite well with that, but now with the shift to remote work, we generally see a trend away from high cost cities. The final one is the culture of the city as well as the company they work in.
On that front, people have said that Singapore is very different from some of the major tech hubs. For example, our socio-political culture, our approach to LGBTQ for example, or our workplace culture, the hierarchical management culture. PM, what would you say is Singapore's total package value proposition to the tech talents here with us today?
PM Lee: Opportunities are growing. If you are looking for hairy-scary challenges, working on the government systems, and trying to bring them up to speed and into the next generation, these are amongst the most difficult things you can imagine doing, because it is not just engineering, but it is also organisational, and also social. If you are looking at the tech side of it, the range is growing because the tech companies are in Singapore and they are doing engineering work and increasingly so. The constraint is really a chicken-and-egg problem. If there is more talent, then they will be able to do more of this engineering work. But they are looking to do it in Singapore and are looking for the talent to come to do it in Singapore. If you want to be in charge of hyperscale systems, systems like the FAANGs have, servers with hundreds of thousands of machines, managing the whole network or a global database.
For now, if it is not going to be headquartered out of Singapore, but one day, as Southeast Asia grows and as the infrastructure in the region develops, there will be a need, and some of it can be done in our part of the world, which is what has happened in other engineering companies. If you look at energy companies, for example, quite often they have some of their functions out of Singapore, and these are global functions – and tech can over time, develop in that direction. On work culture, it depends on the organisation. It may not be so easy to change the culture in existing organisations. They try hard. Sometimes they set up a surgeon outfit within the organisation and that operates as a kind of skunkworks. GovTech does that. Within GovTech, they have the Hive and they have their own Open Government Products (OGP). Another skunkworks within skunkworks.
You can do these things and develop different cultures in a piece of the organisation. But you also want to develop new organisations with fresh cultures, and be a new generation, as we have done 10 to 20 years ago, and they have become established and will transform themselves. Meanwhile, new ones will grow. Those sorts of things we will do and we will have some success. We are already beginning to see some results. On other cultural aspects, you used to have people saying that Singapore is a cultural desert, now if you come to Singapore, it is actually quite a vibrant place to be. Whether you are looking for entertainment, edification, culture, arts, music, dance, theatre – it is a lively scene.
One other question which you picked up on LGBTQ, well here in Singapore, our social norms are not the same as San Francisco which is extremely liberal. But even in America, if you go to Chicago, it is not quite like San Francisco, or if you go to North Carolina, in Durham, I do not think it will be like San Francisco either. There is a range. But we have LGBTQ people in Singapore, they live their lives and are valued members of society. We welcome them and we greatly appreciate their contributions and there is no reason why if you are a member of this community, you should not fit in in Singapore.
We are in Southeast Asia. It is a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Issues like homosexuality will be sensitive for a long time. Attitudes are not fixed in stone. Social attitudes change – if you look at our young people, their attitudes are more liberal than older ones, and in fact, more liberal than the attitudes of the young people five to ten years ago. These things shift, but we have to give them time to shift and it would be unwise to force it, because there will be a pushback and we will end up with polarisation and be in a worse place than we are. I know that we are welcoming people to come, and please come. The careers are there, and you can ask your friends. You can live a very satisfied and happy life in Singapore.
Moderator: I am going to jump straight into some of the additional questions that people have been posting on the channel now. You mentioned that Singapore is open with the Tech.Pass, but at the same time you are not really immune to some of the underlying polarisation which brought about this protectionism, such as concerns about opportunities for locals and students. What is that trajectory of Singapore’s openness for global talent and how will you address the political pressures that work against Singapore staying open?
PM Lee: The key thing is that we must be able to show that staying open is beneficial to Singaporeans. It has been so for many years. This is because we welcome in multinationals, and they brought in their management – sometimes a few Americans, and sometimes a whole cohort of Japanese management because the Japanese operate differently. But we welcome them and therefore they created many jobs for Singaporeans within the company and Singaporeans accepted that.
Now in a downturn, Singaporeans are more anxious about that, and we have to explain and show that by allowing this diversity – by welcoming these people from all over the world, who bring with them cultures and experiences, and know-how, which we do not have – we are able to create jobs for Singaporeans and make Singapore a more vibrant and more prosperous place. We can do that. We have to watch the mix, because if you have a lot of concentration, you have a problem. It is not easy because you may think that we are in Singapore – Chinese, Indians, Malays – and so if you have Chinese and Indians from outside the country who come in to Singapore, there will not be a problem.
But actually it is not so simple, because Singaporean Chinese, Indians and Malays have become Singaporean and have shared certain values, expectations, made accommodations and know how to get along with one another. When you come in from abroad, you may be the same ethnic group, but it is not quite the same culture. There can be clashing of views, and we have to be able to manage that. But it is so everywhere. If you go to London, you get a push back. In America, it is a very big issue, and it is one of the reasons why Donald Trump has had such strong support.
Moderator: A question from our audience from Singapore. The rapid digitalisation of work and life has had a tremendous amount of value and opportunity, but also a dark side in the form of increased cybersecurity risks. What is Singapore's national cybersecurity strategy to cope with the increased risk, particularly for the private sector because there is a perception that they may not take it as seriously as the government given the minor consequences.
PM Lee: We take it very seriously in the government. I mean we have watched it for some time but what caused us to trigger, was one occasion when Anonymous tried to do a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack on us on a big scale. I cannot remember now, it was about four to six years ago. That was when we decided that we had to take this very seriously, and we needed to get the private sector to take it very seriously. We set up the Cyber Security Agency (CSA). We identified critical national IT systems, which needed to be properly protected, not just the government systems but also systems in the private sector, finance, banking, infrastructure systems, utilities, health care, and we established standards and channels to track what the entities within those organisations were doing, and to set standards and make sure that they met those standards.
Banks for example, used to have standards, but sometimes when they outsource the job to service providers, their service providers are not up to scratch. For example, one bank outsourced the printing of statements to a service provider and his computer got hacked, and those statements got leaked which is a problem. We have put standards in place and we are still working at it, but we are taking it very seriously. Within the government, definitely we have done major steps. We have had intrusions from time to time, we have had to tighten up. We have imposed Internet separation and have deprived tens of thousands of civil servants of the convenience of accessing the Internet from their working desktop, or at least browsing the web on their on their working desktop or laptop. It was a nuisance, but it was necessary. Now we found a way to do safe browsing, so we will roll that out for more civil servants, but there are technical solutions to go ahead.
None of them are permanent and foolproof, but we have to keep on doing it, and we have to educate our people, our officers, the public, not to be taken in and most of the weaknesses are just human weakness. You get phished. It happens to all of us, in one moment of weakness. You have all the visual cues and social cues and then you look at the document, and you fail to notice there is an extension that says Visual Basic Script (VBScript), and you click on it, and you are sunked. There is a whole dark team, some of them are very well-resourced, determined and knowledgeable, and we have to take it that this is an unending struggle, but it cannot stop us from using tech.
Moderator: PM, how can Singapore establish homegrown technology to be giants in overseas markets?
PM Lee: We create the conditions, we train the people, we enable companies to start-up, prosper and compete, and we hope that the talent will develop – our own, or somebody else coming to Singapore – and one day will either grow a unicorn or strike a homerun. We have about one or two unicorns, but you cannot set out to breed them. You can only make the pre-conditions and talented people may sometimes make it happen. Short of a FAANG-sized company, we have a fair number of companies which have done quite well and have been bought up along the way. There is talent, and we just have to keep on doing it. My objective is not to develop one big company and declare success. My objective is to have a vibrant industry, to have many opportunities, to have people doing good work in Singapore for our own companies as well as for multinational companies. That creates not just jobs for Singaporeans, but also a certain buzz which puts us on the map and connects us to other centres where there is buzz and excitement in the world. We can offer that quality of life, those horizons, those possibilities which you would not have if you were out of the loop.
Moderator: In this sense, Singapore has quite an interesting place in the midst of the geopolitical decoupling between the US and China. A question from our audience in San Francisco – geopolitical competition in the US and China has spilled over to technological competition in areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Fifth Generation Technology (5G), semi-conductors, and both sides seem to be disentangling from the supply chain and technology stack. However, Singapore seems to continue to attract people and companies like Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance, Google, Amazon, Facebook, all in Singapore. What are some of your personal thoughts on this? Will you be forced to choose a side for tech talent, deciding between China and the US?
PM Lee: It will depend on how the China-US relationship goes with the next President Biden. We will have to see how he manages that relationship. The contradictions between the US and China are deep seated once, not caused by the Trump administration, but during the last four years, steps have been taken which have ratcheted up the contradictions and which will be not so easy to dial down. While the tensions exist, we try our best to keep our links to both sides as open and to do business with both sides, with Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance on one side, and FAANGs on the other side. I think for now it is possible.
Whether, going ahead, it is still possible, that depends on how badly or how well the US-China relationship goes. It possible to de-escalate, or at least to manage the tensions. that if I do not fully trust you, and you do not fully trust me, but we do have to get along together and we do have to do business together, because we both live in the same world, and we both face the same global warming and the same healthcare, COVID-19 type of challenges. Then, there is a path forward for Singapore and other countries. But if the tensions continue to escalate, then it is a very serious matter.
Henry Kissinger talking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum just this morning says that it worries him that it may have an unintended escalation – about two big powers for the first time, the US confronting another country the same size as it, and you may end up in a confrontation like the First World War. Those are very grave words, but it is true that it is the first time the US is meeting such an opponent. The Chinese on their side know that it is a major challenge to deal with the US relationship. I hope that sober realisation will help both sides to come to a reasonable landing point or workable relationship.
Moderator: There is that perception that in the past, it is a good thing to work for many different companies with different backgrounds. But now, maybe if you walk through one door, other doors will close behind you, and there is that sense at the very micro level among talent, where should I choose? Where should I live?
PM Lee: Indeed, and it will be a loss for them and it will be a loss for all of us as well because it needs means, less cross-fertilisation, less sharing of ideas, and less progress.
Moderator: The next few questions are on health care and green and climate tech. What are we doing to use the national health records to improve health care?
PM Lee: We are working at it, we have not got there yet. We were going to have a national medical record system, we are developing it, but we have not implemented it because we decided to pause and review to make sure that the privacy and security issues have been adequately tackled. But we do want to move forward. It is not straightforward, if you talk to the FAANGs for example, they will tell you to pull all these patient data together and be able to find out many things about them. Unfortunately, you cannot just do that because it belongs to different people, the patients may or may not consent and you do not just have to work around that, but you have to grapple with that. But we do want to do it, and we have a good chance of doing in Singapore because we are a small enough system. With one level of government, you can pull the different hospitals and institutions together and make it work. But it is going to be a very interesting engineering challenge to make it work.
Moderator: Many from our audience would like to ask about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that you signed last week. How will this affect the tech scene in Singapore? How will our IP protection be enforced? What is the opportunity for market access for start-ups, given that Singapore is actually such a small market?
PM Lee: The RCEP is a major step forward for economic cooperation in Asia. It brings together all the 10 ASEAN countries, plus three countries in Northeast Asia, which is China, South Korea and Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand. 15 countries all together, and it enables these countries to reduce their trade barriers, reduce their tariffs, to improve the rules on investments, improve the rules on services, and for companies set up in one place to do business more freely in the other places. You have to look at the detailed rules to figure out exactly what intellectual property protections you have and what the protections for investments will be, but basically it is a significant improvement on what already pertains.
In the case of Singapore, we used to have agreements with each one of them, we already have agreements with all of each one of these other countries, but what we did not have was a system which covered all of them, so that you could accumulate the activities you do in all of the different countries, and therefore on that basis, get the benefits of the agreement. That is a plus, not just for the IT companies, but also for manufacturing and for services, and also for other aspects of the whole range of trade as well.
If you are looking for a place to go in Asia, to set up and hope to do business in more than one country in Asia, Singapore is not a bad place to be because we are connected to everybody else. You can travel there and you can link there. Certainly you can ping them very quickly because Internet connections are good, and you can also actually connect because our relationships with them are amicable, and they welcome Singaporeans to go and work and do business there, whether it is Australia, Japan, China, Malaysia or Indonesia, you can do it out of Singapore and people from all these places can come to Singapore and set up a team, and be comfortable. This is not so easy to do in a less cosmopolitan and more homogenous society.
Moderator: PM, I would like to invite you to make closing remarks. What would you like to tell our audience tuning in today and those that will watch your livestream later?
PM Lee: Thank you for spending time with us and for listening to us. We have a story to tell in Singapore, but we have work to do in Singapore. We are trying to build a society which is different, where opportunities abound, where we make full use of tech, and yet the human spirit will flourish. That requires the energies of Singaporeans and talents of Singaporeans, but also we welcome talent from around the world to come and join us and help us to build this society, and help us to make this a vibrant red dot.
One which will be able to do business with, and be friends with many other cities, many other countries in the world, and make a contribution to humanity in a modest way. I hope that you will take me seriously. Come and take a look at what we are doing. Think about it, give it a try and I think you will conclude that what we are doing is worth doing, and I hope that you will also decide that you would like to be part of this. So, welcome to Singapore. Thank you.
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