PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Smart Nation Summit Week

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 26 June 2019

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Smart Nation Summit Week Closing Dialogue on 26 June 2019.


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I think we dispense with introductions and begin.

I am very happy to join you for the Smart Nation Summit. We are doing a dialogue afterwards but first I want to spend ten minutes and tell you what is on my mind.

Many countries and cities have similar ambitions to become smart nations or smart cities. The concepts and ideas vary. For us, being a smart nation is not about flaunting glitzy technology, but it is about applying technology to solve real problems that will make a difference to people’s lives, and across the whole of society.

There are three parts to this: The digital government part, the digital economy part which has to do with the tech ecosystem and the talent, and digital readiness. Apart from the philosophy, what specific things are we doing in smart nation? I would put it to you as three pieces.

One, we are building enablers, the basic infrastructure on which to construct apps and services and to enable seamless transactions. For example, the National Digital Identity, a secure and trusted manner of authentication, or the Singapore Government Tech Stack, a common pool of resources and data to reduce time and effort building apps for the government, or our National Sensor Platform, to collate data on traffic congestion, pollution for many applications.

So the first thing we are doing is to build enablers. The second thing is to work on projects that address concrete problems. For example, in shipping and logistics, we have the Networked Trade Platform. It used to be called TradeNet. It was born 30 years ago when it was a pathbreaker, first in the world, for submitting trade documents. It has evolved since then, but it still has to do with compliance with trade documents.

And now we are integrating it with the port system, which deals with the management of physical containers and goods and cargoes, so as to generate a networked trade platform that will connect the government agencies with shipping lines and logistics firms, to better manage all aspects of the import and export of goods. Whether it is a physical movement, trade financing or the compliance, if we can put this together and make one coherent integrated system, convenient to use and efficient in its service, it will be a competitive advantage for Singapore.

Thirdly, we have experimental projects to learn quickly about novel technology, and if it does not work, to fail fast. For example, projects on autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and even the latest and hottest buzzword, blockchain. And we actually found the use for blockchain potentially. For the next generation Trade Platform, we are exploring using distributed ledger technology to exchange digital trade documentation, and hopefully reduce inefficiencies of cross-border trade, save on operating costs and lower the risk of fraud.

We have a strong base to become a smart nation because the population is technologically literate, and IT infrastructure is good, internet access is fast and affordable and we have very high usage rate. There is fibre to every home, and a mobile phone penetration rate about 150%.  It is not quite the highest in the world, but it is higher than you really need just to get by.

Also, the government takes the lead. We were one of the first governments in the world to computerise, to digitise our data, and to move services online. We have services which are efficient, convenient and popular with citizens. Whether it is applying for a passport, paying taxes, paying your parking fines, it does not take more than a moment because the QR code is provided to you. Or if you are managing your HDB housing mortgages or CPF retirement savings. It all can be done online.

But we can do much better, certainly that is true for Government services. Partly, this is because we have been early adopters, so we now have many legacy systems that have been built, upgraded, added on, patched and put together over many years, and need to be rethought and rebuilt from scratch while keeping the service running, which is extremely challenging.

At the same time, we need to keep up with new technology, to transform how we develop applications and deliver services. For example, using the cloud or centralising development, instead of each agency developing their own bespoke website or system at great expense and ending up with a substandard product. Our mystery shoppers to government services are kept busy, and once in a while I join in myself.

It is not just improving the customer experience or the software. It is also rethinking and streamlining the underlying processes to focus on our essential requirements - What do we need? What information must we have and what can we dispense with? How can we restructure ourselves, our organizations, our decision making processes to deliver the services in a customer oriented way?

That is in the public sector, but in the private sector too there are tremendous opportunities to adopt technology and to create new areas of growth. In particular, in financial services. We have made significant progress in fintech. We are regarded as one of the leading fintech hubs in the world, and our monetary authority has been running a successful Fintech Festival for last three years which now has 45,000 participants from 130 countries. I asked them whether they had the right number of zeros and they confirmed. And we have created regulatory sandboxes to try out tech innovations without imposing too many restricted rules.

We are seeing, apart from the field of fintech, more pervasive application of technology in the financial industry. Banks are beginning to use data analytics and AI to help detect fraud and suspicious transactions. And there are interesting experiments using blockchain to make cross-border payments faster and cheaper. If you are in the financial sector, you will know that cross border payments are one of the bugbears which affects all countries – it is slow, expensive, burdensome. And we need to make it more convenient and efficient. Short of the Facebook solution.

Even tech companies like Tencent, AliBaba, and Grab which are in Singapore, are increasingly involved in payments and banking. These digital insurgents add diversity to the banking industry, cater to underserved customers and new customer preferences. They also provide the impetus for existing banks to improve the quality of their own digital services.

Singapore banks are indeed responding to the competition. DBS was ranked by Euromoney as World’s Best Digital Bank last year, and OCBC and UOB have embarked on partnerships with telecoms and fintech companies on digital initiatives.

All countries are focussed on this and some have created frameworks to license new players with no banking parentage to set up digital banks, which means to set up a digital bank which has no branches or ATMs. MAS is now actively studying whether to allow this in Singapore. Hopefully we will have something to announce soon.

What are the ingredients we need to succeed in this smart nation vision? First, we need very strong engineering capabilities. There needs to be a strong, broad base, but also high peaks. We must be able to attract and recruit engineers to build teams of the calibre of the best tech companies in the world, whether Silicon Valley and elsewhere. We are making some progress because some of these top companies including some of the FANGs are beginning to have operations here. This applies not just to the private sector but also to the public sector because the public sector must be as good as private sector, if not better.

Our universities are producing more IT graduates, and the quality has been rising. People see that there are many pots of gold, and they are going for it. I think these bright young men and women as they come up, they will transform the industry and transform our ability to participate and make this a smart nation.

Of course, we will not just depend on Singaporeans. But we will also attract talents here, and also bring home the Singaporeans who are working abroad, which is quite a considerable diaspora. 

It is the right timing because the ASEAN tech scene is thriving. I think you talked about this earlier. The region is home to a fair number of unicorns and tech start-ups. The digital economy in ASEAN is projected to grow to S$240 billion by 2025.

So first, you need the engineering. Second, we need the leaders and managers to understand enough about technology, both in government and the private sector, which includes more engineers in the highest leadership positions. You need a combination, you need the managers, you need the generalists, but you also need the techies. And you need people with tech background who have become managers and retain a feel for the subject and an understanding of where it is going, without needing to know the latest ins and outs of the latest in APIs. Basically, you need a combination of geeks and aspies with non-geeks and neurotypicals.

Then we will have a feel for the tech issues and we can make sound judgments on tech development, procurement and make decisions. Then we will know what to demand from our tech teams, and when we need to disrupt establish operations with new tech, and what is real, what is snake oil, what is buzzword, and what is a promising solution. Then we can get capable tech talent to work for us, guide and empower us. And then we can guide and empower them to make a difference.

Thirdly, we need to be a society that embraces science and technology, and not fear it. The Singapore ethos of our society has to be rational, transparent, able to examine and solve any problem rationally, prepared to apply solutions which work even if they are unconventional and use new approaches.

People have to understand the risks of technology, whether it is cybersecurity, privacy or online falsehoods. But our people must not be anti-tech or anti-science because that would be hold back progress and it will be the end of us.

MCI launched a Digital Readiness Blueprint last year, to improve citizens’ access to technology and to help our people learn how to use digital technology safely. We are determined to achieve this smart nation vision. It is an essential strategy if Singapore is to remain an outstanding metropolis, abreast of the other centres of human creativity and enterprise whether in the US, Asia or Europe or anywhere in the world.

To be up with the best and outstanding place for people to live work and play and the human spirit to thrive, we have to master technology and make full use of it. There are hazards along the way and we have to be alive to the risks, while experimenting boldly and breaking new ground.

We are committing enormous public resources, but the Government cannot do this alone. So we welcome the private sector to help us to make this happen.

Thank you very much.