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Singapore cannot afford to slow down

To succeed, the population must invest in skills, infrastructure and research, and transform together with a renewed sense of urgency.

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Singapore will always face challenges but they should be converted into global opportunities.

MUCH of the news these days reflects a world facing uncertain and anxious times. There is an increasingly disenchanted middle class questioning the benefits of globalisation.

At the heart of this angst is a perfectly reasonable demand for good jobs. But it is important to make the right diagnosis to avoid blaming the wrong factor. The problem is not globalisation, and blaming trade and putting up walls will not help.

The fact is that there is a digital revolution going on. The advancements in computing, broadband and mobile connectivity, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing and genomics are all building on and amplifying one another. This is fundamentally changing how economic value is created, the way work is organised, the way our societies communicate, and how we live. Jobs are being disrupted, particularly middle-class, white-collar work.

At the beginning of every industrial revolution, there is often a gilded age with increased inequality. Think of the last industrial revolutions - the names Carnegie and Rockefeller come to mind. They made great fortunes from their business in steel and oil, respectively. We are now in the early days of the digital revolution. The likes of Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are the new digital oligarchs. The key political challenge is how societies like ours can harness the digital revolution, to commoditise the skills and tools, so that we can create jobs and grow a new digital middle class.

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BUILDING A SMART NATION

It is against this larger backdrop that we must set the agenda for our Smart Nation efforts - and with greater urgency. I would offer perspectives from three levels.

First, focus on humans rather than technology. Technology is only a tool, a means to an end. We should use digital tools to improve our quality of life, to make our daily life safer, more convenient and delightful. If we do it right, the technology recedes into the background. Our services must be user-friendly, convenient and accessible to everyone - young or old or disabled.

Almost 20 years ago, the visionary Dr Christopher Chia transformed our National Library system by adopting RFID technology. This has allowed library users to check out books on their own and eliminated queues. Our systems for the e-filing of taxes, gantries at our airports, and even the application and delivery of passports remain much admired globally. The game-changing equivalents today would be to use data and automation to improve our daily commute and to provide personalised integrated healthcare.

Second, we need to make a quantum leap in enterprise efficacy. The playing field for products and services is now global. Traditional industries are also being disrupted - digital companies have entered the business of transport, retail and media. We need to be creating new products and services that are competitive globally.

As a tiny and dense city state, Singapore will always face resource constraints in water, energy and waste management. But even these existential urban challenges can be converted into global opportunities. Companies like Hyflux, Keppel and Sembcorp have leveraged their local solutions to become competitive at a global scale. We thrive by anticipating the future, building local prototypes, and upscaling these to globally competitive services. Now is the time to build new champions in the digital economy. We are off to a good start unicorns like Grab, Razer, Sea (formerly Garena) and Lazada, and a vibrant startup scene and a growing Maker community. Companies such as ST Engineering, Singtel (and its subsidiary NCS) and DBS are also transforming themselves to ride the digital wave.

Third, our Smart Nation endeavours must aim to distribute these new opportunities widely in our society. If we are able to prepare our population to take on the new jobs in the digital economy, we can spread the value and benefits more widely. We cannot leave mastering technology to a select few.

This requires all of us to make adjustments, to adopt new ways of learning, working and doing things. Some of us may find it more challenging and uncomfortable than others in making the change. But the world is changing rapidly and we cannot afford to slow down. We must double down on transformation. At the same time, we need to ensure that no one is left behind.

SETTING THE RIGHT FOUNDATIONS

This is a large undertaking and there are no quick fixes. But there are several ways through which the government can set the right foundations and facilitate enhanced partnerships with the people and private sectors.

The first is to equip our people with the right skills so that we can take on new, emerging jobs. This is not just about upgrading ICT workers with the latest skills. We will need to reskill a large segment of our workforce to take on new jobs across all sectors. There is already high demand for manpower skilled in software development, digital marketing, design, user experience and data science. We will need more to pick up these skills. This explains our obsession with SkillsFuture, why we set up the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA), and why we are putting money in people's accounts to get them going for courses to upgrade their skills.

Second, we must continue to provide some of the best digital infrastructure in the world. Here, we are in a position of strength, with past achievements we can build on. We have put fibre in every home and business premise, deployed the world's fastest broadband and are improving mobile connectivity.

The government is building critical platforms such as a network of sensors that can provide data for better security and urban planning purposes, e-payments infrastructure, and a National Digital Identity that will enable the public and private sectors to provide truly presence-less, paperless, cashless and secure transactions in a few years' time. These will unlock greater convenience and new possibilities - at both personal and enterprise levels - and eventually lead to wider distribution of benefits and opportunities for all.

The government can also help by investing in research and development in areas such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science. The ability to translate scientific and technological advances in innovative ways to deliver new services will be critical for our competitiveness. Singapore has set aside S$19 billion over the next five years, of which a portion has been allocated to support the building of digital capabilities and innovative applications.

MOVING FORWARD AS SINGAPORE INC

We must then be bold enough to champion new business models and conceive innovative services leveraging our expertise, data and platforms. This is where the public and private sectors can help each other out.

In the building of key digital platforms like the sensor network, digital identity and e-payments, we aim to make it possible for the private sector to ride them, to use the data and create new products and services that the government cannot do as quickly or efficiently. We also look to the private sector for new ideas.

The government, as a large procurer of ICT services, must also be committed to buying more services and adopting innovative ideas from the private sector. This is a far better way to build capabilities in our enterprises than by giving out grants.

Every economic sector and company must also identify the opportunities for transformation and as well as reskilling. Our Industry Transformation Maps are critical, where a tripartite approach working across government, industry and our workers can help both companies and our citizens exploit these new opportunities.

We must also be prepared to take risks. Not every project will succeed as originally conceived but we must not be paralysed by fear of failure.

Our ultimate aim is for the digital revolution to generate the next golden age for Singapore. This is neither simple nor inevitable. But it is not something we are unfamiliar with as a nation. Singapore's success is built upon the radical steps our forefathers took in innovation and transformation.

We are today harvesting fruits from seeds planted by the pioneers a long time ago. What are we planting today that will be harvested a generation from now? Now is our turn to ride the next wave, to be a working model for the future. We will need to invest in skills, infrastructure and research, and work effectively across public and private sectors to transform our little red dot together - with a renewed sense of urgency.

  • The writer is Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative.