COS Debate 2017 (Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Committee of Supply Debate 2017
2 Mar 2017
Transcript of speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative
I thank the members for their vision, imagination and especially Ms Chia Yong Yong’s heartfelt plea. We are living amidst an accelerating digital revolution, and this is a revolution of much greater intensity and scale than the previous revolution that we have lived through. And there will be profound changes to the way we do business, the way we live, interact, mobilise, the way we socialise, politics and the way we interact with each other as well.
But let me start with a more serious note; it is also going to disrupt jobs. It is going to disrupt even hitherto safe middle-class white collar work and it will impact wages. It will also initially increase inequality because the people and the companies, and I might add the nations, who master the technology first - the new digital oligarchs - these people and these companies will have enormous reach because their market is the entire world. Our political challenge is to democratise these new technologies, so that it empowers all our citizens to harvest the opportunities in this brave new world and thereby to spread the fruits of this harvest more broadly.
If you think about it, this disruption is already happening all around us.
Take finance as an example, there are already Artificial Intelligence (AI) bots which trade on the stock market, and trade funds. And these AI engines can look through far more data than a human being can, they can make (hopefully) more unbiased assessments, can improve their learning algorithms over time and they can conduct trades in milliseconds. The same thing is happening in surgery, and similar things are happening in legal and accounting professions. And so the top priority for the Smart Nation [Initiative] has to be jobs, jobs, jobs.
In Singapore, protectionism and building walls is not a recipe for protecting jobs. So our only option is to ensure that our people and our businesses have the skills needed for the digital economy. You have heard DPM Teo Chee Hean just now explain that even within government, we have an urgent need for new specialists in areas such as cybersecurity, data analysis, software development, user interface/user experience designers and network engineering.
If you take the Private Sector - take Garena, which is probably one of our largest unicorns in Southeast Asia, founded and headquartered in Singapore. They run a business in digital content, e-payments and e-commerce. They are expanding rapidly throughout the region and urgently need more people with these skills.
But we don’t just need techies and coders, we need people who can apply technology to the real world to make a real difference in addressing the needs of real people. I also agree that we need to help our businesses, our enterprises and especially our SMEs, to identify and to adopt the new technologies in order to make them more competitive. And this is something which we will have to work through the Industrial Transformation Maps (ITMs) because each industry will have its own specific needs, and it is not a tech issue, it’s an application of tech challenge.
Minister Yaacob Ibrahim will share our progress on this, and how we intend to build up the talent pipeline so that our SMEs and Large Local Enterprises (LLEs) will have the talent that they so need.
The second thing is that we need to build more integrated digital platforms (I say ‘integrated’ as I have heard the call for a more integrated Government) and these platforms must provide us with the capabilities that enable innovation, that benefit citizens in a real way, and reduces business costs.
Let me go through a few examples.
One big project we are working on now is on digital identity. Digital identity – or the authentication of digital identity is actually a very difficult challenge. And yet if you think about it, it is absolutely essential if we are going to have secure transactions in the digital world. I am glad to report that one of our own home-grown companies, V-Key, has quietly been providing this very novel and interesting technology to a wide-range of companies ranging from DBS to Alibaba which works behind the scenes.
If you think about what we currently use today, we have SINGPASS; to be honest with you it is not good enough. And yet today we use SINGPASS to file our income tax – in fact so many of our government interactions depend on SINGPASS. We need to quickly upgrade this and we need to make sure that it is good enough as a secure digital identification system and I have asked the team to look at three features in the short term.
One, to include biometric elements; two, to enable encryption; and three, to have open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) so that SINGPASS is not something you only use for Government [services], but that the infrastructure behind it is available to the private sector as well.
We need to do all this in order to engender greater confidence, to reduce transaction costs, to allow information to be exchanged securely and seamlessly, to create new services and to improve consumer experiences. Now the point is we can provide these platforms, but we actually have to enable our companies to ride on these platforms to derive competitive advantage.
Another area we are working on in the next year is on E-payments, and I have heard the call that we have too many cards. We all have got too many cards and sometimes there are incompatibilities; it can be really irritating and inconvenient. Today we have got contactless credit cards, we have got mobile payments, we have got telephone/smartphone payments and I agree with you [Cheng Li Hui], there is a proliferation of mobile apps as well. But yet, a very simple thing like transferring funds from me to you securely and without cost is not so easy to do. For instance, if I wanted to transfer money to you, I would need to know your bank account number.
We are working with the industry to roll out a Central Addressing Scheme which will better enable or facilitate digital cash transfers. This works like a register that maps mobile numbers to bank account numbers, or to the unique entity number (UEN) of businesses. So you can look forward to being able to use your existing mobile or internet banking service to send funds to friends. The only thing you need to know is their phone numbers – and even if they have their accounts in different banks. I know I am standing right in front of Mr Liang [Eng Hwa] and I know DBS already has Paylah but I want this to be open to everyone.
I also agree with Ms Cheng Li Hui’s concern about the proliferation of payment modes and I agree there is scope for consolidation. But I believe we should consolidate at the infrastructural level - at the platform level and ‘back office’ level - to enable compatibility, but we don’t need consolidation at the front office or at the retail level, the customer facing side, because we want competition and we want choice for the customers. But we need interoperability so that it becomes convenient, there are lower barriers to entry and it is secure; so we need to work on this duality. We believe that having a Central Addressing Scheme is one way to get a move-on with e-payments in Singapore. We have actually been too slow in this area.
Similarly, some of you may have noticed if you go to retail points now, there is a Unified Point of Sale (UPOS) terminal. This terminal is a “bao ka liao thing”. It can read all kinds of cards and all different technologies including magnetic stripes, EMV chips and NFC chips.
We are taking a similar approach for transport and we are piloting Account-based Ticketing. Commuters can use their contactless MasterCard - and not just have to find the right EZ Link cards - for travel and if this is successful, we will bring this on board with bringing other payment providers as well. Again, to make it easier and to make it more convenient.
For Government apps, I take the point that we want platform unification. But I’m not sure we need everyone to use the mother of all apps. In fact I have told Government departments, that if someone else from the private sector comes up with a better and more effective app that makes available Government services, we should encourage that. We should not allow the Government to have a monopoly on app production to access Government services.
Another example is that we also need to get away from agency centric approaches. So there is an LTA app, an NEA app, so on and so forth. We have to look at it from a more citizen centric model and one way that MOF is looking at is to group them by milestones. When you are born, what services do you need? When you have a child or when you go to hospital, or when you work - there are moments in life and we can cluster these services and make it more citizen centric rather than agency centric.
Another thing which we are working on, in fact PM has been pushing, is this concept of Open Data. Government has lots and lots of data, including real-time data down to the location of every single [public] bus and taxi. We want to make this data available for free for everyone. Let me give you some examples of this.
If you are on Facebook and you go to Messenger, search for this chatbot called BusUncle. It is not written by the Government. It was written by someone who didn’t like the interface for bus arrival times. So this is a chatbot where you just send a message, it will tell you when the bus is coming and it does it in a very quirky, Singaporean way. Go and check that out but actually, the real interesting thing about this chatbot is the fact that beneath it, it is accessing real-time LTA data for free.
This is an example where providing Government data and having open data and allowing the private sector to ride on top of it creates a whole new level of services that we could not have imagined or could not have delivered with such style.
In fact today, public transport data is downloaded about 16 million times a day. Most of this by commuters who are checking bus arrival times on their apps. By freeing data, we believe that we will enable both businesses and citizens to innovate and to develop new products that will serve their own needs. So I think we can still allow proliferation at the front end and at the top end, but let us create common platforms and open data underneath that.
I’ll give you another example. From today, this is being launched by Grab – they are launching “GrabShuttle”. What this does is that it allows commuters to ‘crowdstart’ their new routes. You can pre-book seats on 15 selected routes, and these are identified using data from a “crowdstarting” platform developed and provided by GovTech. You can use this to enable private bus operators to use these same analytics to improve their fleet management and operations, including tracking the punctuality of drivers.
The real issue is this; private transport is point-to-point, public transport is hub-to-hub and then you have a last mile issue. If you can make it smart, public transport can be revolutionised to be point-to-point, responsive and in real-time. That is how we can get a revolution to make public transport the preferred mode of transport, and how we can get higher throughput without increasing our roads to more than the 12% of land that they already take. So this is another example where we need to push harder and faster.
Now while we do all this - making data available, allow people to ride on it, allow new programmes, have e-payments and digital identity – do not forget that cybersecurity is an absolute pre-requisite and our critical control systems need to be protected even as we make them smart. We have just heard about the recent breach in the MINDEF [I-Net] system, I hope this now emphasises the point that when we decided to have internet segregation of the public service, it was absolutely the right decision because otherwise, that breach could potentially have led to breaches of internal control and secure systems.
But I can assure you that our civil servants still continue to be able to surf the net. For instance in my Ministry, we have ensured that Wireless@SG is pervasive throughout the building. Everyone can continue to surf on their tablets, phones and on their separate computers. So civil servants are not cut off from the internet.
I think we need to bear in mind the fact that we need a renewed sense of urgency to uncover new possibilities, to work across bureaucratic boundaries, and to be willing to disrupt ourselves.
Let me give you another example from land use planning. You know this is complex, and from time to time you come up here with speeches on how we are missing gaps in covered walk-ways, and so on and so forth because different people own different pieces of land. Many agencies are involved in this. Now, I believe that the old way of coordination in a top down fashion although it can be facilitated to some extent by emails, but it is still not an optimal way of organising it.
URA developed ePlanner, a one-stop digital portal that aggregates large volumes of geospatial data and it supports planners from 25 different partner agencies who can now collectively access and analyse land-use planning information and to make decisions objectively on the basis of data, not on the basis of opinion. This has transformed land use planning within Government.
We also intend to make sure that we can serve the public better, faster and cheaper. Another example is in June last year, URA revamped URA SPACE which is an online map portal that consolidates detailed land use information including private property-related information. One example of an e-service is that it allows businesses to check the allowable and approved uses for private shophouses. In the past, you would have had to fill up a form, send it in and wait seven days for a response. Today with this portal, the answer is instantaneous – and free. Not many cities in the world can do this because it involves intense integration at the back-end.
We need more examples like this.
In the digital world, if you think about it, the short run marginal cost of serving the next customer trends towards zero. Whether you serve one or you serve a million, your marginal costs have not gone up but your unit cost goes down considerably. So we need our public agencies to systematically eliminate application forms, streamline processes and streamline information flows. That is the way we can reduce fees for routine services by working smarter.
I also totally agree with Ms Chia Yong Yong and Mr Zaqy Mohamad and Dr Teo Ho Pin (who had brought this up yesterday), on the need for digital inclusion, especially for the elderly and the disabled. We are not far away from the day, Yong Yong, where you will walk in here with an exo-skeleton perhaps, but if there is a place where we can start, it should be Singapore.
For homes, we are piloting remote home monitoring solutions in places like Yuhua, Marine Parade and Bedok. This allows for family caregivers to be able to monitor the activities, security and health of seniors, and have peace of mind. We are also promoting the use of assistive technologies. We have set up Tech Able at the Enabling Village, this is a one-stop resource centre on Assistive Technologies and devices for people with disabilities, for caregivers, therapists and for social service professionals. Tech Able has reached out to more than 3,000 people thus far.
MOE also provides dedicated funding for special education schools to procure computer facilities, courseware, and other assistive technology. We will also focus on digital inclusion in our community centres, such as through the Silver Infocomm Initiative. Even if people do not own any smartphones, or know how to use technology, [we have people] to hand-hold, train and provide assistance [and to ensure that] everyone can ride on this.
Finally let me answer this question on what sets us apart, what is our unique selling point or competitive advantage. I believe that we are approaching this from a position of strength.
We continue to offer one of the best digital infrastructures in the world. Second, our people are well educated, well trained and technology savvy. Third, we only have a single layer of government, and we have a PM who can code, a PM who certainly ‘gets it’, who is a mystery customer on many Government websites. If there is any complaint - especially a smart complaint - it is almost always the Prime Minister. The key here is that it is not just technological innovation, but policy innovation – and the spirit of internal disruption and a willingness to rewrite regulations and absorb ideas.
Another thing we want to do different is to feed our own start-ups by buying their services; and to be a test bed for novel solutions for urban solutions, especially including FinTech, transport, healthcare, home care and social services.
So to conclude, we need to urgently build skills and capabilities in our people and enterprises; we need ensure pole position with the best infrastructure in the world; we need to be prepared to fundamentally disrupt the way Government provides services; we need to forge new partnerships with the private sector, we need to make sure our start-ups especially have access to technology and opportunities; and we need to be open to the global flow of talent and ideas. Ultimately, this is not about technology but really about maximising future job options and ensuring a better quality of life and an inclusive society. Our vision is that a visitor to Singapore should come, look, experience and say, “I have seen the future, and it works!”