COS Debate 2019 (Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Committee of Supply Debate 2019
(28 Feb 2019)
Speech By Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge Of The Smart Nation Initiative Committee Of Supply 2019
Section 1: Why Smart Nation
Chairman, on behalf of the prime geek in Government, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, we have made significant strides in our use of the latest digital technologies. First, to generate new jobs; second, to re-skill our workers for these new jobs; third, to restructure our economy in order to sharpen our competitiveness; fourth, to improve the quality of life on a daily basis; and, of course, to enhance the integrated delivery of government services on a citizen-centric level.
I thank Mr Cedric Foo, Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Darryl David and Mr Teo Ser Luck who have quite rightly emphasised that what matters is not technology for its own sake, but people – what we do with the technology and how it benefits us in our daily lives.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I display an infographic to show our Smart Nation projects and milestones, and also request that the Clerk distribute the printout?
Section 2: Benefits to citizens and businesses
First, we have focussed on increasing convenience in our daily lives.
- The MyInfo project allows you to open a bank account or apply for credit cards online, and get approval almost instantly, through carefully secured shared data.
- SingPass Mobile is an app that allows citizens to log in to Government services using biometric authentication instead of passwords. I’m glad to report that 200,000 people have used the system since we launched it 4 months ago.
- PayNow has seen 2.3 million registrations. In fact, a lesser known fact, is that those of you who have linked your NRIC numbers to PayNow can receive your SG Bonus, can receive your Edusave awards – and, even more pertinent politically – can even receive your CPF lump sum quickly, almost instantly, instead of waiting for cheques to arrive in the mail.
- The Moments of Life app helps parents to manage their child’s early years. So far, 2,000 births have been electronically registered through a single auto-filled form. I forgot to check whether Ms Tin Pei Ling used the app. Not yet? Well, next one. This is part of our Service Journey approach that Minister Chan Chun Sing described just now. After my appeal and Josephine’s appeal, we hope [Ms Tin] will have another baby.
Together, we believe that these improvements will allow all of us to save time, reduce transaction costs and increase efficiency.
Second, Smart Nation has also tried to facilitate a safer living environment.
- We are trialling a new Personal Alert Button for the elderly to call for help, especially after a fall when they may be immobilised. This was brought home to me even more starkly, recently, when Minister Khaw described – when he had his fall and he fractured his arm – the intense agony that immobilised him, as you would have seen in his Facebook post yesterday. This is not unique to him. Many elderly people have faced emergencies at home, alone, immobilised, and they need to call for help. So this is one example where we’re trying to make a difference at a direct personal level.
- Another example, drowning detection systems, have helped our lifeguards keep community swimming pools safer.
- NEA has installed 50,000 Smart Gravitraps, to help monitor and to help destroy breeding sites of dengue-spreading Aedes mosquitoes.
- The MyResponder app has helped save the lives of at least 13 heart attack victims so far.
But more important than the apps and the technology is the fact that this is an example where technology has enabled us to express our mutual care for one another.
Third, our initiatives have helped made it easier to do business.
- We are continuing to provide more choice and better interoperability in e-payments. Last year, SNDGG, MAS and IMDA together launched the common SGQR standard, and NETS has rolled out 50,000 Unified Point-of-Sales terminals across the country. These initiatives have helped merchants to offer greater convenience for consumers and reduced cash usage. In Smart Nation we must always be data-driven, so I asked and I’ve been informed that e-payment values have increased to more than three times that of ATM cash withdrawals. So we’re moving in the right direction.
- NETS was also appointed to unify the e-payments landscape at hawker centres and coffee shops, and this will allow the consolidation of different e-payment methods and more importantly, faster settlement for hawkers, so they receive their money the next day.
- More than 80,000 businesses have registered for PayNow Corporate since its launch last August. Like individuals, businesses can now send and receive payments instantly. The PayNow initiative has contributed to cheque usage falling to 20% of inter-bank transfer volumes. Again, making progress in the right direction.
- MyInfo Business allows up to 220,000 SMEs to open bank accounts and apply for loans easily and quickly.
- IRAS has piloted direct submission of GST returns from businesses’ accounting software, enabled by our National Digital Identity APIs, and will look to extend this to all GST-registered businesses.
- The Networked Trade Platform has reduced application time for trade permits. It used to take several days; now it takes one hour.
This reduces the burden of administrative processes, and enables our entrepreneurs to focus on growing their business instead of navigating red tape.
More benefits to come
Mr Teo Ser Luck and Mr Vikram Nair asked about our upcoming initiatives. We will continue to make our digital services more accessible, more integrated.
- We will enhance SingPass Mobile so that it can be used for secure logins to selected private sector applications as well. Security will, of course, remain our central pre-occupation. SMS Janil will address Ms Sylvia Lim’s questions on security, because without security at the core of our Smart Nation, many of these initiatives will be at risk.
- We will expand the slew of services under Moments of Life to help citizens deal with all the significant turning points in their lives: birth, school, marriage, even including end-of-life matters. And we will empower seniors to lead more active lives. MOH will share more of this in their session.
We will continue to enhance convenience in daily life.
- Parking.SG is already used by over 60% of car owners, and we want to make it even easier not just to pay for parking, but to find that parking lot. This year, GovTech, URA and MSO will be trialling the installation of smart sensors so that we can provide real-time availability of kerbside parking lots to people who are looking for a lot.
- HDB is looking to create smarter towns so that we can optimise land, infrastructure and utilities, and allow people to engage and form communities using these digital tools. This will make our heartlands more liveable, more efficient, more sustainable and safe.
Businesses can look forward to more digital tools to increase connectivity both within Singapore and beyond our borders.
- IMDA’s new national e-invoicing standard will speed up corporate invoicing and payments. And those of you in business will know that velocity of cash flow is crucial in business.
- We are streamlining government transactions. The Minister for Finance mentioned a pilot portal to help up to 18,000 food-service companies cut red tape in their licence applications. Anyone who has tried to open a restaurant would know that it takes many applications. We’re trying to streamline all this, and in the process, remove duplicate applications, reduce red tape and give approvals faster. And we hope to expand this effort to other industries in future.
- Our goal is to integrate all these services to help firms unlock new ways of connecting with consumers and other businesses, and transacting with government.
Every ministry is involved in Smart Nation
SNDGG is not doing this on our own. We are not a ministry but we view ourselves as a shared platform for the whole of Government. The Digital Government Blueprint calls for Government to be digital to the core by 2023. Many agencies have therefore implemented or are in the process of implementing new digital initiatives in order for us to achieve this.
- Let me give you another example. MOH launched Healthy 365, which has kept 1.7 million users active over the past 4 years. Many people have told me that they enjoy the National Steps Challenge. I’m especially intrigued to see so many non-techie people wearing activity trackers. And it’s not just because HPB is giving them away free. But that combination of community and activity, and of course the usual Singapore pursuit of HealthPoints and discounts, helps. The point is that we have used technology to make a difference and to improve health on a daily basis.
- MCCY recently launched a central volunteer management system to deepen volunteer engagement and recruitment. 6 public agencies now use volunteer.sg to manage over 20,000 active volunteers. MCCY will share more during their session.
Smart Nation will continue to evolve
I have described a whole slew of existing and upcoming benefits to citizens from Smart Nation. But I also agree with Ms Tin Pei Ling that we must continue our citizen-centric focus in delivering services in an integrated way.
Now, in the coming years, with the data generated from our expanding digital infrastructure, we can expect services to become more personalised, more tailor-made to the individual needs of citizens, and to be more responsive. When people shop online, and when people engage online, especially with the private sector, expectations are raised, and they expect Government to also be able to respond in such a personalised, responsive manner. One way which we’re going to do this is to make better use of artificial intelligence, which we believe will greatly improve our lives and our economy.
Section 3: Our national push for AI
AI in Singapore today
Let me spend some time, then, to share with you what we are doing in this AI space. AI, artificial intelligence, and in particular deep machine learning, has revolutionised the scene in recent years, and AI has already begun to make an impact in our daily lives. You just stop to think about it: the voice assistants in your handphone, the language translations, the GPS optimisation, the credit card fraud alerts – all these have benefitted from advances in AI just within the last two years.
I mentioned just now that Government has also been using AI for drowning detection in our swimming pools. We’ve also used it for SkillsFuture fraud detection, and for local speech recognition. In fact, AI speech recognition is being used to augment the transcription of COS speeches this year, so it should make it more accurate. And even if you point out mistakes, you will help us improve the system.
Mr Cedric Foo asked how Smart Nation will keep us relevant. AI, data analytics, robotics and automation are crucial ingredients for us to restructure our economy.
- We need to achieve a quantum leap in productivity by creating new engines of growth.
- The Government needs to upgrade our technology stack so that we can be more responsive to citizens’ needs and to the demands of an increasingly competitive marketplace.
We believe that Singapore has a good foundation for AI, through a multiagency effort led by SNDGG, MCI and all our economic agencies.
- The National Research Foundation has set up AI Singapore to bring all relevant research institutions and AI start-ups together.
- GovTech will set up a centre of excellence in data science and AI to help other agencies deploy these AI solutions and technologies.
- And finally, MCI is developing guidelines to encourage responsible and safe use of AI, such as the Model AI Governance Framework, which Minister Iswaran announced recently.
AI strategy and benefits
We need to double down on these efforts. This year, an inter-agency taskforce will study how Singapore will develop AI as a strategic capability and become a trusted global hub for test-bedding, for deploying, and scaling up AI solutions, especially in the context of a highly urbanised city like ours.
For citizens, this means new and better services, whether from the Government or private sector. The possibilities are promising: McKinsey has identified 160 use cases where AI can be used for social good.
- For example, AI can “recommend content to students based on past successes and engagement with the material” and “detect student distress early”. Basically, what it means is that we talk about streams and subject banding – all that is still relevant. But to be able to customise that educational journey for that individual, sometimes maybe even to gamify, will provide a more helpful educational experience for our students.
- We also foresee AI optimising urban scenarios, for instance, to optimise our traffic light networks and to predictively maintain public infrastructure. In other words, to make sure things don’t break down, or to identify potential problems before they have led to a breakdown.
We foresee AI applications in finance, logistics and cybersecurity. In fact, there are already many local companies in these and other domains. So to answer Mr Teo Ser Luck, we hope to co-create with these companies the development of these new AI solutions.
- To scale up AI development, we are looking to democratise access to data and AI tools so that everyone can learn and experiment with AI solutions. We want to support SMEs to adopt artificial intelligence and to work with Government on relevant use cases.
- So we will expand Government and private sector collaboration. One example is AI Singapore’s 100 Experiments programme for companies to solve their own real-world business problems together with AI experts. And this programme will also bring AI apprentices to co-train with industry. In other words, we are linking businesses, domain experts and people who want to learn and enter this industry.
Lastly, we will build up local know-how in artificial intelligence, and we will equip everyone to benefit from AI capabilities. This means teaching computational thinking and data literacy in schools, and training adults in data science and artificial intelligence skills.
Now before that sounds too scary, I want to say that we do not expect everyone to become an AI expert. But think of artificial intelligence in the future the same way you think of word processing today. It is a general-purpose technology, and we want our workforce to be able to use AI tools to participate meaningfully in a future AI-driven economy, to secure good jobs, improve productivity, and raise wages.
Section 4: Conclusion
So let me conclude by restating the obvious: Smart Nation is ultimately about improving lives and livelihoods. We have done reasonably well so far. Singapore won the City Award at the 2018 World Smart City Awards in Barcelona, which testifies to the concrete benefits that Smart Nation brings to Singapore, and the recognition which we have from the rest of the world.
Still, we cannot be complacent, because the pace of technological change is so unrelentingly quick. The Government will continue to support our local firms in this mercurial environment through initiatives such as Scale-Up SG, the Enterprise Financing Scheme, and SMEs Go Digital, which you heard about from Minister Heng in the Budget speech. And I share Ms Rahayu Mahzam’s concerns on digital readiness and inclusion. SMS Janil will elaborate on the special inclusion initiatives that we will embark on to make sure that no citizen is left behind.
But all these challenges and all these disruptions also bring many opportunities for Singapore – especially for a city state, with hard-working, disciplined and highly educated people. We have disproportionate opportunities in such a world. We call on citizens and businesses to journey with us, to fully exploit our comparative advantage, to take advantage of the resources and the infrastructure that we have put in place, and to co-create solutions for the future. If we do this, Mr Chairman, we can all reap the benefits of Smart Nation for years and decades to come.