Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative 2019
Speech By Minister S Iswaran at the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (Hyli) 2019
09 Jul 2019
His Excellency Ambassador Jun Yamazaki,
Mr Toshiaki Higashihara,
Excellencies, Friends, Colleagues, Students from the region and Singapore,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Digital Transformation for a Sustainable Future
A very good morning to all of you. I am delighted to join you at the start of this four-day programme, the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative. Let me at the onset, congratulate Hitachi on this initiative, which is into its 15th run. I think it is an important effort that Hitachi has taken on, the responsibility of investing in capabilities and nurturing thought leaders in the young generation. At the same time, the way Hitachi has gone about it, bringing about young student leaders from the region, has particular significance.
Many of the issues that we are facing today are cross-cutting in nature. It is no longer just country-specific. While we each seek solutions that are relevant to our context, in our own countries and societies, the reality is that we need to work together because we can learn from one another, and the best practices that we have can make a significant impact in each other’s society.
This event, which brings together young leaders to talk about digitalisation and a sustainable future, is a perfect storm. It brings together three very important aspects of the future. As young leaders, you must be thinking about the future. This is not just about the now, it is about the decades ahead, what they hold in store, and what it means to you, your families, your careers, your children and their children.
At the same time, we are talking about a sustainable future. Sustainability has more than an environmental dimension to it; It also has a social dimension, a political dimension, and a governmental dimension. At the end of the day, the major developments and changes that we see taking place around us will have a profound impact, across these dimensions, on the quality and tangible aspects of our lives. It also affects how, not just as individual nations or societies, but as a world, we are able to move forward.
That leads to the third part of this event – digitalisation. Digitalisation is perhaps one of the most profound trends across the world. These technologies, which use data, computing power, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, bring all of these technologies together, to make it ever more powerful. These are having a profound impact on industries, business models, and jobs – what we do and how we do it.
Think about the taxi industry and how it has been completely upended by the evolution of new companies like, Grab, Uber and Go-Jek. These are companies actually started off not owning any cars, but what they did own was an idea for how they can bring together vehicles and those who need to use them, and create this platform enabled by digital technologies.
We have many such examples around us, in every one of our countries, in ASEAN, in Asia, and certainly beyond. Within ASEAN we are seeing a tremendous evolution, because the ASEAN population is younger, is experiencing increasing urbanisation, and embracing digitalisation as a technological trend because of the possibilities it brings.
We have to be clear that this is a trend that is inexorable, and I think to resist it is a futile exercise. Rather, what we should be thinking about is, how do we go about adapting to this, and better yet, turning it to an advantage for us? That is the crux of it.
As you think about digitalisation, there are obviously positives and there are also some downsides and risks we need to manage. Overall, we have to recognise it as something that can better us, our lives, and create a better future, but only if we are able to use it well and use it correctly. This is true also for many of the changes that we have had to deal with as economies and societies over the past decades, and this has also become one of the most challenging, profound issues of the day. I am glad that this is the topic that you will be discussing.
So what should our strategy be when we think about digitalisation? What I want is to leave you with this broad frame that you can perhaps structure your thinking around, and then see where it takes you in terms of your own conclusions.
Harnessing Digitalisation For a Better Today
The first point is that we have to recognise that digitalisation brings many benefits and significant potential, and therefore we should be embarking on strategies to embrace it and turn it to our advantage – harness technology and change and go forward. This is true whether for countries, businesses or individuals. This is also true for governments, because governments have to recognise the implications of digitalisation, as a sea change that is completely changing the terrain that governments operate in, understand this and adapt to it.
In Singapore what we have done is to articulate this vision of a Smart Nation, with three major components to it - the digital economy, the digital society, and also a digital government that is responding well to changes in the overall Smart Nation. Digital economy is key for our industries, digital society is key for our individuals, and last but not least, digital government to enhance our public services. These three pillars add up to this one Smart Nation vision.
What is the Government doing in Singapore? I thought it is useful to give you some specific examples. The digital technologies can make a big difference in simplifying public services and making them more accessible. In Singapore, we have come up with a parking application, which means today we do not have to tear coupons or worry about coupons running out, because everything is done digitally. Very simple, eliminates a major pain point for citizens, but a lot of work behind the scenes.
A larger idea is payment solutions. When we go to retail outlets, we are faced with a whole range of different payment solutions, for example credit cards, e-wallets, or other kinds of cash devices or electronic payment devices. One of the things we have done in Singapore is to integrate these into one point-of-sale solution, which brings together all these payment solutions. On the one hand, it simplifies life for the individual, eliminating the worry about whether a solution works. We can plug in, and be able to use our solution wherever we go. On the other hand, it makes it a lot easier for businesses as well, because businesses now do not need to worry about having to turn away customers because of these payment solutions.
So these sorts of national-level solutions are needed, and they do make a big impact. From the government point of view in Singapore, there are significant efforts taking place, but we need to go beyond services. It is not just about embracing and using it as a government. We also need to bring it to the people and to the businesses. We have to be inclusive in the way we go about this, in making sure, whether as a small business or a multinational corporation, whether as an individual involved in high-tech engineering, or a senior citizen just trying to use a phone application in a meaningful way, that all of them are part of this transformation.
Bridging the Digital Divide
What we do not want is a digital divide in our societies. This is where we need to apply ourselves. If all the new solutions and initiatives we embark upon only create opportunities for those who are higher-up in terms of education and technology, but are not able to take the rest of our economy and our society with us, then we will be the poorer for it.
Let us take businesses as an example. The digital economy democratises the economy; The smallest business today, by plugging into online platforms, can now access distant markets without needing a physical presence in those markets. Businesses can link up with business partners and do many other things because they are connected online. The potential is enormous. Consider the number of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), the kind of entrepreneurial energy that can be unleased on a global scale by giving them digital capabilities.
It is a powerful concept and a powerful initiative. But we need to conceptualise and execute this well so that we can be inclusive. In Singapore, for example, we have programmes that are aimed at our SMEs in particular, not because we are ignoring the large companies – we are working with the large companies - but because SMEs in particular need solutions which they can easily adopt. We have to reduce the pain points, so that they can plug in and then take off.
Similarly, in thinking about being inclusive, we also have to think about the individuals in society. What we need from individuals is that open mind and willingness to learn and acquire new skills - that is the crux of it.
For workers, we need to think about training, because there is a lot of disquiet and uncertainty among workers of different industries about what digitalisation means for them and their job, and whether they can adapt and be able to stay relevant in the workforce.
Those are all very important questions. The response from the Government and also from employers should be that we can work with them, train them and give them the opportunities to acquire the skills that will allow them to make those transitions with us. This is an effort which involves the Government, but certainly has a major role for businesses, and for workers and the unions that represent them. Unless we come together to work the solutions through and then implement them, it will be a tough sell.
In Singapore. we have embarked on what we call the SkillsFuture movement, a lifelong learning initiative to develop the culture that we are always learning, unlearning and relearning. This is important. We are also working on specific initiatives with respect to digital capabilities and skills. The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore has a programme called TeSA (TechSkills Accelerator), and they work with companies to identify the skill sets needed, and then work with those already in the workforce to upgrade their skills and allow them to make those transitions.
But we also need to focus on the rest of society. For example, do not underestimate your grandparents’ capacity to learn and to adapt to new technologies. If we have motivation, if we have a reason to learn, we will learn and we will do it.
In Singapore, we have a Digital Readiness Blueprint, which signifies the Government’s commitment to ensure inclusivity in our digital transformation. As part of the effort, we want to reach out to the whole of society and bring them into this digital wave. Today, Singapore’s mobile phone penetration rate is about 150%, one and a half mobile phone for every Singapore citizen. What we want to do is to help our seniors and the less tech-savvy to come on board. The best part about this is the people who are involved in this with us are not just companies or tech companies, but also student volunteers, the younger generation who are digital natives, who invest their time in helping the older generation of Singaporeans migrate into this digital realm.
We can use digitalisation for Government to deliver better, more effective services. We can use digitalisation to help businesses, and be inclusive by bringing more small businesses into this, and we can also use digitalisation to help workers while bringing the rest of society together with us, so that we avoid the digital divide and we create new opportunities for all.
Demystifying Digitalisation for a Better Tomorrow
The last point I will make is about the questions and uncertainties in digital transformation. Technological change is nothing new. Every time there is a technological change, people have had unanswered questions and concerns. It is therefore incumbent on all of us - whether as a government leader, a business leader, student leader, or a community leader - to demystify technology and explain this clearly to people, so that we are able to sort out the truth from the rumours or speculation, and we are able to focus on what really matters.
Take for example Artificial Intelligence (AI). Once you say AI, people start thinking about Hollywood movies and scary apocalyptic scenarios. But really, we should be thinking about how AI can make a big difference in our lives. AI is basically algorithms and machine learning, using the kind of computing power that we have today and applying that to terabytes of data that is now available. As we learn more and the machines learn more, they are able to develop better models to deal with big data.
There are always questions about whether we using AI correctly and whether it is being used for the right purposes. That is why we must ensure that whilst we are working on all these technological solutions, we also need to work on demystifying, explaining and engaging with society in a dialogue about these technologies. We have started a few efforts in that regard.
One of them is the Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence and Data. For this, we brought together a group of experts to think not only about the implications of AI, but also how we can convey these implications to the larger community of Singaporeans so that they understand it.
It has positives as well as risks, and therefore what we embark on has to be something measured and balanced. This is also why we came up with a framework for how AI can be used in companies. So the framework acts as a guidance to help small businesses use AI solutions and understand their obligations to their customers and business partners, and how to use AI well.
This is again another example of how you can demystify and help people adopt technologies with a certain acceptability and a certain assurance, or reassurance, about what the technology means for all of us.
Digitalisation is a profound change affecting all aspects of our lives. Our response, and your response as young leaders, should be to think in terms of how you can harness this for good and be inclusive, so that we bring along the whole of society and the whole of the economy, to ensure the benefits of digitalisation are shared across.
The final thought that I will leave you with is to think of digitalisation not just as a technological phenomenon, but as an investment in a future with greater opportunities. Like any investment, it carries upsides. It also has risks. And any good investor knows that you have to manage both well if you are going to get the dividends that you seek.
Thank you very much.
Mr S Iswaran
Minister For Communications and Information