Smart Nation Innovations Week Gala Dinner 2019
Speech By Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister For Foreign Affairs And Minister-In-Charge Of The Smart Nation Initiative, At SNI Week Gala Dinner 2019, At The Clifford Pier
26 Jun 2019
I really want to wish all of you a very big welcome.
Now I had a great speech all prepared, on why Smart Nation, and how we needed to think big, start small and act fast. But after listening to my Prime Minister, I don’t think I can do better than what he did. So I thought I would take a step back and instead, get you all to look outside this room. And for those of you who haven’t been to Singapore, there are a few features I want to point out.
Number one: everything you see behind me was only built ten years ago. In fact, the land on which it sits was reclaimed 30 years ago. The water surrounding you used to be the sea, which means it was saltwater. Today Marina Bay is freshwater from which we drink.
Another feature is that two rivers flow into this bay. If you had come near here 30 years ago, you would have known that you were close to these rivers because you would have smelt it before you saw it. They were open sewers.
So what you witness around here is a completely transformed environment. And I wanted to join these dots to the digital revolution and what all of you might embark on tonight. This particular pier is called Clifford Pier, named after Sir Hugh Clifford, one of the Governors of early Straits Settlement Singapore. In fact, this year we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of an official from the British East India Company called Stamford Raffles. His arrival here transformed the trajectory of Singapore, basically by making it an open port. An open port – open to people; open to products; open to the world. And over 200 years, what happened then obviously was immigration – people hungry for opportunities, people from different parts of the world. 74% of us have Chinese ancestry, you will also see people from the Malay Archipelago, people from South Asia, and beyond.
So that is the first point: that 200 years ago, we became an open city, an open port, and we welcomed lean and hungry people – our ancestors.
Now the second point was that as luck would have it, it was the British who came here. Now I’m not going to make a point about colonialism, but I do emphasise this point: that the British left us institutions, and particularly important, the rule of law. And it’s the fact that even after we became independent, we were able to work within that system of the rule of law, with all the predictability and trust that that engendered. That also gave us the competitive advantage.
The third point which is worth remembering is that over the last two hundred years – in fact, it happens to also coincide with the major portion of the last industrial revolution – the steam engine, often used as the archetypical invention, replaced animal and human labour with mechanical technology.
Now, we fast forward to the current digital revolution. We’re now on the verge of replacing or amplifying or supplementing thought and cognition with machine intelligence. There are many experts here on AI and we’ve heard a lot of it today. I am not going to get into the details. Let me say again as a slightly detached but keen observer at this phase that in fact, AI is not new, it’s been around since at least 1951 due to the pioneering work of Professors John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky.
However, AI went through an ‘AI winter’. Professor Tang Xiao’ou who has been in this field long enough would agree that there was a time when AI researchers would have great difficulty getting funding. Today, it is the flavour of the month but it is worth remembering that there used to be great hype followed by disappointment. And it’s also worth reflecting on what Prof Tang said earlier about why suddenly everything has come together, especially since 2011. And it has all come together because of four laws.
Number 1 – Moore’s Law. The number of transistors on an integrated circuit have been doubling every 18 months, which means that the increase in computing power which we have today, compared to just a couple of decades ago, is probably in the order of 500 million times.
There’s another law – Metcalfe’s Law – which is that the value of the network increases as the square of the number of nodes. And in the internet era where we are all interconnected, we should not be surprised by the enormous power of the network.
Another law, I think it’s called Gilder’s Law, is that the volume of data being transmitted on networks doubles every 6 months, which is even faster than the rise of computing power.
And fourth, there’s a law called Varian’s Law. If you look at many of the new, innovative products and services which your companies have created today, they result from an almost infinite permutation of open source and very often even free software components. It is this confluence of factors that has suddenly made AI and the hype we talked about today possible. But the point that I wanted to leave with you is this: that very often in life, both at a personal level and at the national level, it is about being in the right time, right place, learning the right lessons and positioning ourselves in order to take full advantage of that. My Prime Minister has explained to you what we’re trying to do now.
I just wanted to leave you with this point that one big challenge that we’re all facing is that it will not be business as usual; and a big reason why it will not be business as usual is not because of technology but because of politics. We have got to where we are today, on the verge of a fulfilling and exciting vision, because we’ve been able to work across a global network, share ideas, create an infinite permutation of products and services from components that are shared and interoperable. But we are also standing on a world in which there is a real risk of the splinternet. And, if that was to happen, it would have profound impact on science, on technological development, indeed on business models and the way we operate, create wealth, distribute the fruits of that wealth.
So that’s one cloud on the horizon. Now as a small and open city, we do not have a say. We have skin in the game but we do not have a say. Obviously from the perspective of Singapore, we continue to believe in the rule of law, in multilateralism, in open and inclusive scientific exchange, and in fair and transparent business models. We hope that this will prevail against stormy weather.
Given these circumstances it means we have to be prepared, both for the best, in which case we want to harvest the fruits of the revolution that is unfolding before us, or be prepared for cold weather. Regardless, I think there are a few points which are paths of no regret.
Number one: like you’ve seen around us, invest in infrastructure. And in the digital world, it is the fibre optics, the spectrum, the systems; and in the case of Singapore we will spare no expense to ensure that our infrastructure remains leading edge.
Second, and perhaps even more difficult, is to upscale human capacity. And that means education, and increasingly in this age, when you know that everyone is probably going to have two or three jobs in their life, it means not only transforming pre-employment education but adult education and re-training. In Singapore we call this SkillsFuture, something which Senior Minister Tharman has championed for many years.
Third, we need particularly on the part of Government, to continue to invest in research and development. Not just research and development for its own sake, although you would recall that my Prime Minister said we allocate 1% of GDP, on part of Government, towards research and development, but really because this is one way to attract and retain the brightest human talent. Because the key is to be able to attract, nurture, and uplift and upscale human talent.
Fourth, to continue to ensure that our business ecosystem remains fair, open and inclusive, both for local companies as well as foreign companies. In fact, in a world that is facing tough strategic choices, a single place that is open to everyone and regardless of where you are from, you can feel valuable, equal and able to make a significant contribution. I think that’s still something which is easy to say, not so easy to do. But we believe Singapore represents such an open city of opportunity.
So I want to end again by thanking all of you for being here, for being part of this journey with us. But to reflect that this is a journey of not just one city, or one Smart Nation, but this is in fact a journey for all humanity and we have to hope that we make the right set of choices, that would allow us to reap a bountiful harvest and spread the fruits of that harvest in an equitable fashion to all our citizens. And to continue to make the necessary investments in infrastructure, human talent, in research and development and business ecosystems.
Thank you all, have a wonderful time here.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
Minister For Foreign Affairs,
Minister-In-Charge Of The Smart Nation Initiative