Address by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at SWITCH 2020

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Address by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan,

 Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative

at Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH) 2020

 11 December 2020, 5:00pm


1. Hi everyone, I'm delighted to join you for SWITCH 2020. 


2. COVID is in the news right now, in fact for the last one year, but it has not changed history. What it has done is to catalyse pre-existing trends in the tech space, which in fact were already well underway, before this happened. In other words, we are now in a new normal, a digital normal. And if you forget everything else that I am going to say, just bear in mind two words – ‘openness’ and ‘collaboration’. 

3. During this current global pandemic, all businesses have to quickly adopt digital tools - including video conferencing, instant messaging platforms, digital collaboration - and they had to do so rapidly and quickly in order to provide business continuity. If you think about it from a business point of view, as individual consumers, we were all quickly forced to turn to digital technology to meet our daily needs - from staying connected to loved ones, shopping, getting food delivered on time, and entertainment. 

4. Even after COVID-19 has passed - and this pandemic will pass - these newly formed habits, this new normal, will persist. The convenience, immediacy, and accessibility brought about by these new digital tools will become part of the baseline expectations. People everywhere will expect government and businesses to meet these expectations, in a timely, immediate, responsive and customized way. 

5 The digital revolution is transforming the world - and the world is changing at an accelerating pace. Singapore needs to transform equally rapidly, or we will face irrelevance.


6. The question then is how we will seize these opportunities in this new digital normal. I think you are familiar with the way we do things in Singapore. We are pragmatic, scientific, data driven. We are techno-centric perhaps, and more so when it comes to digitalisation. At its core it is worth remembering that is not just about technology for its own sake, but about addressing human needs in real time. And you will know also that in Singapore, we do not believe in leaving everything to the market. Neither does the government do everything and crowd out the private sector. Rather, we believe in a government that plays an active, enabling role, providing the foundation on which the private sector, and our people can innovate and co-create. 

7. Therefore, an important role for the government is to build a digital infrastructure of the future, just like we do for our physical infrastructure. Many of these are what we call ‘public goods’. And what that means that is that if you leave it to the market alone, it will be under-provided. And that's why you need an ‘activist’ government providing public goods at the highest level of performance. 

8. A very good and current example is the Singapore Financial Data Exchange, or what we call ‘SGFinDex’ for short. In fact, it was just announced by DPM Heng Swee Keat earlier this week. SGFinDex helps all of us obtain a consolidated view of our overall personal financial status. 

  1. The ability to allow everyone to retrieve your personal financial information from a multiple set of participating financial institutions, and to enable you to access your information it in an app of your choice. Actually it is not easy to do this. And I dare say we’re the first or one of the first few countries in the world that has been able to roll this out. For example, MyMoneySense, developed by the Ministry of Manpower provides Singaporeans a summary of their overall cashflow, wealth and protection needs, and also personalised insights to improve their finances. We've made the process seamless - and just as important - we've made it secure.

  2. SGFinDex is significant because those of you who are in this industry, both on the tech side and the financial side, will know that it has historically been a great challenge to enable data sharing across multiple competing private sector organizations. And the only reason we've been able to make a breakthrough here is that in Singapore, the government has been able, in a very successful partnership with the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) and the participating banks, to develop a central, shared and secure digital infrastructure that is fit for industry-wide data sharing.

  3. SGFinDex sets out common data standards and provides secure access to the APIs of all participating entities. We use SingPass to authenticate the user, and we make sure explicit user consent is sought before any data is retrieved. Improving data sharing across both the public and private sectors in this open and collaborative way allows both the government and businesses to develop new, better, and customized services, and to enhance the overall level of service to each and every citizen. In the longer term, this can help make Singapore's financial sector more competitive and innovative.

9. Another example of a critical government-led digital infrastructure is the National Digital Identity programme. 


  1. We recently launched the ‘Sign with SingPass’ service. SingPass users can use this feature to electronically sign contracts and legally binding agreements. As we collectively observe COVID-19 safe management measures, the ‘Sign with SingPass’ feature will be very useful for organisations and their customers because transactions can now be digitally completed without the need for face-to-face, physical presence. In other words, we are getting closer to our vision of being able to transact in a fully ‘cashless, paperless and presence-less’ way. 

10. Besides building digital infrastructure, the government also plays a crucial role in education and training people for the digital age. We need to transition people, even those who are currently working outside the ICT sector, to become tech producers, creators, and not just tech consumers. Indeed, it is the human capital - the minds, brains, hearts and attitudes of Singaporeans - that is our most precious resource. 

11. At the individual level, upskilling is the best, and in fact the only sustainable way to thrive in this new digital normal. 

  1. Our local universities have ramped up their training capacity for ICT courses to address this burgeoning demand. Currently they are taking about 2,800 ICT graduates. This is in fact three times more than the intake three years ago. 

  1. But even this increased pipeline is not enough to meet a strong demand in the ICT sector. And that's why we are also focusing on mid-career professionals and helping other Singaporeans to reskill and upskill in order to make mid-career switches into these new avenues and opportunities. 

  1. Beyond meeting the demand in ICT, people in every industry will need to upskill to prepare for the challenges in this new digital normal. We have to embrace lifelong learning to stay relevant, and this has to be a lifelong habit. To assist workers, the government has put in place ‘SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace’. More than 35 companies have committed to sending their workers for training within the next year and quite frankly, that number should be many times larger. 

12. Businesses require skilled tech talent. This is the differentiating factor between a city, country or nation being able to get ahead, or be left by the wayside in this digital revolution. 

  1. Besides building up a pool of skilled local talent, the government also recently announced the Tech.Pass initiative, which aims to attract skilled overseas tech talent - people who will come here, start companies, create jobs, and create opportunities for Singaporeans. 

  1. A bigger, competitive ecosystem with fast growing companies that are able to access critical talent will enable our overall tech and business sector to grow and upscale their businesses in Singapore, and in the region beyond. This will benefit every Singaporean here and abroad. 

  1. At this very moment, we are confronting a recession caused by COVID-19. I understand the economic uncertainty, the pain and anxiety, in the lives of many Singaporeans. However, during these challenging times, it is all the more important to remember that if we can all get on board this technology bandwagon, this is a positive-sum game in the long run. We can all win by upskilling, working together, being open, building trust and ‘growing the pie’. Singapore, more than any other country, because of our circumstances, cannot afford to turn inwards, build walls, and be isolated. To thrive and prosper, we need a whole-of nation effort. And that's why, the government of Singapore invites the larger community – Singaporeans, friends of Singapore, partners of Singapore, to join us and co-create the future in this new digital normal.



13. A new digital normal works only if individuals, the private sector, and the public sector work together effectively. 


14. I'll give you another example – TraceTogether, our open-sourced contact tracing app. We published the technical white papers for both BlueTrace and BlueTrace-lite protocol, and created a licensing framework for the TraceTogether token. We invited experts to take apart our devices, look at our source code, verify that there are no backdoors, and that the tools are fit for purpose and doing only what they were designed and supposed to do. This is an example of openness, collaboration, and sharing to build trust and to make the tools even more effective. 

15. Similarly, Singapore is taking a leadership role in international artificial intelligence governance. We have joined as a founding member of the Global Partnership in Artificial Intelligence (GPAI). By working together with the international community to develop practical ways to implement AI governance, we increase trust in our AI ecosystem. Lowering transaction costs and increasing the effectiveness of these new AI tools will enable our businesses to develop their AI products, expand overseas, and be globally competitive. 

16. The government is constantly seeking partners because we know that we don't have a monopoly on good ideas. By working with, and learning from, the rest of society and the world at large, we can develop better digital products in the service of our community. One example is the partnership between the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Health Promotion Board (HPB), the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), and Apple. Some of you may have heard of the LumiHealth project. And this is not just about using technology, and behavioural insights, but combining all aspects of the service in order to encourage Singaporeans to stay healthy, stay active, and stay connected. It also aims to contribute valuable insights to improving the health of people, not just in Singapore but all over the world. We hope to anchor more of such public-private partnerships going forward. 


17. Let me conclude by reiterating: we intend to keep the spirit of openness, collaboration, and partnership. I strongly encourage all of you present to look into how your ideas, your services, and the private companies that you establish, can leverage on the latest technology, using the first world digital infrastructure that we have in Singapore. Come and co-create a vibrant and positive world fit for a digital new normal. I wish you all the most fruitful discussion ahead, and good health and happiness in the years to come. Thank you very much.

Last updated on 27 Jul 2021