IoT Asia 2017

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OPENING KEYNOTE BY DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINISTER-IN-CHARGE OF THE SMART NATION INITIATIVE AT IoT ASIA 2017, 29 MAR 2017, 9:20AM

 

 

1 Good morning everyone. 

2 It is always a challenge to follow Charles [Reed Anderson] in a forum like this but I think this is the third time I am doing so, so let me try to remain relevant - if not - as interesting as he is.

3 Ten years ago, the iPhone was launched and many people – and I don’t want to be overly technology or vendor biased – but many people would date the advent of the smartphone revolution to the introduction of the iPhone. And it is in fact, quite hard to believe that it has only been ten years.

4 Look at what has happened over the past ten years in terms of data. In 2007, the amount of internet traffic from mobile devices was measured in terms of petabytes. For those of you who are not techies, a petabyte has got 15 zeroes after the 1. Today, we talk about exabytes. An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes, so we are now talking about 18 zeroes; and the internet traffic – just between mobile devices alone – hit 7.2 exabytes per month at the end of last year. And we are not even yet considering fixed internet traffic, broadband and as Charles had just alluded to, the internet traffic that will be generated by the internet of things. This characterises the speed, scale and acceleration of the digital revolution.  

5 Last year, we discussed the impact of Google’s AlphaGo; remember this was an AI (Artificial Intelligence) program that beat one of the world’s best Go players. And in just a few months after that, Google’s engineers discovered that Google’s AI translation tool had – on its own – found a way to translate Korean to Japanese without using English as an intermediate language. In fact what was more interesting, was that this AI program came up with its own secret, proprietary intermediate language. 

6 I also talked last year about Atlas, this was a robot which I think you would have seen on YouTube being able to open doors, avoid walking through glass doors, walk on snow – even if you pushed it and it slipped it was able to regain its footing. Today, this Atlas robot can rollerblade and can jump over obstacles. If you think about the improvements in language, the improvements in game-playing, the improvements in agility just in the last one year – in fact if you think about it (the human equivalent), this exceeds the pace at which a human baby, an infant, learns to walk, to talk and to communicate. But the point is that in the digital space, this pace of learning is accelerating and so you have to come to the realisation that we are living in a revolution, and we are now living in an age when the pace of skills acquisition, the pace of capability enhancements of our robots, programs and machines exceed that of human beings. 

7 This means in that even middle-class white collar work and wages are going to be disrupted. There is no other way of sugar-coating this. Because I’m a politician, let me put a political dimension to this. There is a disruption going on. People are worried about jobs, people are worried about wages.  This is real and no politician can afford to ignore this. The political challenge, however, is the response to this. There is far too much simplistic, populist, and quite frankly plain wrong prescriptions being offered. Prescriptions such as erecting walls, erecting barriers, protectionism, insulation; I can tell you as a medical doctor, one of the most dangerous things in life is to be anesthetised. To not feel pain and to not be aware of what is happening in the environment around you. That is not the recipe to deal with the disruptive challenge - that is a recipe for disaster. 

8 So that is why in the case of Singapore, we have decided that the most important political challenge is to prepare our people for this revolution. To make sure that we will be masters of technology, be the creators of new products and services, instead of trying in a futile way to compete with machines and programs which can do regular things, and increasingly more interesting things faster, cheaper and better than human beings. In other words, the challenge is to commoditise these new technologies. To build a new middle class that has the skills, the capabilities, the abilities to harvest the fruits of these technologies and therefore and thereby, generate jobs, good jobs with good wages. So that is really at the heart of what our Smart Nation mission is about. I have said it before, I’ll repeat it again. It’s about jobs, jobs and jobs. 

9 Now let me move on and give you another couple of examples. We are focusing on jobs in real life. In the manufacturing sector, the Economic Development Board (EDB) is working hard to help our companies to adopt digitalisation and also to attract solution providers to work with our companies so that they can develop new applications, new products and new services and just as important, innovative new business models. We are also helping our SMEs to build stronger digital capabilities because if our SMEs are not equipped, are not empowered, they will find it impossible to compete in this globalised world with accelerating technology. 

10 Now many of the people in this room are probably solution providers, but again I want to echo what Charles said just now – it is not about technology. It is about what problem you are trying to solve, what solutions you offer and the value of your solutions. Follow the money, generate value, solve real problems, create real jobs, and offer novel products and services. And so it is important to not only to be aware of the latest technological trends, but to be responsive to your customers’ evolving needs, to be prepared to adopt new business models, transform your own business models, or to learn from other industries, and to have an eclectic approach to the way we do business and the way we approach life. And also to echo Charles, to keep an open mind, to keep a collaborative culture so that you can work with as many partners as possible in order to look for new insights, new products and new services. 

11 And also because Singapore is so small, almost from Day 1 - whatever product or service you offer has to be competitive and has to have the potential application at a global scale. It is not enough to simply conquer the Singapore market because we are too small. But the Singapore market can be a reference market. The fact that your product, your service was prototyped here, up-scaled here and solved a real world problem in Singapore; a city with very sophisticated and demanding people. Success in Singapore is your real calling card when you try to open doors in other countries. 

12 You would also be aware that just last week we put together under one roof, a new entity. We have called it the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), and in fact today I wanted to introduce our ‘internet czar’ for the future, Mr Ng Chee Khern. He tells me he only takes office on the 1st of May but this is the internet time, and you might as well understand that once you have been named, the job’s yours – and you have got to deliver. 

13 Now the key thing here is that even within a Government like Singapore, getting all these different strands together has been a challenge. The Ministry of Finance owned – in theory – all Government digital infrastructure. Now ownership actually is a very powerful position because it gives you a chance to specify, gives you a chance to impose standards, it gives you a chance to channel resources to relevant projects. On the other hand, we had the implementor that used to be IDA, today we call it the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and that is part of another Ministry called the Ministry for Communications and Information. Which quite naturally, was more focused on policies, technology, technical and implementation aspects. 

14 And then you have gophers like me who got involved with the Smart Nation initiative because we already felt over the past couple of years that there is a revolution going on and if we don’t also transform our own approaches to the way we define problems, to the way we look for solutions, to the way we put solutions together in new and novel ways – we will be left behind. Well, the Prime Minister got impatient and he said we need to move at internet speed. And he said we will put all these elements together under one roof under a single chain of command. 

15 Now, that is well and fine in terms of organisation but I wanted to come back to the theme that I started with; which is that the key challenge for any city, for any country facing a technological revolution, is the fact that we have to democratise the tools, commoditise the technology, and most importantly, prepare our people with the knowledge, the skills, and the ability to use these new revolutionary tools. So one priority we have is to make sure that our people have the education, have the exposure, and have mastery of these tools. 

16 One more example. Today, GovTech will sign a Memorandum of Intent (MOI) with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to provide training for 10,000 public servants in data science over the next 5 years. NUS will work with GovTech to develop the pedagogy, the syllabus, and the curriculum so that our public servants – 10,000 of us over the next 5 years – will learn how to use these tools effectively.  It is not again just about technology but it’s about making sure we are on the cutting edge, on the bleeding edge, and that we can use data science to improve the way we measure performance, the way we package new services, the way we deliver and improve Government services. Again this is just an example because in fact, we need to go far beyond data science – in fact it also needs to go far beyond the public service. Every company and every employer needs to spend the next couple of months asking yourselves whether your people – which are your most precious asset – are up to date, have the skills and have the ability to ride this digital revolution. 

17 And that is also why you will see that a significant portion of the recommendations by the Committee for the Future Economy (CFE) was focused on education, on training; it is also why we have put so much money into SkillsFuture, we have put money into every citizen’s account, we are also expanding training opportunities across the universities, the polytechnics and private sector providers so that we can rapidly and quickly get up to scratch with the latest tools and technology.

18 Now another priority area – I shared some part of this last week – was on the development of platforms and let me give you a few examples of platforms we are going to focus on in the next one year. First, we want to accelerate the development of a national IoT / sensor communication backbone, we call it the Smart Nation Platform. Now the first thing I want to say, and again if you listen to what Charles said earlier, the fact is there is still no consensus on the technology or on the standards. Now the lack of consensus or even the current fragmentation of the market is not an excuse for paralysis. So we still need to take a pathway with an open mind, avoiding technology or vendor lock in, preferably have open standards, take decisions which lead to what we call a ‘no regret pathway’. That means take decisions which, even if the technology doesn’t pan out, the platforms the approaches are still relevant, the technology can be swapped out, replaced with something better, and to move forward step by step. 

19 And the reason we are doing this, again is not for the sake of technology, but in order to improve the quality and the responsiveness of government services, to leverage on existing infrastructure, and Charles gave a very good example - cameras. It shouldn’t be that every time you need something, you need a complete replacement of existing infrastructure; but can you use the signals, the feeds, the sensors which are already present to generate new insights and new services? And if we can do this right, not only can we enhance our internet and IoT platforms, but we can derive value by sharing, by synergy and by reusing existing infrastructure in new ways. 

20 We spoke about lamp posts, in fact many cities talk about lamp posts nowadays. We are going to roll out – to take over in a sense – nationalise all lamp posts, but the key point here is that we want to use the data that is potentially generated from lamppost sensors and beacons, not only to be used by the public sector, but to make it all available to the private sector as well. So that is one area which needs a lot of work. I think even within Singapore, the near term target is to imagine having an operating system which can service a hundred million smart objects – generating data in real time and data which is useful to multiple public agencies and the private agencies.

21 The other platform that we are going to work on in the next 12 months is on a national digital identity framework. Today, in Singapore we all carry identity cards and most of us already have a SingPass, which is a digital identity authentication system. Our identity cards are essentially analogue. Actually, it is a card that you carry in your wallets. But if you think about an identity card, the real value of an identity card is not in that piece of plastic, but rather the fact that that piece of plastic, that token, represents a system of authentication behind that. In the case of identity cards, it’s really that the Government is authenticating that such a person actually exists, and it has certain parameters which are uniquely identified with him or her. 

22 Now as a pilot, we have started to make some personal information that is related to identity available through the MyInfo portal, and to make this available – for a start – to the banks. Now we have to do this carefully and we have to make sure that consent is obtained and we are starting with 4 local banks – DBS, OCBC, UOB and Standard Chartered Bank. So when you sign up for an account with any of these four banks, you log in with your SingPass and your relevant information will be transmitted to the bank in order to facilitate the opening of your account. 

23 Again, I want to emphasize that consent is necessary to the process, and protection of privacy is essential. Assuming we can solve these two major challenges of privacy and security, we can then expand this service, this convenience, more widely to other companies as well. The key point here is that it saves the hassle of filling repeated information, time and time again on multiple forms. It improves security, because the banks or businesses will be able to know their customers and be able to know that this is real, that they are dealing with a real person with real data, and it would reduce costs and enhance competitiveness.

24 So we are also looking at upgrading our SingPass. This is the income tax filing time, and so many of us depend on SingPass because the overwhelming majority of us file our income tax online. So we need to make sure that we continue to have a secure digital identification system and that the infrastructure works; works in a way which is secure and protects the privacy of individual citizens, works that our businesses and Government services will be delivered accurately, properly to each and every citizen who is entitled to it. 

25 Now we need to do all this in order to engender greater confidence, reduce transaction costs and to allow information to be exchanged securely and seamlessly. And hopefully this would lead to the creation of new services and to improve the end customer experience. And we want to enable all our companies to ride on these platforms in order to derive a competitive advantage. 

26 The third platform that we are working on is on electronic payments. One of the reasons why policies are quite well aligned in Singapore is because all the Ministers spend so much time together on coordination. We all have lunch together every week followed by hours of discussion. But because we are so obsessed with financial propriety in Singapore, that weekly lunch that we share with all the other Ministers is not paid for by taxes. We pay for it ourselves. And for many years, and I know because I used to be in-charge of collecting that money when I was the most junior Minister - basically the youngest guy gets the task of collecting the money. I used to collect cash, my successors started collecting cheques. And the Prime Minister said this is not good enough, this is not keeping up with digital technology. I think within the next one or two weeks, we will insist that all payments between Ministers be done electronically without cash and without cheques.

27 If you think about it actually, back in 1984, Singapore already had the Interbank Giro System. But from 1984 to today, I cannot stand here and tell you that we have got the best or most advanced cashless system in the world. Part of the reason, I believe, is that we are victims of our own success. Because cash and cheques work well and seamlessly in Singapore. The incentive to move cashless actually is not as urgent as it is in many other places. Nevertheless, we need to move and we are going to make a definitive move this year.

28 The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is working with the industry to roll out a Central Addressing Scheme (CAS). This basically will allow us to transfer money to each other as long as I know your phone number. I don’t need your account number, which you may not want to share with me. I don’t need to know your bank details. I just need a phone number. Because after all, all of us carry at least one – and many of you carry more than one phone – at all times. 

29 The MAS is also pushing hard to introduce a Unified Point of Sale (UPOS) terminal at all check-out counters. This is to avoid the resistance because the vendors have said look, it is just too onerous to have multiple terminals in order to deal with a variety of cards and payment systems. So by having a Unified Point of Sale terminal, one terminal will do it all and it will be able to deal with your credit cards, your debit cards, your phones, your other contactless ways of e-payments; basically make it easy, make it simple, make it cost effective. 

30 Just last week, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced a new pilot for Account-Based Ticketing. In the past, you needed to have an EZ Link card, you basically needed to have an electronic wallet in order to do ticketless travel on a railway or a bus. Since last week, you can now use your contactless MasterCard – this is called Account-Based Ticketing for travel so you don’t need to have to top-up a separate EZ link card beforehand. You will receive a bill at the end of the month either from your credit card company, or you may not even receive a bill if it is debited directly against your bank account. All this again, is another attempt to make it simple, keep it cost effective and to allow us to truly become a cashless society.


31 Now whilst we are doing all this, we need to be mindful that cybersecurity is still the biggest elephant in the room. We have all heard of the cyber-attack on Dyn last year which brought down Twitter, GitHub, Amazon, Netflix, Pinterest, Etsy, Reddit, PayPal, and many other popular sites and services. In Singapore, StarHub told us that their subscribers experienced a similar attack. Internet-connected devices of StarHub customers, such as video cameras, routers and DVR players, were taken over by hackers and used for an attack on the domain name system. So critical control systems need to be protected even as we make them smarter. We need to ensure that our digital identity framework, our e-transaction platforms are secure and robust. And we will continue to work with the industry and the experts on this. 

32 In conclusion, let me try to come back to my earlier point that there is a digital revolution going on, it is disrupting jobs and will have a major impact on wages and this is already seen. The political disquiet is reflective of a revolution. And the real choice that Governments all over the world have to make is whether you try to insulate and build walls and avoid facing up to the reality of this revolution; or to take the opposite approach, to be open, to prepare our people with the relevant skills and ability so that we ride the waves of this revolution - we surf the waves of this revolution - in this brave new world that exists beyond the horizon. 

33 And even as we do this, the key point is to accept in all humility that no one has a monopoly on wisdom. It is not a purely technological question, nor is it a purely scientific question, nor is it just an engineering solution; it needs an ‘all-of-society’, collective approach for us to truly prepare ourselves for this revolution. And the cities, the countries, the Governments and the people who get it right will have a head-start and this will be another Golden Age. If we get it right, we get to be ahead of the queue and there are enormous opportunities awaiting us. 

34 So thank you once again for your participation year after year in this conference. I am very glad to have had this privilege of being a part of this for the last three years.  

35 Thank you all very much.

 

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Last updated on 15 Sep 2021