Smart Nation Ambassadors Emerging Stronger Conversation and Appreciation Event on 25 September 2020

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Remarks by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative at Smart Nation Ambassadors Emerging Stronger Conversation and Appreciation Event on 25 September 2020

Opening Remarks


Welcome to our first Smart Nation Ambassadors Emerging Stronger Conversation and Appreciation Event. 

2 I would like to start by saying a big thank you to more than 1600 wonderful volunteers who have joined this movement since January last year.  

3 As Smart Nation Ambassadors, you collectively bring your wide range of diverse skills, expertise and experiences to the building of our Smart Nation. Over the course of the year, I have met university students who teach coding to underprivileged youth; techie maker groups who have been passionately fixing old devices, making them “smart” again, making them available to the wider public and especially to the less privileged; and grandmothers who want to teach other seniors how to use apps like Life.SG and Singpass Mobile.

4 This is precisely why your participation at today’s Emerging Stronger Conversation is so important to all of us. We need your frank views and feedback, and I emphasise the word “frank” - so don’t hold anything back. We hope to really pick your brains and your experience on how we can do better with digital technology and to do so in an inclusive, fair and sustainable way. You understand the challenges, the gaps and the needs on the ground. We need to reimagine the Singapore that we want as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been described as the defining crisis of our generation. A crisis both exposes gaps, needs and opportunities. This therefore must be an opportunity that we do not waste. 

What we have achieved so far

5 I want to spend some time doing a stocktake of what we have done so far and in particular, to highlight your contributions as Smart Nation Ambassadors this year. All of you have helped us achieve much as a Smart Nation. We had made sure that no one is left behind, especially our seniors. From August 2019 till early this year, over 2000 student volunteers from Jurong Pioneer Junior College, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic conducted lessons on 8 digital government apps (i.e. My Smart Ahma Top Picks) in vernacular languages and dialects at the Senior Activity Centres. About 600 seniors have benefitted from this effort.    

6 Our workers too need to upskill digitally for Industry 4.0. In 2019, we ended on a high with our inaugural Smart Nation & U event at NTUC Club to raise awareness of technology for workers and their families. Many of you were there. vidDPM Heng Swee Keat and I met you, and we were heartened to see over 30,000 participants across the two days, with over 60 partners and 700 Smart Nation Ambassadors involved. The success of this event would not have been possible without your contributions in your own unique, different capacities - from providing interactive tech exhibits to the public, conducting talks and workshops or even bringing people around the event to show the highlights.   

7 Despite the onset of COVID-19, Smart Nation Ambassadors like you were still eager to help others in need. In June this year, when our migrant workers were ready to return to work, the Ministry of Manpower required them to use three apps (i.e. TraceTogether, FWMOMCares, SGWorkpass) in order for them to return to work safely.  

8 I am proud that our volunteers from Cognizant, Touch International, Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, and VMWare, helped our migrant workers to overcome the initial challenges. They developed step-by-step training guides and created training videos in five languages (i.e. English, Chinese, Tamil, Bangladeshi, Hindi) so that our migrant workers were able to learn effectively in their own languages and in their dorms. Our volunteers were also deployed to dormitories to train Migrant Worker Digital Ambassadors, to help their peers download and use these apps. Digital Clinics were also set up to train the Migrant Workers via Zoom. And within a month, 2200 Migrant Workers Digital Ambassadors across 60 dormitories were trained, reaching over 140,000 migrant workers. The point is that this was an acute need. You rose to the challenge, and you were able to do this on a scalable basis. That is truly worth celebrating. 

9 You have truly been an extraordinary league of men and women, each with different skillsets, passionate, and videcontributing to the cause in different ways! Let’s give our Smart Nation ambassadors a big round of applause. I thank you all for everything you’ve done. It has made a difference.

Honouring the Smart Nation Ambassadors star volunteers

10 I would like to highlight the contributions of a few Star Ambassadors, and pay special tribute, especially to those who have gone over and above, to motivate others along their digital journey. Star Ambassadors are individuals who have contributed to our Smart Nation efforts in various capacities – from taking the initiative to lead and coordinate our events to rallying their friends and communities to become better advocates of Smart Nation. We hope to award more Star Ambassadors in the coming years as they continue to be role models for our community. 

11 I believe some of our Star Ambassadors are here with us today. I would like to give a special shout-out to Alice, Jamberi and Saiful. 

a) Alice is the founder of Mamas on Palette that organises activities for parents and children to promote family bonding.  Being a strong tech advocate, she helped organise a Smart Nation engagement session for participants to bring other young families on board the Smart Nation effort. Some of these ideas have been implemented as part of our #SmartNationTogether live online engagement channel.  

b) Jamberi is a Mendaki Digital Guide who volunteers with six other organisations, including Smart Nation. This is on top of his work commitments and grandparenting duties. Even though he says he is not an expert about tech, he feels it is important to help others “go digital”. To do that, he took it upon himself to learn about the apps he was entrusted to teach. You would have seen him at most of our roadshows, and more recently at the Marsiling Wet market -- teaching apps, and helping others with the trial of the new SafeEntry technology.    

c) Mohd Saiful is a father of three young children and a former primary school ICT trainer. I met him at the Digital Inclusion Festival last year and he shared, in his own words, his conviction in making sure everyone, whether young or old, could learn digital skills so that they could benefit from technology. Saiful is a volunteer lead at many of our Smart Nation events. He has also participated in media interviews to inspire others to be part of our Smart Nation journey.

Please watch this video. It will give you a chance to get to know our Star Ambassadors better. I would like to credit the production of this clip to our SNAs at Singapore Polytechnic! Our SNAs are truly multi-talented and have brought a myriad of skills and talents to the Smart Nation effort. 

Growing Smart Nation Ambassadors and Building new capabilities

12 I am very glad that our Smart Nation Ambassadors see value in our initiatives. Some of you have told us that being an Ambassador keeps you mentally engaged, socially connected, and up-to-date with the latest tech trends.

13 But we really want to do more for you. We want to value add to your skills so that you can serve the public better and fulfil your purpose even more effectively. As you would have heard recently, RSVP Organisation of Senior Volunteers is collaborating with Smart Nation Digital Government Office to develop a training curriculum and portal for you. It will have relevant and exciting e-learning modules on Smart Nation and our initiatives, as well a showcase of soft skills for engagement especially in the areas of communication and active listening.  I hope this motivates you to continually learn and upgrade your skills to serve the community better, and perhaps get more of your friends and relatives to join us as ambassadors!

14 For Smart Nation Ambassadors with young children or are keen to volunteer with kids, I am excited to announce that we are working with TOUCH Community Services, Facebook and MeshMinds to produce an Augmented Reality book for children aged five to seven years old. We hope to distribute to all pre-schools and libraries for their story-telling sessions! The book will take kids on a journey to discover the possibilities of how technology can improve the way we work, live and play. More details will be revealed early next year.

Emerging Stronger Together digitally as a community 

15 While we celebrate and look forward to more as Smart Nation Ambassadors, the Emerging Stronger Conversations today gives us an opportunity to hear your experiences about digital technology and pick the best ideas. These ideas are more effective when shared. 

16 I understand that you will be having small group discussions immediately after this. In your groups, you will be asked about a few key questions:

i) What your experience has been like in relation to digital technology during COVID-19. In particular we would want to hear your personal stories and journeys. 
ii) What you think we have done well. Give us frank, relevant and actionable feedback, and tell us how we could do better; and
iii) Third, whether you have any good ideas that we could implement or mesh together into a bigger programme, and make it happen and be able to roll out in the months to come. Help us do more, do better and more effectively using digital technology.

17 As DPM Heng expressed at the SGTogether launch in June last year, the Government does not have the monopoly on good ideas. Some of the ideas we gather from you today can and should be developed further at the SGTogether Action Networks, and this is our commitment to joint action. I look forward to a fruitful discussion with you later when we regroup back here after your small group discussions. 

18 Once again, a big thank you to all of you for being part of this effort, and see all of you in a while. Thank you very much.

Closing Remarks

I want to thank all the presenters for conveying these ideas in a very short time. I just want to use this opportunity to reflect on some learning points that I have personally gained from listening to all of you. 

2 The first thing that really struck home was the presenter who reminded us that sometimes we need to disconnect, in order to maintain our digital wellness. This is actually a very important reminder that it is not about tech but about human beings, human relations, and human interaction. There’s still no substitute for face-to-face meetings and direct contact, and that is why the other idea that we perhaps need to, in the next phase, look at organising our Smart Nation Ambassadors at a regional or local level, makes sense. It also dovetails with the idea that real value is when the virtual world meets the real world. This interface ultimately reminds us of what we are trying to do; which is to make our real world a better world using digital technology and the virtual world. It’s not the other way around. We’re not trying to leave the real world to enter a purely virtual world. Of which, some parts are not necessarily edifying, pleasant or unified. So that's one key idea which I have taken away; to not forget the human dimension and the human touch. 

3 The other key point is the repeated reminders to leave nobody behind. We need to make sure we are inclusive regardless of age, language, and digital familiarity. And that's why all the efforts which you all have put in such as direct hand-holding of seniors, of people who are disabled or people who are just less familiar and even scared of technology. These efforts are absolutely critical, and I just want to thank all of you who have really put your energy and passion into making sure no one is excluded from the digital revolution. 

4 Related to this point also is that we need skills. We need training to enhance our effectiveness, to be relevant. As this is a field that is moving so rapidly, we have to stay on the cutting edge. 

5 This brings me to my third reflection. I was really struck by the presenter who said we should move from becoming a nation of tech consumers to tech producers. If I reflect on my own personal journey with computers and computing, I quickly realised I was a very lousy gamer. My main impetus for learning programming was to hack the game in order to improve my scores. And I do worry sometimes if we've all end up becoming gamers, but not capable of producing games. That's why this point about us becoming a nation of tech producers resonates very strongly with me. 

6 But it's not enough to just talk about that. The other suggestions that were put up as to how we can become a nation of tech producers is very salient. I'll give you some examples of my preliminary thoughts on this. Someone said don't keep reinventing the wheel. That is true. But the other thought which resonated with me was that, in fact, the government should be providing the wheels so that people can make their own customised individual vehicles to run on the digital highway. What does this mean? 15 years ago, we did not have a fibre network in every home. In fact, when we first proposed it, there were naysayers who said you don’t need one gigabit access to the homes. But if we had accepted what the naysayers said, and we didn't have a fibre network to the home, office, schools, or workplaces today, could you imagine the situation we would be in now during COVID-19 if we didn't have broadband access? Similarly, 15 years ago, we did not have Wireless@SG. Again, naysayers said we will lose money, no one will use it and your bandwidth is so limited. But nevertheless, the concept of providing free public WiFi in public areas is fundamentally sound. And I've heard many suggestions recently that we should be making free public WiFi more accessible, perhaps even more universally available, including even at homes or local communities. 

7 One idea I've always had, but have not been able to implement, is the old routers that we have which can be reflashed with firmware. I need to sit down with GovTech and discuss if all of us who are prepared to donate some spare bandwidth, can we reflash these old routers and provide a ground-up community-level and universally-accessible WiFi for everyone? Inclusion in the name of community participation. I can imagine various commercial interests saying no to this but I’m just putting this on the table as again another expression of how do we become contributors, sharers, makers, and tech producers. 

8 Another point to consider is how we can manage wicked problems in the future. Rather than the government coming up with all the prescriptive detailed solutions, I think we should spend our time describing the problem, sharing with talents in the community and saying, how will you come up with a solution. I described the problem, I described the outcome that I want, but I don't prescribe a solution. Give the people and corporate sector a chance. If you've got a better idea and you’ve got a solution, let’s test it, let’s pilot it, let’s implement it. Hopefully let’s find ways for you to make it viable and commercially sustainable. 

9 I'm looking to a future where we are really co-creating, reimagining, building new services all the time. And this is again where I want to emphasise another of my long-term bees in my bonnet about open source; open source code, open data sources, open platforms. Because if you leave it entirely to the commercial sector, they will always try to build walled gardens and trap you in their ecosystem. I would like to see a world where the components of software and sources of data are available. And it is the imagination, by which you mesh all these different software components and data sources in order to provide relevant personalised services to people. That’s where the imagination is exercised. That's where value is created. And that's where we will solve real world problems using the ingenuity of the entire community.

10 Hence there is a reason why I insisted on TraceTogether being open source. Many people are instinctively wary when the government say we need to monitor proximity, and that the government is tracking people. The only reason we're doing it at this time is because we have a clear and present danger from COVID-19. But it is also an opportunity to share with the people the problem, to share the solution, open source it, gain confidence and gain new ideas. In the last three months, the TraceTogether programme has evolved and continues to evolve in response to public feedback and public anxiety. Even the newly launched token device platform had to be an open platform. But this is an expression of my fundamental belief that in the future, value is derived not by keeping things scarce, not by building up walls, but by sharing through openness and by exercising our imagination. 

11 I want to thank all of you for spending your time, and being so candid with us. Rest assured, we'll take all the ideas that you’ve put down and we'll see how to implement it. Watch this space. Thank you again for your participation. Thank you for being such wonderful ambassadors. Please continue to recruit more people to this cause. This is a collective journey. It will be an exciting difficult, challenging, but I can guarantee you, you will not be bored. There's so much that we can do together. Thank you very much.

Last updated on 08 Apr 2021