Transcript of Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the 2nd Raffles Dialogue on Human Well-Being and Security on 4 September 2017

Back to Speeches

[Opening Salutations in Bahasa Indonesia]


    We are deeply honoured to have the sixth President of the Republic of Indonesia and his wife in Singapore. Indonesia is a very large country, very near us. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono played a critical role through the complex democratic process within Indonesia and in strengthening bilateral relations with Singapore. Pak President and Ibu Ani, you are always welcome to Singapore. Thank you for honouring us.


2     Professor Tan Eng Chye, and my good friend, Professor John Wong, thank you for inviting me for this session, and to all our guests from near and far, a warm welcome to Singapore.


3    My key point today is that human well-being and security is not really a question of technology. Actually we need more policy innovation. We are dealing with the fundamental challenges of politics, meaning - how do we make a living; how do we deal with inequality and the distribution of the fruits of the economy. If you deal with the question of the global commons; whether it is climate change, epidemics, food supply – actually, all the technology that we need has already been invented. The key challenge is policy innovation so that we can translate these tools to make a difference in our life, in real-time - today. So that’s the first observation, what we need is more policy innovation.


4     We are today at the dawn of what some people call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. If you think about the simultaneous developments in pervasive computing, in both mobile and broadband connectivity, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and new materials, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, bio-technology - in particular genomics - and the fact that we have now the tools with CRISPR-Cas9 that can edit the genomes of all life on earth. The fact that these breakthroughs in platform technologies have occurred almost simultaneously means it’s not an exaggeration to say that the world as we know it has changed fundamentally.


5    And these technologies will transform the way we live, work, play, transact, and communicate in the future. And it will inevitably have great impact on our socioeconomic landscapes, geopolitics, and demographics. Even in the fields of medicine and healthcare, it will have a huge impact on healthcare expenditures, on life expectancies, on retirements, and often - for jobs. In fact, if you go even further, the tools that we have for genetic engineering means that for the first time in probably the natural history of biological life in the world, there is a chance we can even change the very nature of life and the very nature of humanity.


6     It is not an exaggeration to say that technology has transformed our lives, our livelihoods and the way we organise our societies, whether we like it or not. So in Singapore, because we are so small and so open, we don’t have the luxury of size or natural resources, and we know that we are price-takers not price-makers; meaning we have to adapt no matter what happens in the world around us. We have adopted a couple of principles which I wanted to share with you today.


7    One, we need to ride on these new technologies, rather than to try to insulate ourselves and our people from these new waves. Two, to focus on education and up-skilling. Three, we need to give equal focus on boosting research, innovation and enterprise and especially, to link up the other vital centres in the world who are leading in research, enterprise and development.


8    So let me come to the first point, which is that we have no choice but to ride on this. If you think about the last industrial revolution, it happened in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom. For 250 years, it gave Britain, Europe and later the USA an unassailable lead; that’s why we are speaking English today, and that’s why wherever you go around the world today you will see - both in Indonesia as well as in Singapore - icons of our colonial history.


9    The point is that technology transfers great power and great opportunities to those who get it and those who get it first. In fact, even if you don’t think in terms of nations but in terms of familiar names; if you think about Carnegie and Rockefeller in the United States; Carnegie is associated with steel, and Rockefeller with oil. The point is that every time you get a new platform of revolution, you start off, in fact, with a gilded age. Meaning, the people - the entrepreneurs - who get it and get it first make outsized fortunes. In fact, you always see an increase in inequality in this gilded age and it takes time for these same new technologies to be commoditised, to be made available to a new middle-class, and then you see a golden age where the broad middle-class rises.


10    If you think about the last 70 years, the big change was after the Second World War and the G.I. bill, which basically provided education for returning war veterans in the USA; and the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, and then decolonization in Asia and the rest of the world. What these three programmes did was to commoditise the new tools, new technologies, and to give skills to a large swathe of society. And that’s why when you think about the period from 1945 to probably about the mid-1980s, it was a golden age; a golden age for capitalism, the golden age in which a new middle-class and broad swathes of society benefited through applying new technologies.


11    The challenge today is that we are in a new phase, and again, there’s now a new class of digital oligarchs. So the names today that you’d be familiar with are Gates, Brin, Page, Zuckerburg, Bezos - they are in that sense, the vanguard of a new gilded age based on digital technologies. And the point is to recognize that this is happening again, and to recognise that from a political perspective; that is why there is so much angst, because there’s great anxiety in all countries about middle-class jobs and middle-class wages. And it will take time for the skills and capabilities to be commoditised, democratised, and for a new middle-class to arise. But this has been repeated in history many times, and we have therefore to make the right diagnosis and try to recreate this phenomenon in this brave new age.


12    So that’s why in the case of Singapore, we have decided that the first priority for government has to be to double down on education and up-skilling. And when we say education - and one of my favourite grouses about university education is that universities as we know today are really based on the First Industrial Revolution. If you think about academic terms - tenure for life, and the so-called ‘academic independence’ where you just do what you want - it’s really a relic of the old past. And today when technologies, skills and capabilities are changing so quickly, the question is, are we really transferring those skills quickly and cost effectively enough to people before they enter their jobs.


13    And then the other thing that has changed, is the fact that most people today who emerge from universities and our educational institutions will not have just one career but they will probably have two or three. So what we need to do is to ensure - not just pre-employment education - but post-employment or mid-employment education, and up-skilling. And that’s why if you look at Singapore, we have been going on about SkillsFuture and transforming our economy.


14    If you go down to our schools, you’ll see that the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) are running things like Code for Fun, an enrichment programme at primary schools, not because they expect every school child to be able to code or to code in future, but at least to have the sufficient level of digital literacy to know both the capabilities and limitations of these new tools. We’ve also launched the Digital Maker Programme in schools this year. We’ve issued every child with a micro:bit development kit. This is a low-cost computing platform which allows not just computing, but sensing and - in medical terms - both ‘Afferent and Efferent loops’ meaning it can send something, do something, switch things on and off. And again, it’s an example of the commoditisation, the democratisation of new technologies, and the skills needed to deal with these new technologies.


15    Beyond school education, I’ve mentioned SkillsFuture and lifelong learning, another example is the Tech Skills Accelerator (TeSA). Again, to enable employees and especially mid-career people to upgrade their skills; not just in the ICT sector but even those beyond the ICT sector. Another example under SkillsFuture Singapore – it was reported that last year, 380,000 Singaporeans have tapped on the SkillsFuture programme. We’ve put money into every citizens’ account, which they can use to fund their skills upgrading efforts, at their own time, own target, appropriate (hopefully) for their future careers, and the numbers have been increasing over the past two years. The point here is that if we don’t do this well, then the greatest political risk is middle-class angst, and in a democracy - you have to address the middle-class demands for jobs, job stability, and for a better future for their children.


16    Having said that, we also have to ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind, whether the elderly or the disabled. That’s why we have programmes down at the community level, with the People’s Association (PA). We’ve got programmes like Seniors for Smart Nation, which basically hand-holds seniors so that they know how to handle a computer, a mouse, they know how to access government information, fill up forms, and hopefully in future, open bank accounts and conduct transactions. Hence our emphasis on education and up-skilling at the mid-career.


17    The second point is the need for government to invest in research, development and enterprise. In Singapore, we have the National Research Foundation (NRF) chaired by our Prime Minister. We announced that for the 5-year period leading up to 2020, we’ve set aside S$19 billion dollars to fund our research and development and enterprise efforts. It’s not just a question of government money; what we are really trying to do is to catalyse private sector investment in research and development. The NRF has collaborated with the NUS, NTU, SMU and A*STAR, and we’ve set up a Singapore Data Science Consortium (SDSC) to strengthen research linkages amongst our Institutes of Higher Learning, our research institutes and industry. This will help our industry, for example, to adopt data science and analytics technologies in order to address real world challenges.


18    Another example is Artificial Intelligence. Back in the 1980’s, there were great hopes, but it petered out. I think this time, it’s for real. So we have started the AI.SG initiative which is aimed at boosting Singapore’s Artificial Intelligence capabilities and focusing - in a very prosaic and practical way - in using Artificial Intelligence to address healthcare needs and urban planning issues. We will see our research institutes partner with start-ups from the private sector, as well as companies who are developing or offering AI products, to grow the knowledge, create the tools, and develop the talent to power our Artificial Intelligence efforts. Now beyond Artificial Intelligence and data analytics, we also need to have the infrastructure for high performance computing, we need invention of new learning algorithms and architectures in order to allow us to unleash the innovative ideas of our inventors.


19    But the other point is that because Singapore is small, we will never have a monopoly on ideas. But where we can play to our strengths is that we are already ahead as far as the deployment of infrastructure is concerned, and we can make Singapore a living laboratory for new ideas, prototypes, and proof-of-concept; and if it works, we will happily buy those products and services from you.


20    Another example is from the Land Transport Authority (LTA), who is developing a train network modelling system which will make use of real world data from multiple sources in order to improve the planning of operational and emergency response purposes. These will ultimately help us improve our policies and our delivery of services. So, the point here is that technology, innovation and research will have to be key elements for societies to deal with these new opportunities, and governments have to put in the necessary investments.


21    The third point I want to make is that we have to get the balance between what the government does, and what the private sector does on the other hand, and the way research institutes and universities fit into the entire ecosystem, because governments will not have a monopoly of ideas - or even necessarily have the best or innovative ideas. On the other hand, we cannot afford to have research institutions and universities being trapped behind ivory towers. And then we need the private sector, which is capable of generating new ideas, new products and new services, and actually generating a business case from it.


22    In Singapore, we view the government’s role is first to develop platforms. For instance, some of the things we are working on in the next few years are to have a National Digital Identity system, a national Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP), and a national e-payments platform. Each of these in itself is not rocket science, but developing platforms which are open means that everyone can ride on these common platforms instead of reinventing the wheel. By relying on open source, and I use ‘open source’ in the loosest sense of the word, that we gain value by sharing ideas rather than hiding behind trade secrets - because in this new digital world, real value is derived by synthesis, by mashing data and ideas, and generating new services.


23     The other point is that these open platforms, with an ‘open-source’ approach, and with open data, there is also the need to tackle the whole issue of security and privacy. Our approach is to have security by design which means you do not have security as an afterthought, or something you put in after you’ve already rolled out your platform. So you will see over the next two years, in the case say of digital identity, to have a digital identity which has both biometric and PKI (public key infrastructure) built-in.


24     Don’t worry about the technical details behind it; the key point here is; you will need a digital identity if you are ever going to get an economy where you can have transactions which are presence-less, cashless and paperless. Think about these three things, it’s not just about e-payments - but cashless, presence-less and paperless. Today you don’t mind using credit cards to buy items from e-tailers; but would you buy a house, or a car based on an online transaction? The answer is you won’t if you are not assured of the security behind it.


25     Similarly, for contracts, unless you have this system which allows for non-repudiation - and that’s why people still insist on paper and you see a signature and there’s a witness - unless you can get past that, you can’t really move your entire economic platform into the next wave. So that’s why we are pushing the movement on e-payments and digital identity because it’s not really about cashless for cashless sake, in fact that puts the cart before the horse. What we are really trying to do is create a platform where transactional costs come down, where trust is increased, and then you get a platform where there’s a free, fair and level playing-field for competitive products and services to be deployed.


26     The other element where governments can play a role, if you succeed in creating such open platforms, is to feed the private sector by buying services. Governments spend quite a lot of money and if you look in terms of the ICT space, I think the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) alone spends about S$2.4 billion, we hope to ensure that at least 60% of that goes to small and local enterprises. So, the point is to feed your private sector, not by giving away grants but by buying innovative services and products, and I believe that will be a far more sustainable ecosystem which will produce innovative solutions.


27     Finally let me make a few points on cybersecurity and governance. It’s important for us, I don’t need to convince anyone in this room that we live in a very dangerous digital world, and it goes beyond fake news, identity theft and fake transactions. Even from a Foreign Policy security perspective; cross-border threats abound. All of this is happening and it is essential to have a realistic appraisal of the situation, and for us to decide how we respond appropriately. So what we see in Singapore is, recently we’ve put up a cybersecurity bill, we formed a cybersecurity agency with all the necessary powers to deal with these increasingly sophisticated threats to our Critical Information Infrastructures.


28     We are also looking to establish and nurture a professional workforce in the cybersecurity sector by training and re-training through programmes like the Cyber Security Associates and Technologists (CSAT) Programme. This basically will take existing ICT professionals and give them the necessary skills and capability to move into this, unfortunately, growing and burgeoning sector.


29     On the regional and international front, we need to build strong ties across countries because, in fact, digital security is another example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Like climate change and like epidemics, the same phenomena occur for cybersecurity, and that means we need to work effectively with our counterparts, with the regulatory and security agencies across borders. We need to establish appropriate norms for how countries should behave; the rules and the regulations - a highway code - in a sense, for the digital highway.


30     So, my point is that it is actually a very wonderful time to be alive, because we are living through a revolution. Very few generations have that opportunity to have a ringside seat into a revolution. I know I’m a bit biased, but those of us who are in research, academia or in politics have a unique ringside seat because we can see these platforms develop, we can see the human needs that remain, and if we can just get the innovations right - not just in technology - but in politics, social policy, education, and to continue to invest in research and development, and establish new global norms of behaviour and transaction, then so much is possible. And then, only then, can we truly achieve this concept of human well-being and security by 2030. My point is that it’s possible, but it’s not inevitable.


31    Thank you all very much.

Last updated on 15 Sep 2021