Wireless Technologies

Public and private initiatives converge with Singapore's digital community

Singapore frequently grabs headlines with the strides that it’s making to secure a digital-first future for citizens and businesses alike. It’s pushing its Smart Nation agenda to digitise the city-state, support entrepreneurs and startups, and it’s committed a great deal to the development of eGovernment services, placing the country ahead of many of its neighbours.

It also means that the government is in a balancing act between private sector needs and having robust public sector services for all citizens, not just the entrepreneurs.

To that end, the government has merged older agencies and created new ones in order to strike that balance.

Gabriel Lim heads up the government’s IMDA (Infocomm Media Development Authority), a newly formed regulator which merged the old agencies of the Infocomm Development Authority and Media Development Authority.

With this new agency, IMDA’s remit is wider but it’s still focused on regulation and promoting Singapore as a good place to do business. “Convergence and how that pertains to the rest of the economy,” drove this amalgamation decision says Lim. “We want to be able to equip our companies and people for that.

“I know it’s a big word, digital economy means different things to different people.”

Lim envisions Singapore and his role as regulator as serving two functions, for both native and foreign businesses: “Singapore works because it is a node to the region, our market is too small, we have to serve the broader region.”

To that end, the business environment needs to help not only native businesses but entrepreneurs and companies coming into the country to get a foothold in the Southeast Asian market.

“We want to be in that position for a long time to come,” says Lim, adding that the labour market is quite open for people to come in as Singapore isn’t immune to skills shortages either.

Perhaps this is why the country has taken a rather proactive approach in trialling new technology to get a feel for what might actually work.

It’s trialling driverless taxis with the help of US startup NuTonomy and making a big push into fintech. Investment firm Marvelstone is in the midst of opening a massive new fintech development hub in the city.

As both a regulator and a promoter, IMDA needs to take a measured yet optimistic approach to every new innovation that comes along.

“In many jurisdictions regulators have quite a bad reputation, they always seem to be stuck in the mud, sometimes very conservative and I suppose for good reason. There are very important public interest issues to deal with as a regulator but also constraining innovation,” explains Lim.

“As far as we’re concerned we’re trying hard not to be that sort of regulator. We see regulation and business as two sides of a similar coin. You need regulation because there are legitimate public interests to protect. At the same time we want regulations that are pro-business, pro-enterprise, that are also progressive.”

In general the authorities have taken a wait and see approach to new arrivals, namely Uber, opting to see how it pans out and respond accordingly. Since then the Ministry of Transport has eased up rules for the traditional taxi sector to create a level playing field.

The city-state is small and is governed by a single layer of government, which Lim describes as nimble – “You can punch through the bureaucracy”. It means that Singapore can often adopt new ideas a little quicker with little opposition but it still needs to be inclusive.

“How do you equip the ordinary Singaporean who’s coming up through school to be very familiar and comfortable in this new digital environment?” asks Lim. It’s a common challenge and that’s where the public service side of things comes in.

For Singapore’s government CIO Chan Cheow How, it’s been three years of graft to put a new agenda for public services in place that involves harnessing data, making eGovernment services more accessible, and building “digital communities”.

“Ultimately to be a smarter nation, we need to start from within to be able to deliver better services to the citizens,” says Chan.

This meant changing the agency’s approach to data. Collecting data isn’t a problem, rather it’s processing that causes headaches, requiring a ‘quality not quantity’ approach to make the best use of this data.

Beeline is an app designed to optimise the city’s public bus service, collecting data on how many people get off at each stop and where. It helps buses plan out the best routes possible and in turn “people will be more willing” to use the bus service if they feel it’s more reliable. But it doesn’t end there.

“I don’t think we can sustain this for too long, we really want to commercialise this and push it out to bus companies,” adds Chan. It’s an example of the public service intertwining with private sector needs.

myResponder is an app built by the civil defence force to help people in emergency situations by locating people with medical training within a 400 metre radius.

“Like any other big city in the world, it’s quite hard to get ambulances and emergency services to the point in a very quick manner,” says Chan. Especially in the case of heart attacks, the first few minutes can be the difference between life and death.

“Do we need to buy more ambulances or is there an easier way to do this?”

Now someone can alert the app when there’s an emergency and if there’s a medic nearby they can respond and tend to the situation, which will be within walking distance, before an ambulance arrives – “You now have a secondary means of helping people out.”

In October the government officially launched GovTech, a new agency staffed by data scientists and engineers, to continually build the platforms that power this sort of digital engagement. It manages IT for 99 other agencies and will develop and manage solutions for Singaporeans to access and manage their personal data but will also have a responsibility to protect this data.

Singapore is also the first government to sign up to Facebook’s Slack competitor Workplace.

Part of GovTech’s role, and the wider government role, is to make data and technology accessible to all people regardless of background or pushback.

“[In the private sector], you can choose your customers, you can price them out of the equation,” says Chan, who comes from the financial services sector. “The difficult thing about government is you can’t choose your customers.”

All of Singapore’s initiatives are well and good but ensuring people actually engage is the next challenge.


Also read:

Singapore's cut-off from the internet is not so crazy

Singapore’s perplexing plan to cut off civil servants’ internet access

Singapore’s big bet on a Smart Nation future


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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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