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Enabling Singapore and Singaporeans for the digital age


Madam Chair, Singapore has been through change and uncertainty time and again. Each time, we bounced back, stronger, more resilient. We must be equally adaptable in this time of disruptive technology and innovation. 

2 Fortunately, we start from a position of strength. We have never been more highly skilled, more globally reputable, and more digitally connected. How will we deal with the very real anxieties expressed by Singaporeans and members of this House in this time of disruption? First, GovTech will lead the charge towards a more integrated and technology-enabled Government. Second, we will support efforts by industry and research institutions to build deep technological capabilities. Third, we will help our people seize opportunities in the digital age.

Government will take the lead in digital transformation

3 Government will take the lead in Singapore’s efforts to build a Smart Nation. I thank Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Ms Sun Xueling for their questions, and indeed, we will innovate with technology and data to deliver better public services. The establishment of GovTech last year is key to giving these efforts a push.

4 GovTech will lead in several areas. First, to develop national platforms which make it easier for individuals to access services, and also for government and businesses to deliver services. An example is the Smart Nation Platform, which GovTech is working to enhance. This common sensor and communications platform facilitates collection and sharing of data across the island, by multiple agencies. 

5 Through the Smart Nation Platform, large amounts of data will be generated by a variety of agencies through a wide mix of sensors. These can yield meaningful analyses and applications for government to better deliver key public services such as in transport and utilities and much more. Citizens can also be much better informed and make better decisions through the applications and data analytics available, often through their personal mobile devices. 

6 The next area that GovTech will play a leading role in is to build capabilities such as data analytics. Ms Sun asked about how GovTech has led Government’s efforts to embrace innovation. One recent example was in solving the Circle Line breakdowns last year. Data scientists from GovTech solved the problem through their innovative application of data science, full details are available on their blog. 

7 The value of data we hold is enormous especially when correlations can be drawn between datasets, rather than just analysing a dataset on its own. This was so in the example of the Circle Line, where the specific rogue train was identified by correlating video footage of train movements to data on breakdowns. However, the video footage was originally collected for very different purposes. This is the case for much of data; sometimes we are not aware of the full utility possible at the time of collection. So, we want to enable data to be shared across domains and agencies, so we can harness the greater value of data, and unlock a greater future potential from the data. As a result, GovTech is building an API Exchange (APEX), to facilitate such data sharing. 

8 Third, GovTech will use technology to deliver anticipatory, integrated, data-driven, and well-designed digital services, predictive services. Ms Sun asked also about what is being done to systematically integrate new applications to existing government services. “Ask Jamie” is one example. It is a Virtual Assistant service that GovTech has developed in collaboration with various government agencies, and is currently live on 32 government websites, including MOE, MSF, and MOH. The public can “Ask Jamie” questions using natural language. Essentially, it is a chatbot, you can ask questions and get answers instantly. Using the algorithms, it searches through data and gets better over time, as the public asks it more questions and refines the way it interacts with the public. I would encourage members to try out the service. GovTech is also looking at how messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger can be used to perform transactions with “Ask Jamie”, for example, to register with MFA for an overseas trip. It’s possible that in the near future engaging Government services will be as simple and convenient as messaging a friend. 

9 This digital transformation of Government will rest on the right expertise and talent. GovTech has and will continue to take the lead to build ICT and related engineering capability in Government. GovTech will build up ICT capability centres in a variety of areas, focusing on data science, government ICT infrastructure, software development, and the Internet of Things. GovTech will put in place a series of talent development programmes such as the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme, and use its national projects to provide on-the-job training to its officers.

We will work with industry to develop capabilities and conduct R&D that will benefit Singaporeans

10 I agree with Mr Zaqy Mohamad that an eco-system must provide opportunities for cutting edge tech application and research. To become a truly Smart Nation, Government cannot be the only player. Industry and academia must come together to develop deep capabilities. We don’t know what skills be will be needed in 10 years’ time, and we must come together across these different domains – government, industry, academia, private enterprise, and work together to ensure that we are resilient. 

We will help our businesses seize the opportunities in the digital economy

11 We have the infrastructure in place to support a digital economy, and an immense amount of digital activity is already happening here. This means that businesses have all the tools they need to participate effectively in the digital economy, at the higher end of the value chain, here in Singapore. 

12 However many companies lack the awareness of the possibilities. In particular, with data science, companies cite a lack of good data, lack of awareness, lack of expertise and some concerns about regulatory clarity. Mr Zaqy’s question on how we can drive quicker adoption of technology such as data analytics is thus extremely relevant. 

13 IMDA will establish a Data Innovation Programme Office (DIPO) to lead this effort. The DIPO will address industry concerns by facilitating data-driven innovation projects, and the development of the data ecosystem in Singapore. One of the ways DIPO will do this is to introduce a Data Sandbox, which will provide a neutral and trusted platform for companies to share data securely, without threatening their individual interests. The Data Sandbox will also provide data analytics tools to help companies build expertise in data science. 

14 To encourage co-creation of solutions using data by citizens and businesses, GovTech has been actively improving data.gov.sg, focusing on quality, instead of only quantity, of data. For example, a Developers’ portal was introduced last year to provide data users and developers easier access to real-time data via APIs. DIPO will also work with government agencies to release more economically-useful data through data.gov.sg. I encourage members to investigate that url as well. 

15 Central to this is the trust that citizens have about the use of their data. I thank Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Saktiandi Supaat’s questions on data protection. As companies innovate with data, we also want to make sure they know how they may use personal data, in accordance with regulations. This is increasingly important with the rising use of smartphone apps and e-commerce websites.

16 The Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) has been implemented for over two years now, and we have seen greater awareness among organisations of the need to protect the personal data in their possession. The Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) will be actively reviewing the Act in light of the lessons learned over the past two years, and the needs of the industry today. The PDPC is also committed to improving the data protection ecosystem, and will put in place additional measures to ensure businesses know how they may use personal data responsibly. The PDPC will develop Data Protection starter kits to help SMEs kickstart DP practices within their companies; engage SMEs through Trade Associations and Chambers, and sector-specific forums; and provide more affirmative guidance to give certainty and clarity on what is permissible. 

We will empower singaporeans to seize the opportunities in the digital age as well

17 It is important that everyone has a chance to participate in the digital age. I thank Ms Sun Xueling, Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Darryl David for their comments and suggestions. We are committed to making it easier to access government digital services. Currently, we have trained staff at 27 Citizen Connect Centres island-wide to assist less tech savvy users in accessing government digital services. At the Citizen Connect Centre, you can perform many government digital services, such as requesting for your CPF statement, applying or renewing HDB/URA season parking tickets, online registration for SingPass and more. It is important that we enable our seniors to keep up with the changes, and hopefullybecome IT-independent. One way we are doing so is through Intergen IT Bootcamps and Silver IT Fest Mass IT workshops. Through these, IMDA has been collaborating with primary to tertiary-level schools to provide opportunities for the younger and older generations to come together and learn about IT. Seniors can also learn IT at any of the 29 Silver Infocomm Junctions and People’s Association’s Senior Academy Centres available islandwide, where affordable and customised IT classes are available. IMDA will continue collaborations with schools and organisations, and regularly review the curriculum to ensure seniors are equipped with applicable skills such as using social media apps, and accessing government digital services. Interested youth can sign up to be Friends of Silver Infocomm volunteers to help seniors at such events and participate in the Silver IT Fest classes as well. Given our libraries enjoy a wide reach among our citizens, they can also play a bigger role in the future in assisting citizens with government digital services. 

18 There are other ways to support more families in benefiting from connectivity. IMDA already has a variety of programmes in place. We are expanding the Home Access Programme, which provides low-income households with low-cost broadband connectivity at home, and a tablet, to benefit a further 16,000 households, in addition to the existing 8,000 households on the current programme. We also partner private sector organisations in these efforts, such as POSB, NTUC FairPrice Foundation and NetLink Trust. I hope that between these types of outreach efforts and the examples provided by some of the members about volunteerism for our young, that more organisations and more youth volunteers will step forward and come on board to work with us, to make sure that everybody in Singapore has an opportunity to participate in the digital age. 

Conclusion

19 Madam Chair, we’ve talked about the transformations we need to make to respond to the rapid technological changes. But this is not something only for the future. Disruption is here, and companies are already transforming to respond to it.

20 DC Frontiers is one such company. It has applied natural language processing and machine learning technology in an innovative way to analyse corporate financial data and unstructured text from public domains. Its programme fuses this data together with their clients’ own database to provide strategic intelligence that their clients can use to make decisions about their strategic investments. And it can do so in a shorter amount of time and get better and sharper all the time. But DC Frontiers itself has faced an internal disruption. The artificial intelligence program it has built has now taken over the jobs of the analysts who were making the artificial intelligence machine faster, sharper and better. DC Frontiers had seen this coming, embraced this change and now have a proactive, structured programme in place to reskill and redeploy its own workers and analysts and keep them within the company. This willingness to be reskilled and to keep learning has become part of the company’s ethos so that now when they hire someone into their company – and they are still hiring despite this disruption – you are looking at the skillsets of a person not just for the job that they have been hired for, but considering whether two to three years from now, from the time this person starts work, that this person is suitable and adaptable to being reskilled and re-deployed into a new vocation and job. DC Frontiers is not brand new. It is about six years old and has gone international with offices overseas, and clients across borders. It has done significant work. It is not a start-up anymore, although it behaves like a start-up through an attitude of bringing people in with a willingness to disrupt themselves, their business models and internal work processes, and re-deploy both themselves and their workers going forward, and making that part of the company’s ethos. DC Frontiers has retained the start-up mentality even as they have scaled up and gone international. This is a very useful mental model, a frame of mind for us as a nation, and as we deal with digital disruption and consider the possibilities ahead of us. 

21 But it’s not just about our national effort, it’s not just about a single company’s efforts to be disruptive and innovative, it goes all the way down to the individuals and the opportunities they have here, in Singapore today, and not just the Singapore of tomorrow. I would like to share about Mr Chua De Bao, whom I learnt about when I visited SG Enable. De Bao is hearing-impaired and has designed an app for the hearing-impaired which transcribes conversations in real-time. In order to use an app like this to transcribe natural language, you would need to hold the microphone close to your mouth so that your speech is captured. And as the text is transcribed, it comes out on the phone the right way up for you, the speaker. As such, it’s upside down for the person you are facing, the hearing-impaired person that you are trying to translate to. So what we have to do is to parse the phone back and forth, which interrupts the flow of conversation and makes it not an enabler, but a disruptor to the conversation you’re trying to have between a hearing-impaired person and someone who isn’t. So De Bao designed his own app – very simply, it’s a natural language processing engine which flips the text upside down so you can keep it there, by your mouth, and you can have a conversation back and forth. It seems like a very simple design change, but it is very useful and has been used regularly. From there, he has now formed over 15 different applications and went on to become a software developer. He is now working at AutoDesk. With De Bao’s experience, IMDA is looking at ways to better promote the use of technology amongst persons with disabilities. The disruption, the innovation, the ideas, they are here today; we cannot be planning for something in the future. They are here right now and we need to be active and proactive about embracing the opportunities that are available. 

22 Madam Chair, the path ahead in any time of change is uncertain. But we have never shied away from a challenge to seize opportunities and deliver results. Rather than see threats and disruption we must continue to see the world through the eyes of a start-up, full of promise and opportunity. Similarly, we need to be committed to keep learning, keep trying, and keep striving. It is with that attitude, and with Government, businesses and people coming together, that we will become the best place in the world to incubate the next big change, a Smart Nation at the leading edge of the digital technology revolution.

23 Thank you.

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