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Is political will and leadership key to the success of Singapore’s Smart Nation?

By Lim Yun Hui, Associate Commentary Editor


The Need for a Smart Nation


Smart Nation is an ambitious plan by the Singapore government to transform the nation by encouraging citizens, businesses and the government to adopt and promote tech-enabled solutions. The usage of infocomm technologies, networks and big data will help enable these actors and stakeholders to transform the way we work, live and interact with each other.


The justification for such a whole-of-government initiative as well as large scale nationwide transformation is rooted in Singapore’s constant need to stay ahead and remain competitive in the global arena. The ongoing digital revolution combined with advancements in technology worldwide means that any failure to adopt or facilitate these new advancements will result in Singapore losing its competitive edge.


Therefore, the government has invested considerably to push for its Smart Nation initiatives spanning many areas in transport, health, government services, finance, education and urban living sectors. These mutually-reinforcing plans will help Singapore achieve its goal of being a Smart Nation – one it defines as having an established and effective ‘Digital Economy, Digital Government and Digital Society’. [1]


I make the argument that Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives are sufficient to remain competitive in the global arena due to its core factor: political will and leadership. A determined government that plans ahead and stimulates economic and societal growth enables faster and more seamless adoption and development of Smart Nation initiatives, allowing Singapore to remain competitive globally.


The Origins & the making of a Smart Nation


Smart Nation is actually a progression from a long line of digitisation developments and initiatives the government has undertaken since the early 1980s. Initially heralded as Singapore’s e-Government Journey, it has now expanded to include both societies and business as part of an all-encompassing, nationwide transformation.


This journey started with the Civil Service Computerisation Programme which took advantage of information technology to automate work functions and reduce paperwork. This led to greater efficiency in the deliverance of public services and paved the way for more e-Government plans afterwards. Subsequently, the adoption and promotion of other kinds of tech-enabled initiatives such as cashless transactions, QR codes, phone applications, networks and big data came to represent strategic national policies of a Smart Nation.

Table 1: Timeline of Singapore’s eGovMasterplans


These plans reflect that the move towards digitisation and integration of infocomm technology into the lives of Singaporeans have long been on the agenda of the government and are symbolic of a continuous journey towards a smart city-state. The single most important factor that explains the longevity and success of such nationwide projects is strong political will and leadership.


Political Will & Leadership


What exactly does strong political will and leadership mean? Political will largely refers to ‘the determination of an individual political actor to do and say things that will produce a desired outcome.’ In Singapore’s case, political will and leadership is best demonstrated by the one-party dominant state, where governance is dominated by a single political player - the People’s Action Party. Inherent in this definition is the idea of ‘determination’, which implies pushing for and seeing through a vision from start to end. In order to achieve this, there must be institutions, resources and policies in place that ensure long term goals are met.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officially launched Smart Nation in 2014. The government has been recognised as one that has great foresight, always laying out medium to long term plans to ‘stay ahead’. Such political will and leadership in championing for Smart Nation is evidenced by its large-scale investments across all industries and sectors and the penetration of e-governance in almost every part of society, from the 1990s till present. [2]


With strong political will, the government has channeled economic resources and developed digital infrastructure that allow Smart Nation initiatives to be executed in a frictionless manner. For example, the launch of e-payments involving the major banks of Singapore have enabled secure, fast and convenient transfers of monies between consumers, businesses and the government. In 2017, Singapore launched PAYNOW, a service that allows monetary transfers using either our NRIC or telephone number. In 2018, statutory board and government ministries such as the Central Provident Fund Board and Ministry of Education began disbursing cash via PAYNOW to facilitate quicker transfers between government and its citizens. With this method introduced by Smart Nation, Singaporeans can receive their money at least 10 days earlier. [3] The wide adoption of PAYNOW across both public and private sphere shows that it has been effective in delivering efficient, hassle-free and safe transactions.


Transforming Singapore


Besides taking the lead in laying the foundation for Singapore to go digital, the government has looked inward at how it could better provide government services. The National Digital Identity encompassing Singpass, Corppass and MyInfo allows residents and businesses to transact digitally with the government. However, the storage of such large amounts of sensitive data has been subject to theft and malicious intent. Cyber attacks will undermine the digital infrastructure but the government has put in place measures to better protect any data stored online. In April last year, PM Lee convened the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee to cope and manage the challenge of cyber-security breaches. [4] This highlights how Smart Nation policies are constantly revamped, revised and revisited by the government to better suit the country’s changing needs and circumstances. This, in turn, ensures the longevity and effective long term implementation of Smart Nation policies.


Even with critical infrastructure in place, it will not be sufficient for Singapore to remain competitive in the global arena if its citizens and workers are not well-equipped. The government has thus invested in IT upgrading, skills and courses to create a digitally inclusive society. As Singapore steadily transforms into a Smart Nation, it has gone to considerable lengths to ensure Singaporeans are not left behind. From employing digitally savvy senior citizens to be Smart Nation Ambassadors and encourage peer to peer teaching [5], to adding basic digital skills to school curriculum [6] and even facilitating partnerships to drive 5G networks [7]. These initiatives are aimed at future-proofing Singaporeans against robots and automation. The Digital Readiness Council launched by Ministry of Communications and Information in June 2018 will set out recommendations to enable Singaporeans to thrive in a Smart Nation. [8] Most recently, the Infocomm Media Development Authority and National Research Foundation set aside $40 million to support 5G innovation. [9]


These efforts spearheaded by the government demonstrate the strong political will and leadership that is crucial for the goal of Smart Nation to be realised. More significantly, the government’s continuous investments in digital infrastructure and institutions highlight the firm resolve it has in both its planning and execution of Smart Nation Singapore.


At the Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 in Barcelona, Singapore was named the Smart City of 2018. [10] This award recognised the strategic national investments in technology and connectivity infrastructure built on stable institutions which further motivates Singapore to do more in the aspect of being a Smart Nation. Additionally, Singapore is a world leader in e-government penetration according to Waseda-IAC international e-government ranking survey. [11] These achievements are a manifestation of how Singapore has successfully managed to stay ahead of other countries, pushing the country to remain competitive in the global arena by consistently garnering top positions in world standings. This would have been a tall order without the political will and leadership of the government.


References

[1] Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. (2018). Smart Nation: The Way Forward Executive Summary. Retrieved from https://www.smartnation.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/smart-nation-strategy_nov2018.pdf


[2] Neo, E. (2019, July 26). Four special education schools to add basic digital skills to curriculum. ChannelNewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/special-education-students-learn-basic-digital-skills-curriculum-11756338


[3] Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. (2019, July 19). E-payments. Retrieved from https://www.smartnation.sg/what-is-smart-nation/initiatives/Strategic-National-Projects/e-payments-1


[4] Cheow, S. A. (2019, July 16). Government agencies to take up new cyber-security measures. TheNewPaper. Retrieved from https://www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/government-agencies-take-new-cyber-security-measures


[5] Ng, M. (2019, July 28). 600 sign up as Smart Nation Ambassadors to help Singaporeans, including seniors, get digitally ready. TheStraitsTimes. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/600-sign-up-as-smart-nation-ambassadors-to-help-singaporeans-including-seniors-get


[6] Neo, E. (2019, July 26). Four special education schools to add basic digital skills to curriculum. ChannelNewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/special-education-students-learn-basic-digital-skills-curriculum-11756338


[7] M1 Limited. (2019, June 27). M1 joins IMDA and PSA to test 5G technologies in a live Smart Port environment. Retrieved from https://www.m1.com.sg/about-us/news-releases/2019/m1-joins-imda-and-psa-to-test-5g-technologies-in-a-live-smart-port-environment


[8] Ministry of Communications and Information. (2018). FACTSHEET: DIGITAL READINESS COUNCIL.


[9] Singapore’s Digital Economy forges ahead: 5G innovation, Smart Estates and progressive legislation. (2019). Retrieved from Infocomm Media Development Authority website: https://www2.imda.gov.sg/news-and-events/Media-Room/Media-Releases/2019/Singapore-Digital-Economy-forges-ahead-5G-innovation-Smart-Estates-and-progressive-legislation


[10] GovTech Singapore. (2018). Small city, big win: Singapore named Smart City of 2018. Retrieved from https://www.tech.gov.sg/media/technews/singapore-named-smart-city-of-2018


[11] Tan, A. (2017, August 8). Singapore government tops global list for use of ICT to improve services: Waseda-IAC survey. Business Times. Retrieved from https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/technology/singapore-government-tops-global-list-for-use-of-ict-to-improve-services-waseda-iac


About the author: Yun Hui is a Year 4 Political Science major who is currently an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. Constantly reading up on domestic sociopolitical issues and regional affairs, she finds particular interest in the diverse and nuanced point of views presented by each writer. She hopes that her contributions will urge more people to be more well-read and informed about local and international developments that raise the level of political consciousness in Singapore.

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