Singapore must practise what it preaches to become smart nation

Country's population cannot be expected to innovate and think outside the box if its government agencies aren't leading by example.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

At the cinema over the weekend, an ad played showing a young man standing in the middle of an auditorium proclaiming one word: "Why."

It then showed him through his growing years asking repeatedly why things couldn't be done differently and teachers replying that he could, with one posing: "Why can't we turn failure into success?"

The clip then ended with the same frame it began, with the young man standing on stage, asking: "Why can't we change the way we power the world?"

The ad was produced by Singapore's Ministry of Education, which was looking to recruit teachers. Pointing to the young man's learning journey, the ministry said: "Where curiosity was encouraged, perceived norms were challenged, and individuality, embraced. One teacher can change your perspective. Many teachers can change your life."

Presumably, the government hopes that this environment--in which students are taught to "embrace individuality" and "challenge perceived norms"--will eventually yield a new generation of entrepreneurs and employees who can power, and sustain, a smart nation.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim had said when he unveiled Singapore's smart nation plans in June 2014: "As cities continue to grow, demands on urban infrastructure will also increase and resources will become scarcer. It is, therefore, imperative to develop smart communities that can be driven by intelligence, integration, and innovation. We believe a smart nation can become a really if we successfully combine policy, people, and technology in a concerted fashion."

Local businesses also are encouraged to challenge status quo and drive innovation within their own community. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said following last year's budget, which allocated more funds to help small and midsize businesses develop new services: "We will give stronger support to SMBs that innovate and go beyond the norm. Every form of innovation counts, and must be supported--whether it is a new process or brand, developing online marketing or leveraging big data."

Earlier this month, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) introduced the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme, with the aim to galvanise data scientists, technologists, and engineers to aid the government in tapping data to improve its citizens' lives.

Under this initiative, successful "Fellows" would spend several months working with software engineers, data scientists, and product developers to IDA's own Government Digital Services team, and users and developers from various government agencies. Together, they would design and develop data science or technology tools to solve real-world issues across different sectors, including transport, housing, healthcare, and the environment.

Clearly, the Singapore government is keen to nurture a population that thrives on innovation, is able to think outside the box, and can harvest the right skills to improve their daily lives.

However, has it applied the same philosophy to its own ministries and agencies? Recent developments suggest it has not.

Last month, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) confirmed plans to roll out a satellite-based road pricing system, costing the government S$556 million (US$395.29 million). Much of its brief statement, all of 528 words long, focused on how it was necessary to replace the current system, which was implemented in 1998 and becoming "increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain", LTA said.

It touted the next-generation satellite-based ERP system as a "fairer" option for motorists, enabling distance-based road pricing, and one that could provide additional services such as real-time information on traffic conditions as well as a payment system for parking.

No statistics, though, were provided to explain how a distance-based charging model could be "fairer" to motorists, compared to the current ERP infrastructure. LTA also offered neither data nor analysis of how the 18-year road pricing system had helped "manage traffic demand" and road congestion.

According to the Ministry of Transport, revenue collected annually via the ERP system would be added to the government's Consolidated Fund, and was less than what it spent on road improvement projects. In Singapore's fiscal 2009 and 2010, some S$149 million and S$159 million, respectively, were collected from ERP transactions.

In making its decision to deploy a satellite-based ERP system, little is known whether LTA had considered other alternatives and "challenged norms", rather than return to the status quo of simply charging for road usage. Instead, listed on its website were two dated documents outlining lessons it observed after one year and five years of operating the ERP system--that meant, its last analysis was done in 2003. If it had conducted any research thereafter, this was not publicly available or could not be found online.

More importantly, in its statement, the transport regulator made no mention of how user privacy and security would be safeguarded when the satellite-based ERP system was ready to be rolled out. While the government had assured data collected would be "aggregated and anonymised", little had been said about how the system itself would be secured and protected against potential attacks.

Furthermore, how "anonymised" could a driver's data be if his location and road usage would have to be matched to his identity so he could be charged accordingly?

Instead of addressing such concerns, in its system evaluation test, LTA chose to focus its assessment on the satellite-based system's "accuracy, consistency, and reliability of integrated urban congestion charging" in Singapore's complex road network.

In its next-generation ERP blueprint, has LTA heeded ICT minister Yaacob's call for the nation to adopt a "security-by-design" mindset? As of now, it has yet to demonstrate so.

I've mentioned in a previous post that, in order to galvanise its population and effect change, the Singapore government must first ensure its own house is ready to embrace the philosophies it champions. Like any successful organisation, change must come from the top.

It can run ad after ad, campaign after campaign, in a bid to inspire its people to embrace innovation and challenge perceived norms. However, if its own agencies aren't practising what it preaches, it can hardly expect its population to do so.

And, instead of asking "why", Singapore could then end up asking "why bother".

Editorial standards