How is Singapore preparing for the digital revolution?


At the IoT Asia 2017 conference, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative, spoke about Singapore’s approach towards preparing for the digital revolution, and unveiled some of the government’s Smart Nation plans for the year ahead.

Meeting the challenge of disruption

Dr Balakrishnan gave examples of how programs and machines are acquiring new skills and capabilities more quickly than human beings. In the past year, Google’s AI translation tool had found a way to translate Korean to Japanese without the use of English as an intermediate language, and the Atlas robot has learnt how to rollerblade and jump over obstacles. “We are now living in an age when the pace of skills acquisition, the pace of capability enhancements of our robots, programs and machines exceed that of human beings,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

This means that middle-class jobs and wages are going to be disrupted, and for Singapore, the most important challenge is to prepare its citizens for this disruption. Instead of trying to compete with machines and programs, the challenge is to build a new middle class with the skills to commoditise these new technologies, and thereby generate new jobs with good wages.

“So that is really at the heart of what our Smart Nation mission is about. It’s about jobs, jobs and jobs,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

Equipping the workforce with future skills

Dr Balakrishnan added that erecting barriers and protectionism is the wrong approach to deal with the disruptive challenge. The key challenge is to democratise the tools, commoditise the technology, and equip people with the knowledge and skills to use new digital tools. To that end:

1) GovTech will sign a Memorandum of Intent with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to provide training for 10,000 public servants in data science over the next 5 years. NUS will work with GovTech to develop the pedagogy, syllabus, and curriculum so that public servants will learn how to use these tools effectively.  

2) The Economic Development Board (EDB) is working to help companies to adopt digitalisation and develop new products, services and business models, as well as helping SMEs build stronger digital capabilities to compete in a globalised world.

“It is not about technology. It is about what problem you are trying to solve, what solutions you offer and the value of your solutions. Follow the money, generate value, solve real problems, create real jobs, and offer novel products and services,” said Dr Balakrishnan.


The minister also highlighted a number of priority areas that Singapore will be focusing on in the year ahead:

Smart Nation IoT Platform

Singapore is looking to accelerate the development of the Smart Nation Platform, the nation’s IoT backbone. Despite the lack of consensus on IoT standards and market fragmentation, Singapore will still need to take a pathway forward, adopting open standards and avoiding technology or vendor lock-in.

The country’s lampposts will be nationalised, so that data generated from lamppost sensors can be used by the public sector, and made available to the private sector as well. The near term target is to have an operating system that can service a hundred million smart objects – generating data in real time for multiple public and private agencies.

“The reason we are doing this, again is not for the sake of technology, but in order to improve the quality and the responsiveness of government services, to leverage on existing infrastructure… If we can do this right, not only can we enhance our internet and IoT platforms, but we can derive value by sharing, by synergy and by reusing existing infrastructure in new ways,” explained Dr Balakrishnan.

National digital identity framework

In a pilot program, personal information will be made available to banks through the MyInfo portal. Users can login using their Singpass, Singapore’s digital identity authentication system, to start a bank account with any of the 4 participating banks (DBS, OCBC, UOB and Standard Chartered). With the user’s consent, relevant information will be transmitted to the bank in order to facilitate the opening of accounts. 

Dr Balakrishnan emphasized that protection of privacy is essential. If the challenges of privacy and security can be met, the service can be expanded to other companies as well. This will reduce the time taken to fill up information repeatedly on multiple forms, improve security, reduce cost and enhance competitiveness.

The government is also looking to upgrade the Singpass system. A secure digital identification system is needed to engender greater confidence, reduce transaction costs and to allow information to be exchanged securely and seamlessly.

“Hopefully, this would lead to the creation of new services and to improve the end customer experience. We want to enable all our companies to ride on these platforms in order to derive a competitive advantage,” said Dr Balakrishnan.


Electronic payments

As cash and cheques work well and seamlessly in Singapore, the incentive to move towards cashless is not as urgent as it is in many other places. Nevertheless, Singapore will be making a definitive move towards cashless systems this year.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is working with the industry to roll out a Central Addressing Scheme (CAS). This will allow users to transfer money to each other using just a phone number, without the need for bank account details.

MAS is also pushing to introduce a Unified Point of Sale (UPOS) terminal at all check-out counters. Instead of having multiple terminals and payment systems, a single terminal will be made available to unify all forms of e-payments, from credit cards, debit cards to phone payments, reducing complexity and costs.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has also announced a new pilot for Account-Based Ticketing. Instead of a separate EZ-link transport fare card, users can now use their contactless Mastercard and bank accounts to pay for transport.


In conclusion, Dr Balakrishnan said that a collective, whole-of-society approach is needed to prepare the nation for the digital revolution.

“It is not a purely technological question, nor is it a purely scientific question, nor is it just an engineering solution; it needs an ‘all-of-society’, collective approach for us to truly prepare ourselves for this revolution. And the cities, the countries, the governments and the people who get it right will have a head-start and this will be another golden age. If we get it right, we get to be ahead of the queue and there are enormous opportunities awaiting us.”