“There is a revolution going on,” said Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) Vivian Balakrishnan, and Singapore needs to be ahead of the wave, just as it was 50 years ago when it decided to open its shores and embrace globalisation.
This is the underlying premise of the Smart Nation vision expounded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last November, when he said: “Our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation – A nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all.”
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia in an interview on Wednesday (Apr 1), Dr Balakrishnan said the “revolution” involves the advent of personal computing, the World Wide Web, high-resolution video, robotics, big data analytics and 3D printing.
“These are not just tools, but platform technologies. That means they are going to transform – the way we live, work, play, socialise, communicate, organise ourselves, educate ourselves and the way our economic activities are going to be pursued. So there is a revolution going on,” he said.
“ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS” NEEDED
How will the Smart Nation vision become a reality? Dr Balakrishnan said some “essential ingredients” are needed: A world-class infrastructure; a capability layer; and a global ecosystem.
The first ingredient is already in place, what with the Next-generation Nationwide Broadband Network and extensive wireless network available. The Government is also actively making sure access to the Internet, and with it access to services and products, is affordable via market competition and subsidies to those who need it, he said.
As for the capability layer, the minister said “education is a key element”. “So for instance, to have computing as a ‘O’ Level option. To teach all students, starting from primary school, some basics of programming or computational thinking,” he said.
For working adults, it is the opportunity to pick up new skills that are relevant to their jobs, or even be equipped with skills for jobs that are not yet created is another aspect that needs to be developed, he noted.
On the ecosystem level, this would involve creating an environment where people with an idea are able to quickly prototype it, test it out then get it on to the market. Additionally, there should be financing made available, and people with market access and networks in place so as to help these start-ups grow and become a regional or international market players, he explained.
DATA SHARING: PARTICIPATION, NOT PERMISSION
However, the Smart Nation vision requires data as a fuel to run, and much of it comes from the individual. When asked how much data one has to give up in order for the vision to be realised, Dr Balakrishnan said data sharing and privacy is not a matter of how much permission a person gives.
Rather, people need to want to participate in this, he said, and when that happens, then data sharing is voluntary and not coerced.
The Government, on its part, will make sure the data used will be anonymised so that personal details are not compromised, yet user patterns can be derived, the minister said.
For example, data of one’s public transport consumption can be tracked without one’s personal identifiers, such as IC number or address, revealed. This way, service providers will know where the peak consumer demands are during specific time periods, and cater their resources accordingly, he explained.
It is also making efforts to make sure data made public are accurate and in real-time. This will enhance credibility and build trust with the citizenry, he explained.
Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, gave the example of flood data. It used to be that on Twitter, #sgflood was used by the more cynical because of floods that happen. But today, most of the tweets with the hashtag are from his ministry. Specifically, the more than 200 sensors embedded in drains around Singapore would automatically trigger a tweet via PUB to deliver information on water levels and flood probability, he revealed.
On the flipside, people have been taking data privacy “for granted”. Many, particularly the younger generation, tend to share things online or on social media platforms that might not be appropriate, and this might allow those with malicious intent to exploit. It might also affect their job prospects should potential employers chance on a Facebook rant or YouTube video that should not be shared.
“Please be more careful,” the minister stressed.
“GREATEST NIGHTMARE”: A MAJOR SECURITY BREACH
On the issue of cybersecurity, Dr Balakrishnan admitted that his “biggest nightmare” is the occurrence of a major security breach and the loss of personal, private data.
“That would set our efforts back many, many years because trust and confidence breaks down. Then people will be unwilling to share things that ought to be shared, and then we’re not able to generate new solutions,” he said. “Openness and security are two sides of the same coin.”
This is why the Cyber Security Agency (CSA), headed by Minister for Communications and Industry Yaacob Ibrahim, was announced soon after the Prime Minister announced the Smart Nation Vision, he said. The CSA turned operational today, and will oversee national cybersecurity issues and policies.
He added that a “healthy tension” between SNPO and CSA is “good”, because it means they are looking at situations with different lenses, which would prevent either from being blindsided by potential issues or problems.
BE CO-PROBLEM SOLVERS WITH US
Ultimately, realising the Smart Nation vision will also result in the “shift in tone” in Singapore's society – from being reliant on the Government to solve all problems, to one where citizens are able to make use of the information available and come up with solutions for real-life problems.
“It won’t be one where a problem comes along and Government has to solve it and people will just passively follow,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
“In the future, when a new opportunity or problem arises, the data will be there and everyone will have access to the data. You have a good idea, and it works, then it can be rapidly prototyped and upscaled – it is truly an exercise in co-creation.
“It’s not a dependent, suspicious, passive and apathetic society. We will have the truly active Singaporean in an active society,” he added.