TL;DR – Smart Nation has to happen so that Singapore can survive for many years to come.
It’s common that there would be various dialogue sessions conducted by different groups of people after every National Day Rally (NDR) speech. The more cynical amongst us will see these sessions as attempts to brainwash people. The less cynical will see these sessions as attempt to explain why PM said what he said, and clarify his key messages. It also serves as a platform to gather feedback from the people.
We attended one of these dialogue sessions. It was organised by Young NTUC. Since it’s by Young NTUC, most of the participants for this post-NDR dialogue were youths. Some are still students, some are young working adults.
The panel consisted of these people:
Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Education, and Minister-in-Charge of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech). He’s also the Chairman of Onepeople.sg and the host of that Regardless of Race programme.
2. Dr Gillian Koh
Deputy Director (Research) at the Institute of Policy Studies, (NUS). She’s also Senior Research Fellow and Head of its Politics and Governance research cluster. She’s often quoted in the media, and she has authored commentaries as well. You can read her views on the Presidential Election and 38 Oxley.
3. Mr Saktiandi Supaat
Executive Vice President / Regional Head of FX Research & Strategy, Global Markets, Global Banking, Maybank Group. He’s also a member of parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and a Future Economy Council Committee Member. If you’re curious about this gentleman, read his interview On The Record.
4. Mr Johnathan Chua
Business Director / Partner of GRVTY Media which owns and operates six online publications, including Millennials of Singapore, DiscoverSG and Vulcan Post. He’s the millennial representative on the panel.
Given that Dr Janil Puthucheary is the minister in charge of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), it wasn’t surprising that there was quite a robust discussion what PM said about Smart Nation.
Smart Nation: It’s to ensure Singapore can continue to survive
Dr Janil made a rather “motherhood” statement that the drive to become Smart Nation is about making long term investments that will ensure that Singapore can continue to survive for many decades to come. In fact, he said the same thing about the other two topics that PM spoke about.
Why do we say that it’s a “motherhood” statement? Because almost every single major policy is to ensure that Singapore can survive for many years to come. It seems that our politicians and policy makers are convinced that Singapore faces a perpetual existential crisis.
Thankfully, that wasn’t all that Dr Janil said. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been a very insightful session. He did go on to explain how the drive to be a Smart Nation is necessary for Singapore to be able to survive and thrive for a few more decades.
How so? Why is Smart Nation important for Singapore’s survival?
In his explanation, Dr Janil focussed on two issues.
First, our falling total fertility rate. With a falling total fertility rate, we need to find ways to be more productive, so that even with fewer people, we can do more. The drive to be a Smart Nation will help with that.
Second, we need to continue being exceptional. If we weren’t exceptional, if we lose our shine, then we won’t be able to attract people to do business with us. There won’t be enough reasons for people to set up shop here.
Given our size, why would anyone bother if there wasn’t anything specially in our favour? And that’s where our drive to be a Smart Nation comes in. It can make us more effective and efficient. It makes us stand out from the crowd.
So are we going to start taking more risks to make Smart Nation happen?
Someone from the audience suggested that in order to make Smart Nation happen, the government should take more risks. Dr Janil asked whether we were prepared to bear the consequences of taking more risks. Because if the government took more risks, it means that Singapore, and Singaporeans, will have to bear the negative consequences of taking those risks.
Yes, we wonder if the people who are always urging the government to take more risks and the people who are always criticising the government for playing too safe have considered the consequences. That we, as a people, will have to face the consequences collectively. The failure of taking more risks is not the government’s to face alone, you know?
With that in mind, Dr Janil explained that while we should take some risks, it cannot be that we risk everything and end up in a position that we can’t recover from.
He then went on to elaborate on the sort of risks that the government is willing to take to make Smart Nation happen.
What’s the government doing to make Smart Nation happen?
First, the government has set up a regulatory sandbox for financial technology (fintech). Such a regulatory sandbox balances the need to ensure the safety and soundness of Singapore’s financial system (which is vital for Singapore, given that we are a major financial centre of the world), with allowing financial institutions and start-ups to experiment. Within this sandbox, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) will relax specific legal and regulatory requirements prescribed by MAS so that financial institutions and start-ups can test promising innovations in the market.
One latest development of this is that Singapore-based insurtech startup PolicyPal, which joined MAS’ fintech regulatory sandbox in March this year, has become the first startup to graduate from it. It has commenced operations from 1st September 2017.
Second, the government has set up actual physical spaces for real world experimentation. Dr Janil cited the example of e the autonomous vehicle (AV) trials. They started in One-North and now have expanded to residential estates in Dover and Buona Vista. Such trials will allow the AV trial participants to experience more traffic scenarios, so the scientists and designers can improve their technology, bringing us closer to a future where commuters can call for on-demand, shared AVs in their neighbourhood.
Lastly, there are instances where the government adopts a wait-and-see and light-touch approach. Take Uber and Grab for example. The government didn’t immediately regulate them when they entered the market. And even when the government introduced regulations, it was with a rather light touch. Similarly, while it’s technically illegal to rent your apartment on Airbnb, the government hasn’t yet stepped with with massive enforcement efforts to punish people who do so. And the government is looking at creating a new category of private homes that will be allowed for short-term rentals.
Want Smart Nation? Got to start now
In many areas, we already have things in place that make us quite a Smart Nation. A lot of our transactions with the government can be done online. But in many areas, we are lagging behind. To be a truly Smart Nation, we need to start now. And the efforts we put in now may only bear fruit many years later.
In fact, that is the overarching theme of the NDR. The three issues PM spoke about are things that we need to start doing now, but will only truly reap rewards many years later. For the sake of Singapore’s future generations, let’s hope we can deliver on these three issues.