Michael Sainsbury
September 1, 2015

Singapore sets policy standard

Singapore sets policy standard

Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong: We must take full advantage of technology

Shut your eyes very hard and imagine, if you can, Tony Abbott saying these words:

One important advantage which we have which we must take full advantage of is to use technology extensively and systematically, particularly IT. Not just piecemeal, individual gadgets, individual programmes and systems – that we are already doing, and all sorts of devices and applications have technology and IT in them. I am sure just in this room if we add all our mobile phones together we will have terabytes of storage and gigabytes of processing power, but we have to do this systematically, to make the most of the potential, to integrate all of the technology and possibilities into a coherent and comprehensive whole. This will make our economy more productive, our lives better, and our society more responsive to our people’s needs and aspirations.”

No good? Of course they were not said by Abbott, they were uttered by another Prime Minister, one who both understands technology and its fundamental importance to economies of the future – well economies right now actually.

They were words used by Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong late last year when he launched Singapore’s Smart Nation strategy. Smart Nation is the overriding strategy that now sits atop Singapore’s multiple technology and hub projects, in which the country has so far invested about S$30 billion.

In April this year, Prime Minister Lee – whose two children are both graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – announced that he would put the Smart Nation program into his own office. Mr Lee and many of his Cabinet are tech savvy. In fact, the Minister in charge of the Smart Nation project dabbles in application development and robotics for fun.

Again close your eyes and try to imagine Tony Abbott taking charge of Australia’s technology roadmap, or Eric Abetz tooling about on the weekends with code, writing a user-friendly eGovernment application.

Since last year’s launch, the Singaporean government has been hard at it, bolstering an already impressive record with release in August of its much-anticipated Infocomm Media 2025 blueprint.

Infocomm Media 2025 sets out three broad strategic thrusts for the sector:

  • to build on the power of data and data insights, advanced communications and computational technologies to catalyse a series of transformation across key sectors of the economy;
  • to develop a future ready workforce with the right capabilities and businesses that embraces risk-taking and innovation, and;
  • to deploy Infocomm Media technologies in a people-centric manner to improve various aspects of everyday life.

In many ways it is fairly prosaic, basic stuff. But it is important that governments take the lead on these things, in partnership with industry. It is a signal from government that it understands technology, and is embracing it as a key plank of its economy.

Of course Singapore is also a highly wired place, unlike Australia, which baulked at the opportunity to build a truly ‘world class’ (such an awful but occasionally useful phrase) broadband network.

Singapore has ubiquitous gigabit Ethernet and a proliferation of public wi-fi networks. The Singaporean government, unlike the Coalition in Australia has not seen this as a “waste” of money but rather as an essential building block in its plan to be, yes, a truly ‘world class’ technology hub.

Singapore has another key advantage in that a huge part of its population is bi-lingual – both the lingua franca of global technology, English, as well as in Chinese, the language spoken and written in the what will be come be the world’s largest market.

Not only does this provide a talent pool of technology experts who develop and sell applications and products into the Chinese market. It also means that these Chinese speakers can build links with wealthy Chinese speaking investors.

As Singapore recognises, to succeed in its ambitious goals, government money and lots of nicely worded blueprints are not enough: It needs an entrepreneurial culture.

As Mr Lee has noted, it’s easy to import the latest technology, and implement business-friendly schemes. “But ultimately, you need a culture, that spunk, daring to dream, daring to fail, daring to take on big challenges.” He recognises that there is no magic bullet adding that “many countries have tried to nurture this culture, only a few have succeeded.

America of course. Israel is another and Lee believes that “perhaps there will be one or two somewhere in Asia. But the places which have succeeded in doing this – even in America, it is not everywhere but a few places – it starts a virtuous cycle – talent attracts more talent, more ideas and start-ups are established, the excitement builds on itself and you get more breakthroughs.”

Telstra, Australia’s biggest technology company has recognised Singapore’s advantages and importance in the regional technology field with its Asian headquarters for its regional push into cloud services now based in Singapore.

In April it also launched its Muru-D incubator in Singapore – will it work? Who knows, but startups are all about having a go. A handful of other Australian companies that rely on innovation such as Visy also have their regional offices based in Singapore and more startsups are finding their way there either to do business in Singapore or use it as a base for ASEAN.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore as well as the Australian High Commission, are arguably more alive and active in trying to attract Australian talent to Singapore than any other in the region.

In July Australia’s energetic High Commissioner Philip Green, AustCham chairman Guy Scott and a range of senior Austrade officials conducted their unique second annual Australian roadshow, aimed at showcasing Singapore’s opportunities for Australian business and Australian opportunities for Singaporean corporations. Singapore is already Australia’s No 5 investor.

In the absence of a technology vision from not just this but any other Australian government in recent history, Singapore, with its business friendly low tax environment underpinning its sectoral focus, could quickly become a magnet for Australian startups and technology talent.

This is Part One of a two-part feature exploring Singapore’s tech-savvy policy approach to building a smarter nation.You can read Part Two here.

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