Commentary: Singapore’s Smart Nation vision blurry without a success story

Commentary: Singapore’s Smart Nation vision blurry without a success story

From smart sensors for lighting and rubbish bins, to helping the elderly embrace technology – Singapore’s Smart Nation vision encompasses a lot, but it hasn’t really captured the imagination of the people. What would help?

SINGAPORE: It was just three years ago, in 2014, that Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled the Smart Nation vision for the country.

In his speech then, Mr Lee said: “Therefore 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.”

“We should see it in our daily living, where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably. We should see it in our communities, where technology will enable more people to connect to one another more easily and intensely. We should see it in our future, where we can create possibilities for ourselves beyond what we imagined possible.”

This vision was further expanded upon by Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Programme Office Vivian Balakrishnan a year on, when he said the Smart Nation vision will also result in a shift in tone in society.

This is because citizens will not be reliant on the Government to solve all problems, but people will be able to make use of the information available and come up with solutions for real-life problems, he explained.

Vivian Balakrishnan2
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan, speaking at the opening of InnovFest unBound 2016. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)

“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 2015 interview.

Mr Lee again pointed to the Smart Nation vision as one of three longer-term issues the country needs to focus on in his National Day message, and said he will expand more on these during this year’s National Day Rally. 


But how has this vision played out since?

A whole slew of schemes and news has been churned out to support this vision – everything from ways to bolster cybersecurity via a national strategy to creating a sensor platform, known as the Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP), to track and analyse data related to housing, amenities and public infrastructure.

Outgoing head of Civil Service Peter Ong described the SNSP as one that “encompasses hardware like lamp-posts and public cameras, as well as software that enables sensor data exchange and data and video analytics”. He said one of the aims is to make all 110,000 lamp posts in Singapore an interconnected network of wireless sensors – and the data can be used for urban and operational planning as well as prompt maintenance and incident response.

Said Mr Ong in describing a possible use case:

(An) exciting possibility is having lamp-posts ‘communicate’ with connected cars, to alert drivers when an ambulance or pedestrians are nearby

driverless vehicle NTU
A driverless vehicle being tested by NTU in December 2016. (Photo: TODAY/Koh Mui Fong)

There have also been efforts made to “turbo-charge” the Government’s Smart Nation efforts. A reorganisation, which saw the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) parked under the Prime Minister’s Office and given instructions to be the implementing arm of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), was carried out.

The new office in charge of digital transformation in the public service was effective this May.

Together, the SNDGO and GovTech are to lead the development of a national digital identity framework to facilitate digital transactions as well as a national platform to support Government agencies' use of Internet of Things (IoT) applications, which link physical items such as cars, health devices and home appliances to the Internet.

In the midst of these developments, the Government also launched SGInnovate – an entity playing an accelerator-type role to promote start-ups in new and emerging industries – in November last year. Among its partners are McLaren Applied Technologies and chipmaker Nvidia.   

At the same time, the Government is worried, rightly, that no one gets left behind in the push towards this tech-enabled future, particularly the country’s elderly. To address this, there are fairs and festivals held to get this demographic to embrace technology.

For instance, at this year’s Silver IT Fest, the Info-communications Media Development Authority and the People’s Association Active Ageing Council launched the Tech Silver project, which offers existing Silver Infocomm Wellness Ambassadors additional and ongoing training. 

VR goggles
A man trying out Virtual Reality googles at the Seniors for Smart Nation launch at Kolam Ayer Community Centre. (Photo: People's Association)


But in all these endeavours to make the Smart Nation a reality, there is one missing ingredient: A success story. 

That’s not to say all the existing initiatives and efforts are failures. Far from it.

Take the SNSP as an example. It is a long-term project that needs years before the true value of the system can be appreciated, but even then, arguably more by city planners than the common people.

Much efforts are also either geared towards the building up of basic technical infrastructure needed to turn Singapore into a Smart Nation, or are administrative, to ease the process for companies to get on the bandwagon of providing services on top of building the infrastructure.

When there are initiatives that are for the common people, they tend to be piecemeal affairs that are either one-offs, like hackathons involving young students, or initiatives addressing a targeted demographic such as the elderly or the young.

These, then, have resulted in Smart Nation news fatigue - when any announcement or initiative is quickly dismissed by most as something that does not apply to them or greeted by a “not again”.

What is lacking, I would argue, is a use case for a good majority of people to see how technology can be used to enhance their daily lives across multiple facets of daily living.

Are there such use cases, you may ask. Yes, there are. 

Estonia is held up as an oft-used illustration for a successful smart nation, and with good reason. Citizens there have a state-issued digital identity, and this is used as a legal travel ID to travel within the European Union, when logging into bank accounts, for voting electronically, in checking their medical records, and in submitting their tax returns.

Explaining how the country came to be digitally driven, President Kersti Kaljulaid said at the St Gallen Symposium this May: “There is no enforcement to go digital. But as it is simple, cheap and available, everybody has done so by now. As it has to be simple, cheap and work every time, it cannot be too innovative, untried and tested. (So) it is not.”

She continued:

It demonstrates that for a society as a whole, high rates of technological penetration, even when the technology itself is not cutting-edge, may pay off better than having something truly innovative in the hands of a few select people.

“You all have experienced this – the lives of millions have been transformed by cheap cars or washing machines, not by deployments to the moon. It is important to keep that in mind when digitalising societies.”

Another use case worth paying attention to is cashless payments.

In China’s capital of Beijing, for example, cashless payments are the norm. My colleague Jeremy Koh recently conducted an experiment to go cashless for a day in the city, and one thing stuck out: The street stall where he got his jianbing (Chinese pancake) accepted mobile payments via QR code. 

More importantly, the stall owner chose to offer the payment method due to customer demand: 

Nowadays most people use WeChat to pay and they don’t bring cash, so we have no choice. We have to accept WeChat payment.

And it’s not just payment for food from vendors. His experiment saw him paying for a street-hail taxi ride, mineral water from a convenience store and splitting a lunch bill – all without reaching for his physical wallet.

shop keeper holding phone for qr code
Stall selling street food with a QR code sign for online payments. (Photo: Jeremy Koh) 

Yes, the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) in July unveiled PayNow – a payment method available to customers of seven banks here that allows consumers to send and receive money using their mobile or IC numbers. Since then, DBS and OCBC have both introduced QR code payments at merchants and taxis from ComfortDelGro, as banks look to innovate on the infrastructure created by ABS.

But adoption hasn’t caught fire, as consumers and retailers take their time to embrace this mode of payment and assess its benefits.

Which is a pity, because cashless payment fits the profile of a success story that would “turbo-charge” Singapore towards becoming a Smart Nation.


Business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing Sheena Iyengar once co-conducted a study on jams sold at a grocery shop.

In that study, they would switch between offering 24 types of jams and six jams every few hours, and they found that more people would be attracted to the wider selection of jams, but fewer would buy one. Conversely, fewer people would be drawn to the six jams, but more would buy a bottle. 

This is perhaps instructive in why cashless payment is not taking off here just yet – there are too many choices for consumers, including methods like cash and credit cards that are ingrained in society.

So, what can we do about it?

Right now, PayNow requires bank customers to sign up for the service, and banks like DBS are incentivising this by offering gifts such as iPads when they do so. But this might still be too slow.

QR code collage for OCBC and DBS
Both OCBC Bank and DBS Bank are pushing QR code payments. (Photos: OCBC and DBS)

My suggestion? Enrol every one with a bank account into the scheme, but give them the option to opt out if they choose to.

With this function turned on, people would no longer need to worry if they have the right app to transfer money via their smartphones which, admit it, is the device that many of us do not leave home without these days.

If this creates sufficient traction among people to start transferring money digitally, it could create a demand for similar money transfer methods between retailers and service providers. They, in turn, would start offering these options, much like the jianbing seller in Beijing. Voila, a virtuous cycle.

This could be the success Singapore’s Smart Nation vision is waiting for: One that would tip it over from being a nebulous, topical news point to one that could bring tangible benefits to the common folk.

Barring which, legislation could be the kickstart required. But I am hoping that the benefits of technology would better convince people, than have people say: “What to do, Government wants us to be Smart Nation what.” 

Source: CNA/sl