Commentary: Budget 2018's pervasive innovation vision needs more success stories

Commentary: Budget 2018's pervasive innovation vision needs more success stories

More stories from innovation torchbearers are needed to show firms competing in traditional sectors can disrupt market rules that seem to be cast in stone, says vice-president of PSB Academy.

SINGAPORE: Budget 2018 marks a decisive step in Singapore’s hard-fought economic transformation.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat highlighted on Monday (Feb 19) a vision of anchoring Singapore as a node of technology, innovation and enterprise.

“We must make innovative pervasive in our economy, develop deep capabilities in our firms and workers, and establish strong partnerships locally and abroad,” he said.

The Finance Minister shared how local concrete mixer Pan United had harnessed pervasive innovation to develop a breakthrough product that could cushion aircraft landings. 

Stories like these tell us that if any city were to succeed in economic transformation, Singapore should be counted among the top.


Indeed, Singapore’s Smart Nation movement has ensured that the necessary foundations are in place from which innovations across the island could scale up with data. 

In the early stages of the Smart Nation movement, the Government moved swiftly to develop the necessary infrastructure that would undergird the widespread use of technology, networks and data to improve the way we work and live.

Over the past three years, it has embarked on a HetNet (Heterogeneous Network) trial programme to blanket our Little Red Dot with always-on Internet-connectivity; introduced regulation to protect the privacy of individuals through the Personal Data Protection Act; and encouraged a culture of co-creation with data to allow disruptive thinking to shape public policy-making.

Similarly, the national skills-upgrading programme SkillsFuture has built on Singapore’s success in developing a well-educated population with the necessary formal qualifications to compete for jobs in the global marketplace.

The initiative saw more than 400,000 people undergo training in 2016, demonstrating the country’s resolve to invest in the development of its people, where many other cities have not.

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A person accesses the SkillsFuture website. (Photo: Christy Yip)

Yet if the Budget aims to nurture a culture of pervasive innovation, this inclination towards a top-down approach must stop at the water’s edge.

To enable a groundswell of genuine transformation stemming from self-motivation and have the private sector step up, perhaps the Government needs to step back.

While companies can take advantage of initiatives such as the newly announced Open Innovation Platform to crowdfund digital solutions, these businesses should also embrace the Government’s call to embed “deep capabilities” into their own organisations in their bid to transform into competitive firms for the digital economy.

There are a slew of other schemes that aim to support companies in digitalising and building new capabilities – including the Enterprise Development Grant and the SME Digital Go programme. 

But there are limits to Government assistance because the onus ultimately is on companies to take the plunge.

Companies must proactively think and act to acquire capabilities that enhance their disruptive quotient – by leveraging technology and big data to work in a smarter way and capitalise on new opportunities.

In all these endeavours from the Government to boost innovation, what is arguably missing are more success stories that can spur other companies on and help them see how building digital capabilities can help grow their business in a tangible way.

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Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivering the Budget 2018 statement.

I would argue that one capability to acquire is self-service data analytics, where an entire workforce – not just the ICT department – would become skilful at making productive decisions on behalf of the business using data.

Firms should be encouraged by stories of those who have been successful at instilling such a pervasive culture in data literacy.

In that regard, one needs not look further than to Grab, one of Singapore’s most iconic disruptors and Southeast Asia’s leading ride-hailing app.


Grab recognised from the onset that it couldn’t simply become another traditional transport company to compete effectively, much less run its operations that way.

It needed to act and position itself as a disruptor whose lifeblood runs on data – the currency for the digital age – while catering to the ability of its entire workforce to see and understand data for themselves.

Grab tapped on a cloud-based, data analytics platform Tableau Online to centralise millions of rows of customer data and help various business units make data-guided decisions around app development, new business opportunities and overall user experience. The company recently reported a 60 per cent increase in Tableau users among its own workforce, in just a mere six months.

Dr Kong-Wei Lye, Grab’s Head of Data Science shared: 

Data is a huge asset at Grab. With this huge amount of data, we are able to analyse the travel patterns as well as the preferences, and the likes and dislikes of our customers. And with that, we are able to improve on our products.

Grab reported that these efforts have led to significant productivity gains and better decision making, such as delivering on more strategic product launches and ultimately a “super local” app experience.

Data has also allowed Grab to make game-changing decisions – for instance the installation of a physical Grab booth at a few airports around Southeast Asia including Jakarta and Manila where the demand for a reliable and safe ride into the city is arguably one of the highest but visitors might not have immediate mobile access. 

Grab staff there book taxis on behalf of customers, improving Grab’s market capture of rides in those cities.

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Grab app advertisement at a train station in Singapore on Feb 10, 2016. (File photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Grab is just one of many firms that are reaping the dividends of these deep capabilities such as self-service data analytics. 

Others should also feel encouraged to step up and seize on the Budget’s bold measures, build on Singapore’s Smart Nation movement and partner with technology platforms to thrive in the digital economy.

In the same vein, education institutions from the private sector can also do more to strike partnerships with industry and apply technology to help Singapore’s workforce adopt a culture of lifelong learning.


Last year, PSB Academy, one of Singapore’s largest private education institutions, inked exclusive partnerships with education technology platforms like Pearson to develop an online learning portal that over 12,000 students can access from any device at any time.

The Academy also invested in a new initiative that allows working adults to attend classes virtually, and engage with their peers and lecturers via video conferencing into tutorial rooms and auditoriums at PSB’s S$15 million City Campus.

By integrating learning for students across multiple platforms, PSB has been able to provide personalised education journeys for each student.

These are in turn strongly supported by guided learning formats that include face-to-face engagements with experts from both university partners and industry to bring students the best of both digital and physical worlds.

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A picture of PSB Academy. (Photo: PSB Academy's Facebook page)

Amid reports of dire employment rates of students from private schools in general, PSB’s approach to teaching has yielded strong graduate outcomes. 

In 2017, close to eight in 10 graduates from PSB found employment within six months upon graduating from the institution, while six in 10 shared that they acquired skills from PSB that enabled them to perform better at their job.

Against a sector that is reportedly shrinking by double-digit percentages, PSB registered a double-digit percentage growth in student population for two consecutive years.

As with Grab’s experience in disrupting Singapore’s private transportation sector, PSB’s rapid adoption of education technology demonstrates how an organisation from a traditional sector can harness pervasive innovation to benefits its customers and break out from the staid norms of its sector.

Singapore Budget 2018 is a significant signal from a Government with a reputation for its resolve to not only chart ambitious transformation maps, but to also resolutely see these plans through.

With initiatives such as the Tech Skills Accelerator, which will be enhanced at a cost of S$145 million over three years, the Budget is packed with programmes that aim to ramp up Singapore’s companies and workforce.

While many Singaporeans seem sufficiently satisfied with their “Budget hongbaos”, these red packets pale in comparison to the multi-billion-dollar dividends that businesses and people can reap from these Budget initiatives – on the condition that they become active participants in Singapore’s drive to create a culture of pervasive innovation.

Marcus Loh is Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Communication at PSB Academy and an accredited member of Singapore’s apex chamber for communication management practitioners, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl