SINGAPORE: As Singapore moves towards becoming a Smart Nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has stressed the importance of respecting a person’s privacy, while at the same time making full use of information to improve society and people’s lives.
Responding to a question from a student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s first Ministerial Forum on Thursday (Apr 5), Mr Lee highlighted the example of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, saying that there is a “trade-off” between collecting information and respecting people’s privacy.
Last month, Facebook had acknowledged that personal information about millions of users had wrongly ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
The student had asked Mr Lee what Singapore’s vision is of the balance between collecting data and respecting a person’s privacy.
“I think we have to feel our way forward,” replied Mr Lee. “We want to make full use of the information we have in order to improve people’s lives, improve the way our society works, to make it a safer environment for everybody.
“At the same time, you do not want to do it in a way which is overbearing, intrusive, which is unethical.”
For example, the Government has placed CCTVs in many public places like void decks, lift lobbies and HDB blocks. “We need to know what’s happening in public places, in case there’s a riot or an emergency, we can respond straightaway,” he said. “But if we put CCTVs in front of your front door, or on your own corridor watching who’s going in and out, I think you would very legitimately be upset.”
The CCTV network, he said, has resulted in far fewer loan sharks operating in Singapore.
He added that telcos in Singapore know where the concentrations of people are and where they are going. “Can we make use of that without tracing this person, with this name ... I saw him at this place with this other person ...?” he asked.
“I think there are ways you can anonymise the data, sample it, remove the identifiers, and then allow it to be used by people who will use it responsibly,” he said. “I think these are things which we should explore.”
“I think we know what we want to do,” he added. “How to do it in a way which people find okay, and in a way which is safe ... I think we have to feel our way forward.”
ON RE-EXAMINING SINGAPORE’S POLITICAL SYSTEM
Mr Lee took on a wide range of questions during the dialogue, one of which was whether it was time for the Government to re-examine the political system in Singapore, given the “increasing desire from the younger generation to have more diverse voices”.
To that, Mr Lee explained that Singapore's multi-party democracy, where one party is dominant, has worked well for the country. But he said there is no certainty in these things.
“I think it depends on how well the PAP can perform and how well the opposition can convince people that they can do better than the Government, or that the Government is doing things wrong and you should stop the Government from doing things which are no good,” he said.
He added that in a small country like Singapore, it is already hard enough to build one team which will work well. “If I tell my ministers, three of you leave the party, go to the other side, and we will play against each other ... First of all, my team would be weaker, secondly I think the dynamics would change and, in the process, I think Singapore would be shortchanged,” he said.
“I would say we make our system work and we adjust incrementally from what is working,” he added, citing the example of having Non-Constituency MPs in Parliament. “We wanted to have the advantages of a system where one party can be very strong, and yet we will never completely shut out the others.”
In 2016, Mr Lee had announced that he intended to raise the number of Non-Constituency MP seats, so that there will be at least 12 opposition faces in Parliament, up from the current nine, from the next General Election.
“I would say if you have 12 people, you’re able to make a lot of noise, if you have the right people,” he said. “Because they will be able to stand up, to hold the Government to account, to make the argument and make an impact. And the next election, they will win more.
“If they don’t have the right team, you can have 20-30 because of the proportion of representation, but it will not be of help. But 12 good men ... I think it will make a big difference.”
“The proof of that is the PAP before it came to power,” he added, pointing out how it had only three seats in the Legislative Assembly following the 1955 elections.
“Mr Lee Kuan Yew was one of them, the Colonial Government was fully held to account,” he added.
“Today, they don’t have such a person in the opposition.”