SINGAPORE: Singapore is "well-positioned" to benefit from the global digital transformation, if appropriate steps are taken to build capacity among both businesses and individuals, said Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran on Tuesday (Aug 14).
He elaborated that the key to this is convincing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that going digital is a valuable undertaking.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Iswaran said that efforts to scale up digitalisation across the island are ongoing, including plans to create more digitally-enabled neighbourhoods such as Chinatown, Little India and "one to two heartland shopping areas".
This follows Kampong Glam, which began cashless payments, augmented reality navigation and virtual in-store tours earlier this year, with an estimated 150 merchants set to benefit.
"This way, you’re taking digitalisation initiatives to locales not quite in the mainstream of digitalisation," said Mr Iswaran.
"It enhances the customer experience, the precinct as a provider of services, and it will improve business opportunities for the businesses operating there."
BUILDING A DIGITAL FUTURE
Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations, said the ultimate objective is to build a "thriving future for Singapore in the digital era", where everyone can actively participate in this enterprise.
Since taking on the Communications and Information portfolio in May, various initiatives to give both businesses and individuals a leg-up have been unveiled.
This includes the ramping up of the SMEs Go Digital programme to develop targeted industry digital plans and the TechSkills Accelerator efforts to equip people with relevant skills. So far, more than 1,000 SMEs have benefited from the initiative, while a total of 39,000 training places have been taken or committed by companies since its launch.
But convincing businesses of the benefits of going digital remains a key challenge.
"It's by no means unique to Singapore - I've seen this in Germany, France and various parts of the world, where you'd expect to be quite advanced in technological adoption, but they also have the same challenges," said Mr Iswaran.
"You first need industry and business leaders to come to the conclusion that this is the right thing to do, and that this will indeed make a difference to their business. And therefore, the investment you make will be worthwhile and yield the returns you want."
There is also "ample help" to guide SMEs in implementing digital solutions in both the public and private sectors, he added.
SINGAPORE SHOULD NOT BE DETERRED BY CYBER THREATS: ISWARAN
While digitalisation can reap benefits for the country, emerging cyberthreats such as deliberate online falsehoods and cyberattacks will remain, such as the SingHealth data breach in July, when records of 1.5 million people were stolen.
Even so, this should not dampen digitalisation efforts, noted Mr Iswaran, who is also the minister responsible for cybersecurity.
"Even as we work to deal with and get to the bottom of it, and ensure our systems emerge stronger by implementing appropriate measures ... the broader message to Singaporeans (is) that this sort of cybersecurity threat is going to be part and parcel of the digital future," said Mr Iswaran.
He added that such incidents should not "cow or deter us from pursuing this path, because it is a path that’s going to create the opportunities for this and future generations of Singaporeans".
While measures can and will be taken to strengthen its IT systems, Mr Iswaran said Singapore can never be foolproof.
"We have to be prepared that a scenario like this may occur, and what that preparation entails is, on one hand, doing everything we can to prevent it from happening.
"But if it were to occur, to respond effectively and to be resilient and emerge stronger is the mindset we need when dealing with this issue."
NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY
Mr Iswaran said he remains confident that Singapore is well-placed to realise its vision of a Smart Nation, because it has set a national direction and won the trust of both domestic and international audiences - but there is no room for complacency.
"We must recognise that other cities and nations around the world are also embarking on this effort. And so this also becomes a competitive advantage - we're competing for investments," he said.
"The most important thing we can do is first to state categorically that the Government takes with utmost seriousness the security of our IT systems and databases, and we are investing considerable resource and efforts to ensure they remain secure."
While he acknowledged that confidence may have been shaken following the health data breach, the government's transparent and resolution response - by setting out what happened and listing measures that have been taken - was key to maintaining trust.
READ: SingHealth cyberattack: Did authorities respond fast enough to Singapore’s worst personal data breach?
"I think this is an important way to give Singaporeans the assurance and uphold their trust and confidence in our systems. That’s the best way of dealing with it," he said.
"We’ve also been transparent to spell out very clearly what has happened, what data has and has not been compromised, so the full extent of this incident is made very clear to Singaporeans as well."
Singaporeans must also play their part, such as by exercising good cyber hygiene habits like setting strong passwords, and not falling for rumours and falsehoods circulating online, said Mr Iswaran.
"At the need of the day, we need our people to be educated and discerning - that is the ultimate firewall."