SINGAPORE: Forming the right regulatory framework and getting social acceptance are the “two big buckets of challenges” that the Government faces in its push towards a Smart Nation, said Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary on Tuesday (Jun 5).
Being a small and resource-constrained country, Singapore cannot afford to be in the “too-late zone” and the Government sees the Smart Nation effort as an opportunity for significant transformations in the economy and society, he said.
But there remain challenges.
One of which is figuring out the right regulatory structure and avoiding possible downsides given the lack of prior experiences and success models, said Dr Puthucheary in response to a question posed during a panel discussion at the Smart Nation Innovations Week opening symposium.
To help with that, the Government has since taken on the approach of a “regulatory sandbox” which has found success in industries, such as financial technology (FinTech) monitored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
This idea of creating a safe space for experimentation will be applied to other domains where uncertainties remain about the appropriate regulatory structure to drive innovation, he added.
The second challenge, according to Dr Puthucheary, is how digital transformation initiatives remain a “hard sell” to Singaporeans amid fears about job losses and privacy, as well as how a significant portion of the local population are not English-educated or digital natives.
All these add to the challenge of convincing Singaporeans that the transformation will be beneficial.
“There is anxiety about how much value this is to them,” said Dr Puthucheary.
This is where the country’s first Digital Readiness Blueprint comes in.
In response to a question from Channel NewsAsia during a group interview after the opening symposium, Dr Puthucheary said: “That looks at issues around access, literacy and participation – how do we give Singaporeans increasing access to the benefits of the digital revolution and how do we make sure they have literacy … and skills needed to participate in the online space.”
Efforts are also underway to help workers navigate disruption of technology on jobs – an issue that “is not something to shy away from” given how it has “very real” concerns, he said.
For example, the Labour Movement is committed to re-training and re-skilling the local workforce while education institutions here are ensuring that students are well-prepared for opportunities in the current world.
“Social acceptance of our digital initiatives is very important because ultimately, what we do has to translate to benefits for Singaporeans … Some of these things are happening at such a rapid pace, it means that people have to learn new skills and that is an anxiety for anybody,” said Dr Puthucheary.
“If we can get all that right, then Singaporeans will see that there are a lot of benefits to this journey of transformation through technology that we are using Smart Nation for,” he added.
DATA “IS THE NEW AIR”
Alongside Dr Puthucheary, other speakers for the two panel discussions held at the Marina Bay Sands include DBS CEO Piyush Gupta and Michaelia Cash, Australia’s Minister for jobs and innovation, who weighed in on how technology is transforming people’s lives, cities and economies.
The increasing importance of data and the recent rise in privacy concerns were among the issues tossed up during the discussions.
For instance, data has had profound implications on the banking sector by changing how things work and allowing everyone, ranging from start-ups to big tech oligarchs, to dip their toes into the industry, said Mr Gupta.
“Data is a big thing,” he said. “People call data the new oil. I think data is more than the new oil; it is the new air.”
However, this comes with both upsides and downsides. While digital technology has paved the way for financial inclusion, it also has unintended consequences on areas like jobs, added Mr Gupta.
Citing DBS as an example where the use of technology has allowed it reduce the number of employees at its bank branches and call centres by half, the chief of Singapore’s biggest lender said: “We have been automating and digitising … but what does that mean to the nature of jobs? What does it mean to where the jobs come from?”
Ms Harriet Green, chairman and CEO of IBM Asia-Pacific, said the issue of data stewardship is at the heart of digitisation, be it for governments or businesses.
Noting that 80 per cent of the world’s data currently belongs to companies and is not searchable, she added: “With a greater power (comes) a deep responsibility around stewarding and being the guardians of the data of our clients and of the people that give us that data.”
On the issue of privacy fears, Dr Puthucheary said putting in place the right type of protection will be appropriate, such as making sure that citizens have the “recourse to either appeal, challenge or to secure their privacy”.
However, this should be done in a way that does not constrain business opportunities.
“The opportunities that will be available through the analysis of data are likely to increase and we must make sure that we all benefit from that process,” he said.
“There is some clear anxiety given what has happened recently and it’s appropriate that we correct and put in place the right type of protection. But I think we also want to give ourselves the opportunity to think about how … not to constrain the business model and business opportunities.”