SINGAPORE: “I’ve waited 10 years for this opportunity.”
Mr Quek Yang Boon, clad in a black Government Technology Agency (GovTech) polo tee and khaki pants, said in earnest, during an interview with Channel NewsAsia on Friday (Jan 26). He did not appear to be a fair-weather engineer simply looking to ride the country’s stated ambition to be the world's first Smart Nation.
Explaining, he shared how 10 years ago, when he was working at global semiconductor company Texas Instruments, he had already proposed to high-level executives there to bring electric cars and green energy technology to Singapore. "At that time, I truly believed Singapore should be the model green and high-tech city for the world."
So when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the United States' Silicon Valley in 2016, and shared about Smart Nation and the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme, Mr Quek said his message "resonated strongly" with him.
The Smart Nation Fellowship Programme looks to recruit top data scientists, technologists and engineers from Singapore and abroad to work in partnership with the Government for short stints of three to six months.
"(Mr Lee) found a cooler term with Smart Nation," the 43-year-old said. "Mine was just green and high-tech, not very cool."
At that time, Mr Quek was at Apple and some of his work included being the lead engineer for the digital crown for the company's first-generation Apple Watch.
But the vision and challenge set out by the Prime Minister had taken root.
"Maybe at the back of my mind, I felt that engineers have a duty to build the world and to make the world a better place ... and that's one of the reasons why I felt that despite Apple being a very cool place, I do feel that Smart Nation has a very direct impact (on) people's lives and you do actually fulfil your mission as an engineer," he explained.
With opportunity knocking, the engineer decided not to "mess around" and take the plunge to returning home with his family - his wife and baby, now three - last year.
In fact, two days after he resigned from Apple, Mr Quek started work at GovTech. Today, he is the director for Smart Nation Systems and Solutions Sensors and IoT (Internet of Things) at the agency.
"GovTech didn't want me to drag my feet around, so I had to start," he said laughingly.
He was put under the spotlight by PM Lee in a Facebook post earlier this month, when his ongoing work on the country's smart lamp posts project was highlighted.
And it is the smart lamp posts project, as well as the bigger Smart Nation Sensor Platform initiative, that "really excited" this engineer when he discovered more about the country's ambitious digital transformation plan.
HOW CAN WE HELP IMPROVE PEOPLE'S LIVES?
"I quickly realised after I spoke to the Smart Nation team that we're actually trying to build something super cool here: We're trying to build the biggest, most pervasive and nation-wide sensor network that the world has ever seen," Mr Quek shared.
He also acknowledged that his return was not just a personal one in coming back to help the country. "It's going to be very good for my career as well, being one of the guys to build something super amazing like this."
That said, he was adamant that the focus remains on the people, even though the concept of Smart Nation can sometimes be confusing or even divisive.
This is true even in his family. Mr Quek shared that his mother-in-law does not understand what he does and would just say he works on street lamps. "She just doesn't understand what is a smart lamp post," he said.
As an example, he showed how his team has created an audio sensing camera that could react to sounds nearby and automatically face the lens to where it originated from. This prototype, he explained, was conceived because of the question: Can we have a better response to an emergency situation on the street?
Bringing it further, the director explained that the camera, when deployed on street lamps in parks, could be used to pick up incidents such as when someone is being attacked or needing help in the middle of the night.
So while the technology is important, he is keen to make sure his team focuses on people's needs.
He said: "How can I use all these sensors and technology to make a difference - that's the biggest challenge I give to my team and myself.
"(At the end of the day,) people really need to see the end result to appreciate (the Smart Nation vision)."