What next for smart nation Singapore? Getting citizens and SMEs to embrace digital

What next for smart nation Singapore? Getting citizens and SMEs to embrace digital

Mr Chan Cheow Hoe, the country’s first Government Chief Digital Technology Officer, is pushing for more in the civil service to think of citizens as their “customers” when developing digital services, but also asks for people’s patience when these services do go down.

Chan Cheow Hoe, Singapore's first Government Chief Digital Technology Officer
Singapore's first Government Chief Digital Technology Officer Chan Cheow Hoe hopes to anticipate and deliver personalised services to citizens in a timely manner. (Photo: SNDGO)

SINGAPORE: Mr Chan Cheow Hoe is refreshingly candid. A no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase type of guy more at home in the cut-and-thrust of the private sector. 

Yet the banking industry veteran is now the deputy chief executive of Product Management at Government Technology Agency (GovTech). He concurrently assumed the role of Singapore’s first Government chief digital technology officer (GCDTO) advising the country’s leaders on digital services and transformation this November.

READ: Singapore 'well-positioned' to realise Smart Nation vision, says S Iswaran

In a recent wide-ranging interview with Channel NewsAsia, he shared how he actually spent “seven to eight months” deliberating the decision before making the switch. “The opportunity for change (in the public sector) is there,” he said of the reason that convinced him to move in February 2014.

One example was the “fundamental shift in mindset” needed for how the Government thinks about and delivers services to Singaporeans, and how he has been pushing this change.

The 54-year-old recalled a conversation he had with a senior civil servant early on in his public sector life.

“The person pulled me aside after one meeting and said: ‘Eh Cheow Hoe, you need to change your mindset. You keep talking about customer experience and customer journey, but the Government where got customers?’ Now that scared me.”


Since then, it’s been a journey to get people to think of Singaporeans as “customers” of the digital services GovTech is both developing and has made available publicly such as Parking.sg and Moments of Life (Families).

The GCDTO also brought up another conversation that brought this issue of citizen-centric development to the fore.

Someone had asked him what the difference was between user journey in an Agile development framework and user requirement in a waterfall development method, Mr Chan recalled. 

Waterfall and Agile are known methods of software development. The former relies only on the person or team writing the technical specification to illustrate the problem and how the software aims to solve it. The latter relies heavily on customer feedback at every stage of development that results in frequent tweaks and updates.

“One is inward looking, while the other is external,” he explained, and the challenge has been to get Government agencies to look from outside in when thinking of their citizen services.

One recent example of this a session held in conjunction with Care Corner Senior Activity Centre (Champions Way) to get senior citizens' feedback on an emergency alert system using sensor technology.

This direction to put citizens’ needs front and centre was echoed by another GovTech deputy director earlier in May. Mr Li Hongyi, who was part of the team that developed Parking.sg, shared how features included in the app were in recognition of people’s needs.

Mr Chan also said the mindset shift needs to take place among citizens too. 

READ: Another Government app? Complain, sure, but after trying it. A commentary

As his team at GovTech work on delivering what is known in tech circles as a MVP (minimum viable product) to citizens, usually in beta form, with new features or improvements on the core service pushed subsequently, he called on people to think of its apps like that of messaging app WhatsApp.

"WhatsApp frequently prompts users to update the app right?" he said. 

Pointing out that citizens don't tend to equate Government services to a WhatsApp-type one, Mr Chan's quick reply was: "Well, you should."

Singaporeans should also get used to the fact that these services would go down at times, as seen recently with SingPass Mobile. More established and popular services like Facebook and Instagram also face such outages after all, he added.   


It is not just meeting citizens’ needs either. 

Mr Chan said the vision is to deliver Government services to people proactively, and this is best seen today with the Moments of Life (Families) app.

READ: New Moments of Life app gets parents' blessings, mostly

He shared that he has been pitching this idea of bundling Government services based on a moment in a citizen’s life for the past two years, inspired in part by a personal experience.  

“Most times (people) go to Government is when something urgent happens, and it is usually a moment of life,” he said.

“The most difficult one I went through was about a year and a half ago when my mum passed away. You’ll be surprised how difficult it is to deal with Government when you realise that, wow, there are so many things to do, and in that moment of grief, you don’t know where to go.

“The most bizarre thing was that when I went to Ministry of Health (for information), don’t have. You know where it is? NEA (National Environment Agency). Because they are the ones that deal with crematorium services and all these stuff,” he said.

Mr Chan said he learned that there are moments in one’s life that you have to go to the Government, and when you do, the citizen would not want to have to deal with so many agencies at that point in time.

So beyond telling people where to find these various services it would be better if he could just deliver those services to people when they need them, he pointed out. And that’s how Moments of Life started, the GCDTO revealed.

MOL (Families) app 1
Ms Charlene Tan, with her week-old baby, says she is glad for the time savings from registering the birth using the Moments of Life (Families) app. 

“We’re basically transforming the entire service journey from Government for citizens,” he said, adding it is a “very powerful” concept to work off.

Going forward, he envisions providing personalised services to citizens based on information the Government would already have. For example, for a boy at 18, he would be about to enter National Service, so the relevant information and services can be “pumped” to that particular individual, Mr Chan explained.


Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr Chan is already busy thinking up his “theme” for the coming year.

He shared how he would have a theme for each year he has been in the public service, with the first year focused on evaluating existing IT projects and shutting down those that were not working.

One example he cited was the digital mailbox service, called OneInbox, that was introduced in 2012. Mr Chan shared that the project was “walking dead” for a few years when he joined as it could not scale. There were some loyal users who liked the service, but the GCDTO said he can’t keep the lights on for a project that only has a small number of users still on it.

But shutting down a service in government is “not easy”, he said.

“I pushed to have the service shut down. I know some people hated me for it. But it’s OK, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

To him, lowering or removing as much risk as possible for any project he aims to execute is critical, and this is seen in his attitude towards multi-million government IT initiatives.

“If I spend S$100,000 on (a project) and I shut it down, no one is going to kick up a fuss,” Mr Chan explained. “If I spend S$10 million, people will scream and shout if I shut it down.

“So this whole concept of Agile, start-small-think-big philosophy is something that I pushed like mad at the beginning.”

This then points to the civil servant’s theme for the new year: Communities. Mr Chan said he hopes to bring local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on board the public sector’s tech infrastructure to co-develop features and tools that are needed.

Elaborating, he said the cloud-based Singapore Government Technology Stack is being designed to support both private and public cloud computing projects.

So, for applications or tools that do not require access to sensitive data, SMEs can work on creating tools the Government needs. For instance, if a company wanted to build a payment gateway like what Stripe is offering for Parking.sg, it is able to do so in partnership with GovTech engineers, the GCDTO said.  

He acknowledged that this was an ambitious vision because, as far as he knows, no other Government is doing this.

“How successful it’s going to be? I don’t know,” Mr Chan admitted candidly. “But we’ll try.

“We’ll start small, and if it succeeds, we’ll push forward with it.”

Source: CNA/kk