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Bring Singaporeans back home, grow local talent for Smart Nation efforts: Vivian Balakrishnan

Bring Singaporeans back home, grow local talent for Smart Nation efforts: Vivian Balakrishnan

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan speaking to CNA Digital Chief Editor Jaime Ho as part of the CNA Leadership Summit 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: Having people well versed in digital skills is key to Singapore’s Smart Nation drive, and the country hopes to attract Singaporeans based overseas to return home to work on such projects, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan. 

This is on top of continued efforts to grow the local talent pool, he added. 

Dr Balakrishnan noted that with the global shortage of tech talent, there are “hundreds” of Singaporeans who are working abroad in places such as the Silicon Valley in the United States, China and Southeast Asia. 

“So the first thing is wherever possible, bring our people back home … The second source is (to) grow our own people,” he said during an interview conducted as part of the CNA Leadership Summit 2020. 

Progress has been made in growing the local talent pool, Dr Balakrishnan added, with the intake for infocomm courses at Singapore’s universities and polytechnics having trebled over the last five to six years for example.

READ: Iswaran, Chan Chun Sing to chair new ministerial committee on digital transformation

But this may not be enough, which is why foreign talent is needed to complement the local workforce, he said.

“So the third element has been (to) carefully and judiciously … complement our own local workforce by bringing in people from overseas who … truly have the skills that we need, who complement us, who have the networks, who have that extra ideas and verve to help us with the start-up scene in order to grow a bigger ecosystem,” he said during the interview that was broadcast on Tuesday night (Oct 27). 

Dr Balakrishnan was responding to a question from CNA Digital’s Chief Editor Jaime Ho about the people needed for Singapore’s Smart Nation vision, as well as how he would describe the “balance” for such talent required by the public and private sectors as COVID-19 accelerates the Government’s push towards digitalisation.

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan speaking to CNA Digital Chief Editor Jaime Ho as part of the CNA Leadership Summit 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

On whether the Government is “taking up too much of the local talent”, he replied: “When I meet a Singaporean overseas, my first pitch to them is there are … lots of opportunities in Singapore for you to do meaningful work.

“I hope you will consider the Government, you will consider the local companies and you will consider the multinational digital companies … All the tech giants are here and in fact, it’s no secret (that) more and more of them are coming here.”

The Government needs to have “enough talent” as it envisions and creates the necessary digital infrastructure and software, but it plays a “complementary role”, said Dr Balakrishnan.

“We need to be able to generate some of our own apps, but not all. We need to be able to be familiar enough with the technology so that even when we outsource, we outsource in a smart way.”

Adding that many of the Government’s initiatives are open-source, he added: “We in fact want the private sector to take the ideas and the services here, license it to them either for free or for very minimal rates and let them run with it.”

READ: COVID-19: Singapore to spend S$3.5 billion on information and communications technology to support businesses

He cited the example of the national digital check-in system SafeEntry, which was developed by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).

“We've made this platform technology available to the private sector so that they will develop the machines or the services which will ride on it,” said Dr Balakrishnan who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs.

“So I see very much a complementary role between what the government engineers are doing and the opportunities for the private sector. That is, I think, healthy and will put us in good stead for the future.”


The ramping up of engineering talent, be it getting Singaporeans abroad to return home or recruitment within the civil service, is just one of the efforts under way since the country outlined its Smart Nation vision in 2014. 

Much focus has also been put on laying out the infrastructure – for instance, having broadband network in every home and office – and ensuring digital inclusion.

“So if you think about these three factors – the infrastructure, the talent and digital inclusion – fortunately (these were) already in place by the time COVID-19 broke out,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

He noted how the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a nationwide shift to home-based learning for students and working from home for adults.

The distribution of face masks and provision of information would also not have been possible if Singapore did not have pervasive broadband and wireless connectivity, he said. 

“We were in a sense much more prepared than many other places have been,” said the minister, adding that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 was also a “preparatory event”.

But Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged that there were still “gaps exposed”.

For one, there was the challenge of disseminating credible information in an accurate and timely manner given the hyper-connected world.

“In fact, the issue was not just publicising accurate information but also dealing with the fact that there are so many competing narratives,” he told CNA. “Getting above that pebble noise was a challenge.”

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan during an interview as part of the CNA Leadership Summit 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Another challenge was the use of digital tools in enhancing contact tracing efforts, which raised privacy concerns in the early stages. 

“It illustrated that we need to explain, re-explain, reassure, and I think what was helpful in our case was that we were able to do so in an open and timely fashion,” the minister said.

The country’s contact tracing tools, both software and hardware, were open-sourced and this allowed “people to come take a look … check that it was indeed what we said it was”, he added. 

READ: TraceTogether-only SafeEntry check-in to be used at popular venues as Singapore resumes larger-scale activities

Noting how it has been about 10 months since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Dr Balakrishnan added: “So my overall take (is) number one, we were prepared. Number two, there were gaps that we were able to respond to.

“Number three, now we have to start thinking (about) the new normal. What has changed permanently? What are the short-term changes and which parts of the old we've got to maintain and in fact, re-affirm?”


These include how Singapore has to transition from being digital consumers into digital producers.

“If you move forward to where the future is, it’s not enough for us to just be consumers because ultimately our market is small,” Dr Balakrishnan told CNA.

“In order for Singapore to find that niche for the future, we do need to be able to make, to create, to innovate, to synthesise or in digital speak, they will say to mesh.

“The individual components may be open-sourced, may be commoditised, but it’s the way you mesh your services together therein lies the future.”

READ: More tech jobs to come as MCI steps up job creation for fresh graduates, mid-career professionals

He pointed to the local jobs market which, despite rising unemployment, continues to see some sectors with labour shortages as the pandemic quickens digital transformation.

“In order to get the restructuring done, we need people with skills,” he added, likening it to how the Government began recruiting engineers “in a big way” six years ago.

Without these engineers, apps such as SafeEntry and TraceTogether, or even having official government communication channels on Telegram and WhatsApp would not have been possible.

“That requires people with the ability to create, to make, to fix, to find new insights and offer new services. This is, I believe, crucial for our future,” said the minister.

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan speaking during an interview as part of the CNA Leadership Summit 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Dr Balakrishnan raised another example of the gaming industry, which has grown to be bigger than the movie industry.

“We want to be more than just gamers or distributing games. Although that’s still a very big part of the overall game, we need to get people who can make those games, improve those games, repackage, resynthesise new value propositions.”

The minister was also asked about the importance of building trust and lessons learnt from the pandemic.

“We've always known that trust is absolutely essential … and equally important in this crisis, you need public trust because without that trust, you’re not going to get full compliance and without full compliance, many of the scientifically and correct things to do can’t be executed,” he said.

Referring to past instances of data leaks, he added: “The fact that we dive deeply into the causes, we sorted out what we needed to do (and) in fact are still doing in order to strengthen our networks, and that we did so in an open way where we were at fault we just said ‘Yes, this was a failing’ – the fact that we did all that also put us in good stead.”

In 2018, Singapore saw its most serious breach of personal data when 1.5 million SingHealth patients’ records were stolen. About 160,000 of them had their dispensed medicines’ records taken. 

A Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the cyberattack later put out 16 recommendations as a “necessary and vital first step” to combat cybersecurity threats.

READ: SingHealth cyberattack: What you need to know

READ: SingHealth COI report: 16 recommendations put forward in dealing with IT security incidents 

Dr Balakrishnan added: “Now in a crisis when we are in fact collecting more data than we would otherwise do, but at least we have the confidence that questions of encryption, data security, network security, rules of accountability, what you can share, what you can’t share … all those frameworks have been thought of and that we’re implementing and we’re working according to those rules.”


Moving forward, Singapore will have to prepare for the likelihood of another outbreak that can be as contagious as COVID-19 but with a higher mortality rate like the 1918 flu pandemic, said the minister. 

“With that in mind, what it means is that everything that we're facing now, the adjustments that we are making, the way that we are applying technology and the way we are restructuring even our workforce and our work habits, this is a dress rehearsal,” he added.

“This is not the National Day Parade, this is the preview parade.”

READ: Singapore has done well so far in fight against COVID-19, but must learn from errors: PM Lee

A return to the old normal will not be possible and would be dangerous if one tries to, added Dr Balakrishnan.

“So that makes it all the more vital that we learn the right lessons and we prepare ourselves for the future,” he said, noting that Singapore has to “envisage a new normal”.

“A new normal where we’re not paralysed by fear and confined at home, or unable to work. But a new normal where we can do all the things that we need to do.

“And I don’t mean just to survive, but to thrive and to grow and to expand our economy, our society and make it more vibrant, but do so with all these precautions,” he added.

The CNA Leadership Summit 2020: Navigating the Post-Pandemic World will discuss through a series of TV programmes and webinars how businesses and organisations have reacted to the pandemic and applied innovative practices.

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Source: CNA/sk(gs)


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