Government leads digital disruption in Singapore

07 Aug 2017

Private sectors across the globe are driving digital innovation, but in Singapore, it's the government that is leading the way.

If the world's governments went digital using today's technology, the value of that digitisation would be worth more than US$1 trillion annually, according to McKinsey & Company.

Singapore is already well on its way to attaining the benefits of digitisation, thanks to the clear leadership of the Singapore government and the technological maturity of its citizens, which has enabled the nation to readily adopt new strategies for delivering more efficient and effective services.

Singapore's digital leadership

A strong advocate of digital government, Prime Minister Lee initiated the Smart Nation programme in November 2014 to “harness the power of networks, data and infocomm technologies to improve living, create economic opportunity and build a closer community”. A high priority for Singapore, the Smart Nation programme is headed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan.

"Government leaders have been outspoken digital champions," said Diaan-Yi Lin, senior partner and managing partner, Singapore at McKinsey & Company. "Few governments have had their leaders align themselves with digital efforts as closely and visibly as Singapore’s."

The Smart Nation programme is one of many initiatives that has led to the Singapore government being recognised as “among the world’s best for digital capabilities and achievements,” said Lin.

In general, the city-state’s big-picture goals have been highly ambitious since the 1980s, most notably the first e-Government Action Plan launched in 2000.

Succeeding this is the Infocomm Media 2025 plan, overseen by Minister for Communications and Information, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim. It outlines Singapore's aim to "generate capabilities and innovations that are relevant and contribute towards solving big national challenges".

The Infocomm Media 2025 report recognises four areas where the infocomm media can have significant impact: productivity growth of businesses, creation of high-skilled jobs for Singaporeans, support for an ageing population through health solutions and services, and strengthening national identity through the collective pursuit of positive social goals.

There's a lot to be said about having a defined direction. “These goals have challenged Singapore’s public officials and agencies to devote considerable creativity, effort and resources to achieving them,” said Lin.

The advantage for businesses is clear: It incentivises private organisations to adopt a technology-forward mindset. “I’ve heard a number of stories from business leaders in Singapore about how digital efforts in the public sector have pushed their businesses to digitise more quickly than they might have otherwise, resulting in cost savings and value creation," Lin added.

Collective wisdom

Digital alignment on a national level enhances government efficiency, streamlines the flow of information between government and business, and reduces bureaucracy. In addition, it provides businesses with easy access to publicly available big data, which can in turn spark new solutions and innovations for both commercial gain and community good.

The Singapore government is well known for listening to the ideas and concerns of stakeholders through a number of official channels and forums, which helps it to develop long-term strategies for the benefit of all sectors.

Many stakeholders from both the private and public sectors have contributed to the government’s digital strategy via the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), for example, which also has the remit of developing a 50-year economic strategy and other national strategies. With members hailing from the government sector, multinational corporations, local enterprises and academia, the committee represents the interests of Singaporeans across the board.

"The committee’s consultative approach has enabled officials to better fit the government’s digital strategy to the needs of multiple constituencies, including citizens, residents and businesses," Lin noted.

Singapore's size also has its advantages. A number of technology companies – from Google to Paypal, IBM and Salesforce – are much more closely located here than in other parts of the world. This means the potential for partnerships and collaboration, both planned and spontaneous, is much greater.

Gateway to Asia

To better serve the Asian market, several companies have set up their regional headquarters in Singapore. Due to the increase in demand for infotech services in the region and the ease of doing business in Singapore, this makes logistical sense.

Multinational companies like IBM have founded innovation centres in Singapore, where they have the tools and insight to innovate and address regional issues.

IBM’s Blockchain Innovation Center, focused on security issues in the fintech and logistics space, is the first of its kind for IBM. Robert Morris, vice president, Global Labs at IBM Research, said that Singapore was a natural fit for the centre, being home to the world’s largest transshipment port and the third largest financial centre in the world.

“This is IBM’s first collaboration with the private sector and multiple government agencies within the same country to explore the use of Blockchain and cognitive technologies to improve business transactions across several different industries," said Morris, adding that this partnership will have "profound and disruptive implications in a range of settings, including finance, banking, IoT, healthcare, supply chains, manufacturing, technology, government, the legal system, and more."

Focus on digital training

The push towards a digital nation would not have occurred if not for some forethought in the area of talent planning. "Recruiting digital talent has been a priority," said Lin.


GovTech Hive, the government-backed Software Design and Development Centre of Excellence, not only provides technology services to government agencies, but also works on building a digital workforce.

The facility specifically hires and trains digital practitioners across multiple disciplines to ensure it is as agile as possible, according to Eyung Lim, deputy director of digital design & development at IDA. "A multidisciplinary team allows the government to be nimble and responsive in developing digital services and policies. It also ensures that any service or solution developed is complete and developed through various capabilities,” he said.

Another initiative, the SkillsFuture programme, uses credits and subsidies to offset training cost in order to encourage Singaporeans to continually upgrade their professional skills. While the number of government-supported training places has increased year on year since its inception in 2015, there's more to it than that, according to SkillsFuture Singapore’s chief executive Ng Cher Pong. "SkillsFuture is about changing mindsets around lifelong learning and skills mastery; we've seen some shifts in the mindsets of enterprises and individuals," he explained.

On top of the budget allocated to SkillsFuture, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) will invest S$120 million (US$85 million) over three years to boost the infocomm skills of local talent to meet the demand for 30,000 new infocomm jobs by 2020.

Training is just one aspect of the plan; keeping talent in the country is also essential. Presenting exciting career pathways to young Singaporeans is key, and Lin recommends digitally-oriented departments like the Government Technology Agency and InfoComm Media Development Authority share their recruiting approaches – the dual process of building capacity and appointing digital leaders – with other agencies.

This across-the-board alignment means businesses will have access to digitally-ready resources in Singapore, whether they need potential future employees or ancillary services.

For technology-oriented organisations looking to gain a foothold in Asia, the Singapore government possesses the foresight, vision and leadership to strengthen the foundation of businesses. The support, talent pool and regional access offered by the city-state also makes it a top contender for the headquarters of business expansion.

Singapore has already seen the implementation of an ambitious, broad-based strategy to digitise and streamline back-end processes, creating efficiencies and cost savings. And if past experience is any guide, stated Lin, “Singapore will continue to raise the bar for digital government.”