S'pore can do more through tech: PM

Mr Lee says nation not going fast enough, cites projects that can make a difference to lives including a national sensor network and identity system


THE Republic - including the government - can do more in using technology to improve the lives of Singaporeans, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday.

"We are looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate."

These include a national sensor network that will create an integrated data source for the country, and a national identity system, which will also include private sector services.

But Mr Lee said: "I think personally that for all our pushing, we really are not going as fast as we ought to."

He said that even as Singapore has set up the Smart Nation Programme Office in the government to oversee the Smart Nation initiative, it can do more and better in developing tech-enabled solutions to address the various urban challenges that it faces.

"There are a lot of things that we can do individually, as a government, as a nation, and also for companies."

The national sensor network, for instance, is an integrated network of sensors island-wide that can monitor and mine infrastructure - ranging from roads to drains to lifts - for data.

Mr Lee said: "Whether it is a traffic police network, or whether it is police cameras or the water authority cameras . . . you can pull all of the pictures together and get one integrated data source for the whole country."

Another thing Singapore needs is a digital identification service that is reliable and secure, he said. "The Estonians have this; there is no reason why we should not have it."

Mr Lee added that while Singapore has one for e-government services, SingPass, it "really does not do all the things we need it to do". It does not extend to private sector services, not even to hospitals which are restructured or semi-privatised.

The Republic also needs a good electronic payment system, he said. While it has banks that offer automated teller machines - a "great step forward" in the old days - their online presence today "works" at best.

"From the point of view of users, and if you compare with other countries, there is a lot more we have to learn. We have not gone as far as we need in order to do cashless payments in hawker centres, in shops, between people."

In the transport sector, Mr Lee urged Singapore to use data and intelligence to render the system more responsive and adaptable to demand, such as to cut down on "empty routes and unnecessary services".

"We have not done that enough; the incentives have not been brought together. There are big things which we need to do and many small things which we ought to do better."

Mr Lee shared that every time he goes to a government website, and if for some reason, cannot find the link to transact a service, he would tell the relevant ministries to add it in. He said: "If I cannot find it, I think there are a lot of people who will have the same problem as me."

The prime minister also revealed that he considered holding a competition - in the style of computer scientist Donald Knuth's "reward cheques" - to encourage Singaporeans to provide constructive criticism to improve current tech offerings.

"Knuth reward cheques" are cheques awarded by Mr Knuth to anyone who can find errors in or make substantial suggestions for his publications or computer code.

Mr Lee said: "We need that kind of involvement from people, in order to get the system responsive, in order to get people focused on it, in order for us to be at that edge."

He was speaking on Friday at Camp Sequoia, a dialogue organised in The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore by Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.

In the hour-long session - a transcript of which was released by his office on Sunday - Mr Lee also answered questions on startups, his favourite websites and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to an audience of 150 global entrepreneurs and innovators.

He said that the startup ecosystem in Singapore has "livened up", as a result of four factors: a pro-business environment, infrastructure, openness to talent, and an education system that focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"We also have various schemes, incentives, grants and so on (though) actually, if you are a real entrepreneur, you should not be looking for those."

When asked about his favourite websites, Mr Lee cited BBC, The New York Times, The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia, Astronomy Picture of the Day, and mathematician Terry Tao's blog.

He reads mostly on Kindle and has tried Spotify. "I signed on and from inertia, I left it on for about two years and I was paying them US$10 a month. I will tolerate the advertisements every 20 minutes if I decide to listen to them again."

On the TPP, which the US recently abandoned, Mr Lee said: "It is a great pity and it is a setback. We have to continue to pursue free trade with the other partners, which we will."

He noted that for a country such as Singapore, there is no alternative but to be open and connect to the world.

"We hope that America, even under this administration will, in its own way, seek to deepen its links with Asia, Europe and China. And in time, the mood in America will change, become again more confident and more open.

"We will not go back to where we were but I hope we will go on to a more positive path again, one day."