WHILE Singapore may already have the right ingredients to become a Smart Nation, the country still lags behind other major cities in several areas when it comes to taking full advantage of technological advances.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored the importance of being a Smart Nation during the National Day Rally on Sunday, and he urged everyone - both the young and old - to get on board the journey.
"The world is changing, and unless we change with it, we will fall behind. Singapore must stay among the leaders, to attract talent and new businesses, as we have always done," he said.
Being a Smart Nation means taking advantage of information technology (IT) to create new jobs and new business opportunities, to boost economic productivity, bring convenience to people, and make Singapore an "outstanding city" to live, work and play in.
Singapore already has a "natural advantage" in place - the country is compact and highly connected, the population is a digitally literate one, and schools here are teaching basic computing and robotics.
Still, Mr Lee feels that much more can be done. Citing electronic payments as an example, he told the story of how Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, during a visit to Shanghai two years ago, tried to pay for some street food using cash while everyone else in the queue used their smartphones to make digital payments.
"The hawker didn't say anything - just gave him a quizzical look and pointed to a QR code. Only then did (Mr Lim) realise the QR code was for WeChat Pay and he was the 'suaku' (Hokkien slang for uninformed or backward) one!" said Mr Lee to laughter.
The Prime Minister noted how cash has become obsolete in the major Chinese cities, with nearly all types of payments done using a smartphone and scanning a QR code.
In Singapore, however, there are too many different schemes and systems around, which has resulted in cash or cheques being used for the majority of transactions.
Mr Lee said the Monetary Authority of Singapore has been working hard to integrate the different systems into one, and there is now a single unified terminal that can read different cards.
The banks have also rolled out a new service called PayNow, which allows people to transfer money to one another with just a mobile number, even if the funds come from different banks.
Another area where Singapore can benefit greatly from IT is in public safety and security, and Mr Lee said Singapore has been building a network of sensors, especially CCTV cameras, for some time already. The government has also made progress in developing an integrated national sensor network.
There are smaller projects to solve daily problems as well, including a new mobile application that drivers can use to pay for parking charges at public car parks.
This service, called parking.sg, will be launched by October by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing & Development Board, in partnership with the Government Technology Agency.
Mr Lee later talked about how technology has affected the retail business, with more people going online to do their shopping and making use of home delivery services.
He urged traditional stores and businesses to adapt and reinvent themselves, and tap technology to offer their customers more efficient and convenient service.
For Singapore's Smart Nation projects to take off, Mr Lee highlighted the need for more engineers, programmers, data analysts and technicians.
"There is a worldwide shortage of such talents and skills, but we must urgently build up our talent pool," he said.
On its part, the government is offering scholarships and sponsorships for engineering, while the SkillsFuture and Professional Conversion Programmes are helping more people to build up and upgrade their skills.
Mr Lee praised the efforts of a 70-year-old man named Tariam Singh, a volunteer ambassador who helps his fellow seniors learn new IT skills.
Fluent in Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and Punjabi, he is able to demonstrate how to use messaging apps and social media to connect with others and bring people together.
"This is how we will become a Smart Nation together, by taking the initiative to improve ourselves, by helping others and bettering all our lives, by looking towards the future, and making Singapore a happening place where people love to live," said Mr Lee.
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