TL;DR – It can only happen if people really benefit.
Singapore’s Smart Nation drive was one of the three things that PM Lee spoke about in his National Day Message this year. PM Lee said:
“… we want to make full use of IT to create opportunities and jobs for ourselves, and make Singapore an outstanding place to live, work and play. This is why we aim to be a Smart Nation. We have a natural advantage: we are a highly-connected and digitally literate society; we even have more smartphones than people. But we need to do much better. “
PM Lee said that we need to catch up and get ahead in our drive to become a Smart Nation. PM Lee specifically talked about going cashless. This came a few days after the announcement that cash top-up services at MRT stations’ passenger service centres will be removed in the future.
However, that announcement has raised two key questions about Singapore’s Smart Nation drive.
Questions we need to ask
First, will our Smart Nation drive leave people behind? Will those with low income, not as educated, and/or older be able to keep up with the Smart Nation drive? Take this move to remove cash top-up services at MRT stations as an example. Will the elderly and those with lower education level know how to top up their fare cards without using cash?
Second, and this is the more important point, going cashless doesn’t mean that we’ve become a Smart Nation. Technology is meant to benefit us. Will going cashless alone definitely be beneficial to Singaporeans? Will the benefits be enough to justify leaving those who can’t keep up with the changes behind?
If the government is shoving this down the throats of Singaporeans simply for the sake of “going cashless” when it doesn’t really benefit Singaporeans much, then it’s not really a smart move.
After all, China has gotten closer to being cashless not because it forced people to give up using cash. Instead, it happened because Chinese consumers found it so convenient that they made cashless payments ubiquitous, and because they did not have a strong credit card culture. As a result, merchant have found it beneficial to accept cashless payments.
Lessons for Singapore
As PM Lee pointed out, we need to learn from other countries in our Smart Nation drive.
And there are two lessons that we can learn from China’s path to becoming cashless. First, we shouldn’t adopt technology just for the sake of adopting technology. Technologies that don’t bring about tangible benefits are just flashy gadgets that waste money. And this leads to the second lesson. If the benefits of the technology are tangible and significant, the government won’t need to do that much to get people to adopt them.
Therefore, the government should stop compelling people to download apps or forcibly removing options. Instead, the government should create an environment where people can come up with innovative technological solutions real daily problems faced by Singaporeans that can be easily implemented and adopted. The benefits of these technological solutions need to be immediately apparent without the government, or anyone for that matter, to explain.
Focus on the problems that need to be solved
So, instead of thinking of what technologies we can adopt, the government should identify what real problems need to be solved. Then thoroughly find and test the technologies that can help us solve those problems more effectively and efficiently. If we can do that, then we’ll have a better chance to become a truly Smart Nation.