TL;DR – Solve REAL problems and sell the solutions to the world.
We had earlier written about us attending a dialogue session with Dr Janil Puthucheary. Given that Dr Janil is the Minister in charge of GovTech, there was a fairly robust discussion about Smart Nation. At the end of the discussion, we were left with the impression that it is indeed important to become a Smart Nation.
But despite the online buzz about going cashless, we don’t think going cashless is something integral to being a Smart Nation.
Instead, we think that there are (at least) three other more important problems that we should focus on solving as we become a Smart Nation.
1. Improving our safety and security
PM Lee actually mentioned this in his National Day Rally (NDR) speech. He pointed out that even though we have many CCTVs, cameras, and sensors, we haven’t brought them all together. He brought up the Little India riot. He said that we were caught a little flat-footed – there were too few CCTVs, and we had to rely on footage posted by the public on social media.
PM Lee highlighted that we have since made progress. We are on the way to make “every lamp-post a smart lamp-post”, where we are able to mount different types of sensors. Beyond mounting more sensors, we are also working to combine inputs from different sources – police, LTA, hotels and commercial buildings, even handphones, which are effectively sensors on the ground. PM Lee also pointed out that we are learning to analyse this combined data, e.g. using artificial intelligence to automatically flag when something unusual is happening.
However, it seems that we have some way to go. If this letter to the forum is an accurate account of what happened in the KPE fire, then it looks like we haven’t yet put in place a system where information from traffic cameras are analysed and shared efficiently with the relevant agencies for them to act quickly.
In addition to having the sensors and processing the information, we also need to have the systems in place to make use of that information. For instance, we should consider using drones to manage crowds in emergencies. Also, we should think about how emergency responders can combine the use personal mobility with other vehicles so that they can get to scenes of emergencies faster. This should be developed as an entire well integrated package.
With so many sensors and so much information being transferred through various devices, with so many different services operating via the Internet, cybersecurity becomes even more important than ever before. And it will become even more important. Earlier this year, a couple of ransomware attacks affected essential services, including mass transits systems, banks, and hospitals.
Singapore’s government agencies and critical infrastructure weren’t affected. And that’s because we have been obsessed with updating our systems. But soon, that won’t be enough. Soon, we’ll have to be more active in improving our cybersecurity, and developing ways to defend against attacks.
We also have a Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) to encourage more people to be cybersecurity professionals. In fact, at that post-NDR dialogue organised by Young NTUC, Dr Janil Puthucheary strongly encouraged the young people to consider cybersecurity as a career as it will be an industry that will only be increasingly critical.
3. Predictive maintenance of key physical infrastructure
Think of all the MRT breakdowns. Those could have been prevented. There is technology in place where LTA and the train operators could have serviced the trains, tracks, and various systems even before they break down. Many countries are already using such systems.
If, instead of trying to catch up with other countries in going cashless, PM had spoken about , and declared that we would catch up with other countries and surpass them in developing and deploying the technologies required for an excellent predictive maintenance of our train systems so that we will (almost) NEVER have train disruptions, I’m sure he would have gotten a rousing round of applause.
And it’s not just the train systems. The same can be said for our lifts. However, this comes with it the problem of attracting and retaining talented people as well. The lift industry, in particular, is suffering from a severe manpower shortage and we need to look at how to rejuvenate this industry lest we end up with lots of non-working lifts and nobody to fix them.
And there are definitely other core physical infrastructure that could benefit from having smart technologies that enable excellent predictive maintenance.
Solve our problems, sell the solutions
These three are problems that we face as a nation. If we are able to solve them, it would greatly benefit Singaporeans. And I’m sure many Singaporeans would rather we spend the time and resources solving those problems (especially the last one) than trying to go cashless.
Beyond just benefiting Singapore and Singaporeans, if we are able to come up with world-leading, cutting edge solutions to these problems, then we can sell the solutions to the rest of the world. That’s what we did with our water shortage problem. We came up with a great solution to water shortage problem and we sold the solution to other countries. So that the solution not only solved one of our key existential issue, we were able to generate a healthy income from it.
Perhaps there is really some great benefit about going cashless that we don’t quite get, so much so that PM Lee had to choose to focus on the push towards a contactless cashless society at the NDR. But to us, there are other more obvious problems that Smart Nation can solve and that PM could have highlighted.
We hope that the government is also taking a serious look at tackling those problems. And we think that the government would have a better chance of getting Singaporeans excited about Smart Nation if they spoke about those problems rather than just harping on going cashless.