The insights for this article were provided by the Science & Technology Office, Embassy of Switzerland, Singapore.
In September 2014, the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, announced the launch of the ‘Smart Nation’ initiative. The concept of the ‘Smart Nation’ was built on large scale digitisation of public and private services with the help of emergent technologies, and providing easy, efficient access to these services to individuals and companies. In his speech at the launch of the initiative, the Prime Minister said, “(this initiative) will make our economy more productive, our lives better, and our society more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations.”
To implement this ambitious plan on the scale that it was envisioned, the government of Singapore entrusted several key public sector agencies with the planning and execution, the main one being the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), which oversees the entire planning and implementation of the initiative.
The plan itself has three key pillars – Digital Economy, Digital Governance and Digital Society.
Digital Economy: Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a statutory board of the Singapore government, was entrusted with the responsibility of creating frameworks and solutions to enable Singapore’s companies, especially SMEs, to transform digitally. So far, IMDA has rolled out 20 industrial transformation maps and assisted over 10,000 companies with its digital solutions.
Digital Governance: Under the Digital Government Blueprint, the Singapore government created a national digital identity project. Portals named SingPass and CorpPass were created to give citizens and businesses access to e-government services, such as access to Provident Fund accounts, health records, filing of taxes, trade license applications, etc.
Digital Society: The last pillar of Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation’ plan involves working with the citizens to ensure that they have the means and the ability to access the e-services created for them. This includes furthering their digital education and providing computers at subsidised rates to low income families, with the support of large corporations such as Credit Suisse, Alibaba, Apple Inc., etc.
In 2019, Swiss business school IMD’s smart city index named Singapore the smartest city in the world. By keeping the needs of its citizens at the heart of the initiative, Singapore achieved what it set out to do – leverage technology to become a world-class city.
The data conundrum
One of the outcomes of the extensive use of technology in public infrastructure and services is the generation of large amounts of data. Data is produced from every facet of Singapore’s public life, ranging from environment monitoring and city surveillance to CCTVs and facial recognition systems. And government entities such as GovTech (Government Technology Agency) are the sole custodians of this data. Policies and decisions related to public governance are then formed on the basis of the information gleaned from it.
It may be good that data is not handled by multiple entities, thereby limiting its misuse. But centralizing data to such an extent also means that data analysis is subjected to the same set of inherent biases and prejudices, potentially leading to one-sided policies and problematic implementation practices.
A tool to enhance foreing relations
For Singapore, the ‘Smart Nation’ initiative is also an important means to an end – developing its foreign relations. Singapore hosts two annual flagship events – the World Cities Summit and the Smart Nation Summit. State and business leaders from around the world participate in these events to exchange knowledge on different aspects of digital governance and economy. These events enable Singapore to gather ideas to further its concept of a ‘Smart Nation’, while simultaneously building excellent international relations. Singapore also furthers its reputation for urban planning and development by working with other cities, such as, Suzhou, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Shenzhen in China. These city-to-city collaborations not only allow Singapore’s companies to work overseas, but also test their technologies in different environments.
Lessons from Singapore’s approach
Singapore’s system of governance is radically different from federalist Switzerland. Hence, replicating their methods (especially with regard to data) in the Swiss context would be very nigh impossible. However, Singapore’s outward-looking approach to building its economy and nation, as well as its city collaborations, offer a lot of food for reflection.
Like Singapore, Switzerland’s cities enjoy a very high quality of life in terms of safety and efficiency. Switzerland, too, has developed strong and sustaining international relations through its cities such as Geneva (diplomacy hub) and Zurich (banking and financial hub). Could the next step in Switzerland’s foreign relations be city-to-city collaborations through its embassies and foreign representations? Can Switzerland leverage its know-how in developing quality urban infrastructure as a means to form such collaborations? These and many more are reflections to be made from the island nation’s unique approach to economic development through digital governance.