Dr S T Lee Public Policy Lecture 2019: Singapore's Smart Tech Journey

5 November 2019


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Jacqueline Poh, Deputy Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Group, Singapore, delivered the 2019 Dr Seng Tee Lee Lecture at St John's Divinity School, Cambridge.

You can read the full transcript of Ms. Poh's lecture here.

Ms Poh’s lecture, ‘Prospero’s Practicum: Conjuring the 4th Industrial Revolution on an Even Smaller Island’, explored the island nation’s journey to becoming a Smart Nation, and detailed challenges encountered, and choices made along the way. The lecture’s Shakespearean theme was an analogy for how technology, like Prospero’s magic, can be used to shape local environments and help people meet their goals.

Policymakers in the Singapore take the view that the country’s constraints, particularly a lack of natural resources, can be turned into strengths as the existential nature of crises spur creative thinking in problem solving, innovation, and improved use of technology. Ms. Poh credits this mindset for supporting Singapore’s trajectory towards becoming the World Economic Forum’s most competitive economy.

Singapore’s journey to become a Smart Nation began in 2014. While the majority of governments to commit to “smart” governance have been municipal, Singapore’s journey was made possible by the country’s small size and single layer of government.

Being a ‘smart nation’ has meant different things to the different stakeholders involved in Singapore’s technological journey, though Ms Poh emphasised that the overall strategy is designed to be citizen centred. For individual Singaporeans, the key benefit of smart technology is in enhancing the quality and convenience of their lives while making transactions easier. For Singapore’s businesses, smart nationhood is primarily concerned with facilitating digital-from-day-one approaches to supporting entrepreneurship. Finally, for the state, the transition to becoming a smart nation is synonymous with resilience and developing new ways of overcoming constraints. Throughout this, government’s job has been to share the fruits of technology, and the biggest challenge in implementing smart nation policies has been in ensuring that the technologies being implemented are socially inclusive and widely available. Creating the foundation for equal access to technology has entailed viewing access to computers and the internet as a human right, teaching children and seniors how to use digital technology, and shaping policies to assume that the future of work will be focused on industries which rely upon technology, touch, or trust.

Throughout her lecture, Ms Poh described key lessons Singapore has learned over the course of this journey towards becoming a smart nation thus far. She explained that foresight matters, and that public services need to be anticipatory and prepared for the implications of changing technology, while government must be both a promoter and a regulator of new technologies. To balance the potential friction between promoting and regulating, Singapore has used a regulatory sandbox approach in sectors such as the development of autonomous vehicles. This creates a temporally and regulatorily limited space in which private sector can experiment while the government safeguards.

Singapore’s focus on regulation also includes a focus on data protection, viewing the fourth industrial revolution as a data-driven enterprise, and on developing platforms for common data sharing. This has included the development of a unique digital identity for every Singaporean in order to unify the digital ecosystems and facilitate smooth, fast transactions in industries such as banking.

Ms. Poh’s visit to Cambridge also included CSaP-organized workshops in Silicon Fen with investors, board members and founders of technology companies, senior academics and policy makers in the field to discuss what role government can play in enabling innovation. One workshop examined the impact of scale-ups in driving economic growth and explored what government can do to enable growth in innovative ecosystems. A second workshop, attended by members of organisations including the Bennett Insitute and Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence focused on the digital state and questions and challenges involved in AI. In this workshop, most attendees acknowleged the increasing demand for AI's use in public services, but agreed there should clearer rules and regulations where this AI is provided by private companies to protect citizens.

Photo credit: Pavel Matejicek -