The Big Read

Intelligent Island looks at Singapore’s IT success stories

P. Ramakrishna and Grace Chng (both above) curated and wrote parts of Intelligent Island.
P. Ramakrishna and Grace Chng (both above) curated and wrote parts of Intelligent Island.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

The thinking and tinkering behind Singapore's information technology success stories are the focus of a new book by industry veterans

INTELLIGENT ISLAND: THE UNTOLD STORY OF SINGAPORE'S TECH JOURNEY

By various writers, curated by Grace Chng and P. Ramakrishna

Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation/Hardback/256 pages/ $53.50 with GST from Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation (www.sitf.org.sg/intelligentisland)

In September 1963, seven months after Singaporeans watched their first television show, the nation's first mainframe computer arrived at the Central Provident Fund (CPF) headquarters (HQ) in Anson Road.

That computer, an IBM 1401, which enabled thousands of people to carry out and store data at once, was so big that it had to be first dismantled and its parts packed in several crates before it could be transported anywhere.

None of those crates was small enough to push past the entrance of the CPF HQ, so its staff hacked off part of a wall on the third storey of the building and hoisted all the crates up and through the hole.


P. Ramakrishna and Grace Chng curated and wrote parts of Intelligent Island (above).

The person who triggered all this work was the late Robert Iau, a far-sighted man of many talents who was then the CPF's general manager; he even wrote the software to run this huge computer.

  • Does Singapore have the 'IT' factor?

  • To what extent can Singapore harness rapidly changing infocommunications technology?

    Get the answer to that question from information technology industry veterans Grace Chng and P. Ramakrishna at The Big Read Meet on Aug 30.

    Chng and Ramakrishna, curators of the new book Intelligent Island, have worked in the industry since its inception almost 40 years ago, so are more than well-placed to give you glimpses of what Singapore, the Smart Nation, will be like.

    Join them and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai from 6.30pm in The Possibility Room, Level 5 National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street. If the venue changes, NLB will notify registered participants ahead of time.

    Sign up for the meet at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary.

At that time, even the IBM Singapore office did not have an IBM 1401, which had 4,000 bytes of memory. Today, a smartphone such as the iPhone 7 has a memory of 32GB, yet is only about as big as a bar of soap.

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    The book's curators, Grace Chng and P. Ramakrishna, have used their long views and good eye for detail to recall and review a rather dry chapter in Singapore's achievements in short, sharp and engaging ways.

    These include a nifty infographic on the state of Singapore's ecosystem, as at 2015, for nurturing start-ups and information technology (IT) innovations.

    THE BAD

    This book is more tell than show, and repetitive in its telling to boot. This is because most of its nine writers keep going over the same milestones along the trodden path of Singapore's IT history in their respective chapters, leaving the big picture in fragments.

    The reader would also have benefited if the writers had probed their interviewees. As it is, the latters' views rarely rise above the bland or twee.

    An exception to that is their chat with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's first chief executive, Ms Yong Ying-I, who divulged that, 10 years ago, a decision- maker here said: "Who would want to watch a movie on a mobile phone?"

    Last but not least, while the book is a look back on the whys and hows of Singapore's IT journey, its curators might have given the reader deeper and wider perspectives of Singapore's IT achievements by soliciting views from industry veterans beyond Singapore.

The careful planning, training and innovating that have gone into making Singaporeans one of the most technologically adept people globally is the focus of a new book, Intelligent Island. It was hatched by old friends Grace Chng and P. Ramakrishna during Chinese New Year in 2015, although they started work on it only in January last year.

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 What were the main twists and turns in computerising Singapore?

    2 What sort of thinking drove, and still drives, information technology pioneers here?

    3 Who enabled Singapore to work towards becoming a smart nation today?

    4 Why is Singapore not already a digital force to be reckoned with globally?

    5 Why is it crucial for pupils to learn coding?

Industry pioneer Ramakrishna, who retired in 2015 as the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's (IDA) director of industry development and is now deputy chief executive officer of technology leaders' training body CIO Academy Asia, recalls: "I have known Grace for a long time and every time we met, we said, 'Look, we've been fortunate to see all this unfolding right in front of us, we must do something about it.'"

With the backing of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation, the leading infocommunications industry association here, Chng and Ramakrishna roped in seven former colleagues and friends to give their takes on the information technology (IT) revolution here as well as interview 50 people who shaped it.

The two of them co-curated as well as wrote a fair bit of the book. The other writers are former regional editor of Computerworld Abdul Rahman Mohd Said; former Straits Times journalist Alfred Siew; former National Internet Advisory Committee chairman Bernard Tan; Singapore's first chief information officer Alex Siow; serial entrepreneur Bill Liu; and former IDA communications director Ng Sook Fun. There is also a tribute to Mr Iau by Mr Lim Swee Cheang, vice-dean of the School of Continuing and Lifelong Education at the National University of Singapore.

Chng and Ramakrishna also scored a rare interview with President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who got the ball rolling on computerising Singapore in 1980, after he successfully did so with the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation.

Chng says: "He's one of the unsung heroes. Few know that he is responsible for Singapore's two bursts of IT policies, first as the chairman of the National Computerisation Committee in overdrive, when he set the direction for Singapore's IT strategy, and then as the chairman of the National Research Foundation, when he gave (the IT revolution) a second kick with a $500million fund that laid the groundwork for where we are today."

Chng, a former Straits Times technology editor and senior correspondent, wanted to be a computer programmer after graduating with a degree in geography, but was spurned by the IT industry, which took in only engineering and science graduates then.

The big picture that emerges from this book is how Government- led the whole endeavour has been, perhaps at the expense of honing a sharper individual initiative and a greater number of world-beating enterprises.

The curators say that remains unchanged: small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are still not making the most of IT to grow their businesses.

Chng says she recently sat in on a meeting of SMEs to find out what they thought about applying technology developed by research institutions. "The stories they told shocked me because they were the same ones I heard 25 years ago... For example, they said, 'I take on this technology, but I have to do this and that to make it work.' They don't understand they need to commercialise it."

Ramakrishna adds: "A lot of our companies are just building a solution for a particular client, so for their next client, they have to rebuild the solution. But if you build a product from technology, you can replicate it much faster, with fewer man hours, and reap the benefits.

"Look at Bill Gates. From Day 1, when he developed the Microsoft operating system, he was already thinking about a product, which we now know as Windows."

While the curators' effort to give readers such insights in this book is evident, their storyline is less so. There are lots of fascinating gems, including an excellent perspective from Permanent Secretary for Defence Chan Yeng Kit, but the reader has to work hard to mine them as they are buried in quotes, sidebars and hived-off interviews.

Still, this well-written, or at least scrupulously edited, sourcebook is yet another inspiring instance of how Singaporeans have realised their outsized ambitions admirably.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'From hacking walls to hacking life'. Print Edition | Subscribe