The launch of two new government agencies with an eye on the digital future underscores how Singapore is setting great store by such technology. The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), working mainly with the private sector, will develop and regulate the converging infocomm and media sectors. A traditional separation of functions would be inappropriate in the so-called digital age. The economic and political basis of this era springs from a combination of telecoms liberalisation, the rollout of broadband access, cheap mobile phones, cloud computing and social media - all complemented by raw advances in new technologies that cannot be ignored, as author Paul Hudson has pointed out.
The role of the new Government Technology Organisation is to lead digital change in the public sector. At a basic and important level, the earlier focus was on government websites to serve citizens more effectively. That, however, is sometimes easier said than done - as the rollout of "Obamacare" in the United States showed three years ago. The portal for the major healthcare overhaul simply failed despite the huge costs to build it. That led President Barack Obama to publicly declare there was "no excuse for the problems". American efforts to improve "GovTech" - the buzzword in recent times - have involved the private sector too, in areas like urban planning, municipal debt investing and open data.
Here, the new GovTech agency will help to improve Singaporeans' digital interaction with the State and "encourage the participation of citizens in the co-creation of public digital services". Its role includes delivering the Smart Nation Platform and applications, and helping all government agencies to tap innovation and new technology. In doing this, one must guard against introducing bells and whistles that might delight geeks but lack sufficient practical value to justify the cost and upkeep. No effort should be spared, however, to safeguard state infrastructure from cyber threats. The government-backed digital vault of citizens' personal data, MyInfo, should be also kept highly secure. The risks of sharing it with private companies ought to be weighed carefully.
GovTech projects like an autonomous wheelchair for use in hospitals might be better left to the private sector. But greater public-private collaboration will be needed in other areas, like ensuring Singaporeans as a whole display digital readiness. This is the combination of attitudes and behaviour that allows people to use digital tools in a discerning and competent way.
Digital connectivity plugs both individuals and the nation into a world of expanding opportunities and threats alike. Amid such uncertainty, both science and prescience will be needed to ensure that Singapore is the positive change which its people want to see in a highly digital world.