PM maps out way ahead for S'pore in tech, trade and trust between people

Some 100 innovators from around the Asia-Pacific sought Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's views on issues ranging from leadership and governance to change management during a question-and-answer session at last Friday's Camp Sequoia, an annual tech summit organised by Sequoia Capital India.

Mr Shailendra Singh, managing director of Sequoia Capital India with PM Lee at the dialogue, where Mr Lee was asked for his views on a number of topics, including the role of technology in the future of Singapore. He said the Government was looking a
Mr Shailendra Singh, managing director of Sequoia Capital India with PM Lee at the dialogue, where Mr Lee was asked for his views on a number of topics, including the role of technology in the future of Singapore. He said the Government was looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate, like a national identity system. PHOTO: MCI

Q I know technology is close to your heart. Could you share how you see that play a role for Singapore in the future? How would you like for it to evolve?

A I think it is a natural area where we do have an advantage because we are a city, we are compact and we are wired up. It is economical for us to provide very high-quality infrastructure, and we have people who take to it naturally.

Individually, they know how to operate their phones or play Starcraft, Warcraft. But also, I think as a nation, our ethos is one where we are rationalist. If it makes sense, if it can be done more efficiently, if I can short-circuit the process and cut out the to-ing and fro-ing, I will want to do that. People will support that.

That is why we pay attention to encouraging start-ups, using tech, having what we call a Smart Nation initiative. We have set up a Smart Nation Programme Office in the Government, in the Prime Minister's Office, to oversee this exercise and get significant projects moving. I think personally that for all our pushing, we really are not going as fast we ought to. We are looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate. For example, a national sensor network which is linked together and integrated. Whether it is a Traffic Police network, or whether it is police cameras or the water authority cameras tracking drains or cameras in our housing estates watching lifts and security, you can pull all of the pictures together and get one integrated data source for the whole country.

We are thinking about a national identity system. We have one for the government services, SingPass, but it really does not do all the things we need it to do and it does not extend to private sector services. It does not even extend to hospitals which are restructured, semi-privatised. We need a good digital identification service which is reliable, which everybody can rely on. I can sign, I can identify myself, I can access services securely; and I can transact services online. The Estonians have this; there is no reason why we should not have it.

I need a good electronic payment system. I have got banks which offer automated teller machines. In the old days, they considered that a great step forward. They have presence on the Internet. It works, not badly, some even win prizes. But actually from the point of view of users, and if you compare with other countries, there is a lot more we have to learn. We have not gone as far as we need in order to do cashless payments in hawker centres, in shops, between people. I was complaining to my permanent secretaries the other day. The ministers have lunch once a week together, we pay for our own lunch and there is one minister in charge of making a collection. We made a great step forward when he said: "I do not want to receive cash anymore, please write me cheques." The permanent secretaries told me they are one step ahead, they use PayLah, which is a DBS application. But it shows how non-pervasive it is and what the potential is if we can get it through.

We can use information technology, data and the whole system to apply that intelligence to our transport system - to be responsive, to adapt to demand, to cut down on empty routes and unnecessary services. We have not done that enough; the incentives have not been brought together. There are big things which we need to do and many small things which we ought to do better. Every time I go on to a government website, if for some reason I have to transact a service and I cannot find the link, I tell them, please put this link in. Because if I cannot find it, I think there are a lot of people who will have the same problem as me.

Actually I have in mind to have a competition, to do it the way (American computer scientist) Donald Knuth does for his code. He puts his code up. Then he says anybody who finds a bug, 10 cents for the first finder. After two weeks, he says 20 cents for the first finder. The bugs gradually go down. Finally, $256 for the first finder. I think we need that kind of involvement from people, in order to get the system responsive, in order to get people focused on it, in order for us to be at that edge.

So I think that there are a lot of things that we can do individually, as a government, as a nation, and also for companies. To be participating, to come here, set up and use Singapore as a place to start up. Singapore companies, we have some starting up and we know that there are quite a number which come from the region to Singapore to take advantage of our incubators, our environment and our access to the region in order to make their base here.

Q Let me switch topics. There is a veil of protectionism around the world, with Brexit, with the United States. In this new and different world, what approach will Singapore be taking?

A It is understandable the sentiments which have come to the surface, but it is very worrying. I was reading (President Donald Trump's chief strategist) Steve Bannon this morning and he talks about economic nationalism as being one of the Trump administration's priorities. What does it mean, economic nationalism? In a way it is protectionism by a better name. In another way it is an approach to say: I am now no longer going to take a broad view of the benefits of trade. I want to make every deal win. Maybe make every deal win-win, but at least every deal win. I can understand the motive for that. But when you are a big country and you take that approach, I think you lose on the broad benefits of an open system where everybody is able to trade and do business together, that is of great advantage to a country like the United States.

Mr Shailendra Singh, managing director of Sequoia Capital India with PM Lee at the dialogue, where Mr Lee was asked for his views on a number of topics, including the role of technology in the future of Singapore. He said the Government was looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate, like a national identity system. PHOTO: MCI

It is not just the tech industry which thinks that, but everybody who studies economics comes to that conclusion very early in the process. And in fact, a big chunk of the population of the United States depends on this integration and multilateral trade. So if it goes a different way, there will be a pain, there will be consequences and hopefully after some time, lessons will be learnt. But it is very difficult for a country like Singapore. There is no alternative, we have to connect to the world. Why not build a wall around Singapore? It will be cheaper than a wall along the southern border of the United States but it would be more disastrous for us. What do we do? We will starve to death. We are walling ourselves in. So we have to be open.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is off. It is a great pity and it is a setback. We have to continue to pursue free trade with the other partners, which we will. And we hope that America even under this administration will, in its own way, seek to deepen its links with Asia, Europe and China. And in time, the mood in America will change, become again more confident and more open. We will not go back to where we were but I hope we will go on to a more positive path again, one day.

Q In the last 40 years, Singapore's per capita gross domestic product(GDP) has increased more than tenfold; the country has changed tremendously since the 1970s. What do you think the country will look like 20 years from now? How do you envision the future?

A This is the most difficult question to answer because when we were a developing country, we could say that in 10 years' time, I will have doubled or tripled my GDP per capita, my growth will be that size and my towns will be up. Now that we are at the leading edge, there is no model to follow. What we do know is that on the physical side, there is a lot of potential for us to change and rebuild.

For example, if you fly over the island, it looks like it is all built up and there is nothing more to be done. But we are moving our port out of its traditional place, which is on the southern shore of the island, right to the south-western side and it is going to free up an entire space, which is six or seven times the size of this Marina Bay area and we can develop a new city there.

On the eastern side, we have an airbase which is in the middle of the land, and the airbase takes up space. The flight paths in and out constrain developments and, in fact, constrain developments all the way down to the Marina Bay. We are going to move that airbase to Changi and the airbase area will be opened up. It is probably the size of two or three new towns and the whole of the eastern half of Singapore can be redeveloped. It will not look like Manhattan's density but it means that I can redo the island all over again.

In terms of society, in 20 years' time, the population will be completely post-independence. For them, if we are lucky and we have peace, the experience will have been stability and progress for all of their lives. The challenge would be for them to still have that drive to want to make things better, to want to be at the leading edge. You can be sure that 20 years from now, if you look at London or New York or San Francisco or Sydney, they will be different from today. Different in ethos, different in issues which they are dealing with, the businesses which are thriving. We want to be like them, but like them in Asia. An Asian society, which is with it, but remembering where we came from. I think that if we can do that, then you can ask this question again, or your children, 20 years from now of my successors.

Q (from Sequoia senior partner who runs their China business) What advice would you give to Chinese leaders about governance, about running countries?

A I will have to think very carefully whether to give any advice. But I would say (Chinese President) Xi Jinping made a very good speech in Davos. You may have read it. I am not sure if it was published in full in China, which I found interesting. I think it was reported but it was not quite published. But that is his line - that he believes in openness, he believes in competition, he believes in free trade, he believes in globalisation; and closing ourselves up leads nowhere. I think that if they actually follow through on that and operate the system in that way, in that spirit, that will make a big difference. In every country, between the rhetoric and the implementation, there is a certain slippage. But in China particularly, because it is such a big country, between what the centre's message is and what actually happens on the ground, the slippage is perhaps a bit bigger than in other countries. If they can do what he said in Davos, I think that would be a great service to China and to the world.

Q Prime Minister Lee, we are all dreamers and we work every day to achieve these dreams. I would love to understand from you, what you want to see more from all of us here in the room?

A I hope you succeed in your dreams to change the world. You do not know who will succeed. It may be to a greater or lesser degree but collectively, the ferment, the effervescence, the ingenuity and brilliance which has gone into the tech scene has already made a big change in the world. Some of it, a lot for the better, and the downsides, we are having to learn to live with. I think the way has to be forward and not backward. We can have driverless vehicles. We need driverless vehicles. It will make a difference to human beings, to the human condition. If we can have personalised medicine, I think we should go for personalised medicine, and we will be able to treat human beings better and improve their lives. To go the other way is completely a dead end.

I went to Cuba once. I was a student at the Kennedy School in Harvard on the Mason Programme and we had to vote where to go for Easter break in order to learn about economic development. I voted for Mexico but I was out-voted. The students in 1980 believed that in Cuba there was some magic about economic development. We went there, we spent a week. They lectured us, they brought their planners, their officials. They were not unintelligent people but they were operating that system. And one of them told me something which left an indelible impression. He said, "If ever somebody invents a machine which will save manpower and then become more efficient, and I do not need all these people whom I am hiring, then I will take him and the machine and throw him into the deep blue sea". That was their philosophy of creating jobs and spreading well-being among the population. It was a total dead end.

I went to buy an ice-cream in the park. I queued up five times. First, you get a coupon. Then, you present the coupon. Then, they prepared the ice-cream. Then, when the ice-cream is ready you go somewhere else and you pay. After that, you come back and you collect the ice-cream. They were putting this philosophy into action - or inaction. Look where it has led them. In the end, you have no choice. You have to open up. And I think for humankind too, the way forward is with technology. Use it, master it, and make life better for people.

Q Asian society is known for having a lot of mistrust among people who are from different racial backgrounds. Singapore has achieved a great amount of trust among citizens and therefore the economic progress is natural. What advice would you give to businesses in how to create trust and make commerce easier to do, for a mistrusting society, let us say India, where every transaction has a lot of mistrust behind it?

A I do not know what the solution is. Technology to work in a situation where you do not have trust, I think I can imagine that. All the sharing economy apps, the Uber, the Lyft, the Airbnb, you establish mutual rankings, assessments, and then you more or less know whether the other person is reliable or not. That sort of thing, I think you can do. To change your society, I think that is much harder.

You say that in Singapore, we have growth because we have trust. But actually it also works the other way around. We have trust because the growth has benefited most people and people accept that this is something which is for them. It is going to be harder now because the growth will be slower and we have to convince people, let us work together, at least we get this 2-3 per cent growth, it is good by any international standard. If you did not work together and you were at odds and you split - either regionally, like in India, with race and religion and caste, and geography on top of that, or in America, between the coasts and the centre, between the red and the blue states - I think Singapore would become a very unhappy and much, much less successful place. It is our responsibility as a government to have policies which will not let that happen.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline PM maps out way ahead for S'pore in tech, trade and trust between people. Subscribe