The stories we tell in our progress towards a Smart Nation are crucial to its success
Stories are powerful things.
They move people, shape perceptions and change behaviours.
That is why in this digital age, it matters what story is told about technology and its impact on society.
Several stories emerged yesterday when Parliament scrutinised the budgets of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The first takes charge of the digitalisation of government services, and the second, of the push to build a Smart Nation.
The story that Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) highlighted was of older Singaporeans who risk being cut off when the 2G mobile phone network is made obsolete. He called for a rebate to help affected seniors cope with the increased costs of upgrading to the 3G network.
Two other MPs, Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) also worried that older and poorer Singaporeans would find it difficult to access government services which are increasingly moving online.
They were right to highlight such digital divides, which, if unaddressed, can result in further marginalisation of vulnerable groups even as the rest of society gains from new technologies.
Yet another story that has emerged is of foreigners dominating infocomm technology (ICT) jobs to the extent that Changi Business Park - which houses back-office functions, including IT data centres and support units - has been dubbed "Changalore" for its higher-than-average foreign workforce.
In making this point, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said the Government needs a clear strategy "to maximise our local talent pool who are keen to develop a career in ICT".
That means helping them to specialise and get certified in new fields, as well as equipping them with soft skills in areas such as leadership and business management, so they can differentiate themselves from workers in low-cost countries.
At the top-end, Mr Zaqy added, "it is also important that we produce ICT and business leaders who can compete on the international stage, given competition from other tech powerhouses in Asia such as Korea, China, India and Japan".
In his reply, Minister of State (MCI) Janil Puthucheary acknowledged that many do, in fact, view technology developments with anxiety. They ask: "Will a machine take over my work? Will social media divide society? Will I be left behind as technology progresses? Is cyberspace safe?"
"We cannot ignore such concerns," he said. "We cannot pretend that as a small, open country, we can shield ourselves from these forces. The only way ahead is to prepare for the threats and opportunities, and try to be the disruptor rather than the disrupted."
He then went on to tell several stories of Singaporeans doing just that, learning to master technology rather than being mastered by it.
One such story was of a "multi-generational" boot camp held in Punggol East, where a group of 10-year-olds taught seniors how to go online to stream videos and do Internet banking. What's more, "they were doing so in a mixture of English, Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien. It was really a very interesting experience", he said.
Technology, in this case, created not a gulf but a bridge between generations.
Another story was of start-up space BASH (for Build Amazing Start-up Here), which has, in its first year of operation, built 65 start-ups. That is thanks to the help of experienced entrepreneurs like Tan Teik Guan, who have stepped forward to mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Stories are also essential to the digital age in the area of content creation. In digital media, for instance, nothing beats a top-notch script, said Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC). And at the heart of such scripts is an engaging, well-told story, he added.
Besides masterclasses in scriptwriting and game narratives, MCI is also tapping an old resource to spur learning, creativity and innovation. That resource is none other than books.
It will launch a National Reading Movement with a two-month campaign in June and July to get people to Read More, Read Widely and Read Together.
Here, too, is a way to tap the power of stories to help people embrace the future, in a time of rapid change.
As Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim observed in his final speech of the debate: "Countries are grappling with the need to be future-ready, in a landscape of ever-changing demands, values and technologies which are set to disrupt the paradigm in which we have been used to operating.
"The push to become Smart - that is, connected, knowledgeable and engaged - is a global endeavour that our country is very much a part of."
And good stories are indispensable to this effort.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Making sure technology tale has a happy ending'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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