Tech critical to Singapore's Covid-19 response

In his keynote speech at the Singapore Tech Forum yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the TraceTogether token and app as one of three essential solutions developed by Singapore in its fight against Covid-19. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
In his keynote speech at the Singapore Tech Forum yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the TraceTogether token and app as one of three essential solutions developed by Singapore in its fight against Covid-19. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Technology has been central to Singapore's Covid-19 response, and more broadly to the Government's work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

PM Lee told a virtual audience at the Singapore Tech Forum that biomedical science has been key to understanding genomes and disease patterns, as well as developing tests and treatments.

Information technology has been just as critical, for tracking cases, analysing data, ensuring compliance with stay-home notices and doing contact tracing.

He recounted in his keynote speech how contact tracing during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 was manual and labour-intensive.

Covid-19 has involved much larger numbers and an urgent need to quarantine close contacts.

PM Lee pointed to three essential solutions developed by Singapore: the Bluetooth-based, open-source TraceTogether app and token, check-in system SafeEntry, and Vision, which integrated existing government databases to promptly issue quarantine notices.

"Our response was not flawless, we discovered many blind spots as we worked it out," he said. "Our IT systems in the Government had been built over the years, not all are fully up to date, and they don't all work seamlessly together."

He cited how some systems could be updated only three to four times daily, because they were still using older programmes like Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to transfer information in batches, instead of being continuously updated using current techniques.

"When cases are multiplying, all these delays and inefficiencies make a difference," he said.

New products like TraceTogether thus had to be rolled out in a viable, albeit "far from polished" state. But this showed Singapore's in-house capability - as well as the importance of enmeshing tech and operations work early on, while keeping the process iterative and adaptive, said PM Lee.

The even bigger lesson, he said, was the recognition of tech as a "command function" which all public service leaders must grasp and appreciate. "Enough" leaders will have to be able to provide technical leadership on complex engineering projects, while appreciating other social and policy aspects.

During a question-and-answer segment afterwards, PM Lee said the public sector's senior management was "fully sold" on the need to not just make use of tech but also change the way it does things.

"The will is there... but I still wish we could go faster," he added.

Singapore could rise to the challenge with the help of an environment that supports science and tech, he said in his speech at the forum organised by the Singapore Global Network and the Government Technology Agency.

PM Lee then identified four environmental factors in Singapore's favour.

To start with, Singaporeans are "tech-literate", with more smartphone accounts in Singapore than there are people.

There is also good infrastructure in place, with a nationwide broadband network providing high-speed Internet connection - a "lifesaver" for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers confined to their dormitories.

He noted the Government has also been building up its IT engineering capabilities, while building up Singapore's entire tech eco-system and digital industry.

"Many major tech companies are now based here and they're doing engineering work, not just sales and marketing," he said. "(They are) creating a vibrant industry cluster and good jobs for Singaporeans."

Tech is an area where Singapore can have a "natural strength" in, he added. "If we can get it into our systems - not just individual apps and programmes, but get it fully into our Government, into the private sector, into the way we operate and live, then it can be an enduring advantage for Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2020, with the headline 'Tech critical to Singapore's Covid-19 response'. Print Edition | Subscribe