SINGAPORE - When Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung visited a polytechnic recently, he was shown a student's business proposal about shared taxi services.
The project, completed years before Uber became popular, showed him that Singaporeans were capable of great game-changing ideas.
It also showed him that ideas do not become businesses and create jobs on their own, Mr Ong told 2,300 senior public servants on Monday (Oct 2).
Singapore needs to create an environment where more of such innovation can flourish, said Mr Ong, who is minister in charge of innovation, in his keynote speech at the Public Service Conference, which was held at Resorts World Sentosa Convention Centre.
From Estonia's and India's digital identification systems to China's e-payment systems using facial recognition, countries are reinventing themselves to stay relevant in a global economy, he noted.
This is the biggest economic challenge of Singapore's time, said Mr Ong as he called on senior public servants to rise to the occasion.
He gave his take on how Singapore can do better and how public servants can make enterprise happen.
Other countries have the advantage of bigger markets and looser regulation, but Singapore is the opposite as it is small and well-regulated.
Singapore can compete by offering impeccable coordination between agencies to make things happen.
"Whole-of-Government efforts mean every agency chipping in to make the impossible possible. It is not every agency having its own vested interest and a veto to make the possible impossible," he said.
"In this pursuit of innovation, the main obstacle is ourselves."
Public servants spend more time coming up with new rules to regulate activities instead of looking for ways to cut red tape and enabling new activities, said Mr Ong, who was a senior civil servant before entering politics.
Common reasons for this are a lack of time, of resources, and of supportive bosses.
But public servants must set aside this time, and the best ideas have always been born out of some desperate need, said Mr Ong.
Mr Ong, who was appointed in March to lead the public sector's innovation drive, also announced that some red tape would be cut.
First, civil servants will find it easier to procure small-ticket items.
From November, calling for quotations will not be needed for items valued at less than $6,000, up from the current maximum of $5,000.
A common gripe was that they could not go for value-for-money suppliers they knew of as they had to get three quotations every time they wanted to purchase something, Mr Ong said.
This was because few civil servants knew about this exception for small purchases, he added. Many are now aware of it.
The change will also support freelancers and small companies, by giving them a reference job to secure other projects in the market, he said.
A certificate programme in procurement for public servants will also be launched by the Defence Science and Technology Agency and the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Second, from Jan 1, 2018, event organisers will have to contact only one agency to put up promotional banners along Orchard Road and the Civic District.
Previously, they had to liaise with five agencies: the Building and Construction Authority, the Land Transport Authority, the National Arts Council, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Third, the regulatory knots blocking the installation of floating solar panels at reservoirs have been largely untied, said Mr Ong.
National water agency PUB has called for tenders for studies for the laying of solar panels on two reservoirs, the Ministry of Defence is speeding up feasibility studies for reservoirs located within its training areas, and the Economic Development Board will be seeking companies interested in these projects.
Fourth, guests may get to check in to hotels themselves using facial recognition technology.
Although the technology for doing so is very mature, there were some reasons why hotels have not used the technology for check-ins.
"What we want to ensure is that we are not tripped up by our own rules," said Mr Ong.
STB will be working with hotels to develop prototypes and the Ministry of Home Affairs will allow hotels to test such technology.
Such change requires hard work to counter intransigence, said Mr Ong.
He said: "Innovation in the public service is not about a sudden burst of genius or flashes of divine inspiration... but a systemic and long-term slog across the board. I am doing my part, and I need you to do yours too."