Singapore can do much more when it comes to adopting new technology: PM Lee

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at a dialogue by venture capital Sequoia Capital on Feb 24, 2017. VIDEO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (right) and Mr Shailendra Singh, Sequoia's managing director, at the dialogue on Feb 24, 2017. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - Singapore plans to roll out sweeping technology initiatives to boost efficiency and improve lives, from a national digital identity service to an integrated network of sensors islandwide.

But the Republic is not moving quickly enough to adopt such new technologies, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, as he called for more to be done in this area.

Mr Lee outlined the possibilities offered by technology at a dialogue organised by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital here on Friday (Feb 24). He also fielded questions on issues such as the start-up environment here, protectionism and governance.

Technology is an area where Singapore has an advantage, as it is a compact city with high-quality infrastructure and tech-savvy people who will support initiatives that bring improvements, Mr Lee said at the session, a transcript of which was released by his office on Sunday (Feb 26).

That is why the Government set up a Smart Nation Programme Office, to spearhead the use of technology and major projects "which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate".

"I think personally that for all our pushing, we really are not moving as fast as we ought to," Mr Lee told an audience of more than 150 start-up founders, investors and business leaders at the Camp Sequoia summit at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore.

Camp Sequoia is Sequoia Capital India's annual technology summit, and this year's event brought together over 100 leading innovators and disruptors from more than 10 countries including India, China, the United States and countries in Southeast Asia.

Mr Lee's remarks came several days after Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled measures to promote innovation, support start-ups and build up digital capabilities during his Budget statement last Monday.

Mr Lee listed several projects, including a national sensor network that pulls together pictures from cameras monitoring traffic, drains, and housing estates into one integrated data source.

A national digital identity system is another project in the pipeline. While SingPass allows users to access government services, it does not extend to private-sector services or even semi-privatised hospitals, Mr Lee noted.

He cited how Estonia has a digital access card for all secure e-services, including national health insurance, bank accounts, making digital signatures and Internet voting: "The Estonians have this: there is no reason why we should not have it."

Mr Lee also wants to see more advances in cashless payments, and better use of data to make the transport system more responsive by adapting to demand and reducing unnecessary services.

"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," he said.

PM on a supportive climate for start-ups, and being alert to shortcomings

When asked what policies have had the most impact in nurturing start-ups here, Mr Lee listed four strategies.

First, creating a pro-business environment where companies can set up shop easily.

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Second, creating an ecosystem to support start-ups, from having incubators to encouraging investment from venture capitalists and angel investors.

Third, being open to foreign talent. Said Mr Lee: "It does not mean that there is no wary observation by Singaporeans. Who is coming in, are they real talent or not, are there too many or not? But we do make ourselves open to talent, and that is critical."

Fourth, producing people with technological know-how by focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Another participant asked Mr Lee how he remains honest to himself, and aware of his shortcomings, if he is surrounded by people who might constantly agree with him.

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In response, the Prime Minister said he tries not to surround himself with "yes, sir" men.

"That is important because if all you have are people who say 'three bags full sir,' then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous.

"You need people who have their own views, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had."

He also stressed the importance of understanding the point of view of ordinary people on the receiving end of policies.

Additionally, one must remain open to the possibility of being wrong, he said. "If the person tells you something, what makes him say that? You may find that after thinking it over a day or two, he has a point and you have to find some way to accommodate that and acknowledge that you were mistaken."

As for Singapore's approach to a surge in protectionist sentiment around the globe, Mr Lee said the Republic must remain open.

That the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal is now off is a setback, but Singapore will continue to pursue free trade with the other partners, Mr Lee said. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the 12-country agreement.

"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," Mr Lee added.

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