Speaking to a packed auditorium at InnovFest unBound (Singapore’s annual tech conference) yesterday, the Singaporean foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: “If any one of you has an idea, or a product, or a service, which makes life better for citizens: come to Singapore. Prove it, test it, prototype it, upscale it. […] If your solution works, we will buy it from you.”
“That, in my view, is a better approach than simply giving money and grants on the supply side, instead focusing on the demand side of the model.”
The minister highlighted a few key issues the city state is facing: “traffic congestion is an issue, green energy is an issue, security of transactions are an issue.” Balakrishnan spoke specifically about becoming a hub for fintech, autonomous vehicles and medical technology (medtech), with the city state’s ageing population a priority issue.
To facilitate this, the national research foundation is setting aside $40 million Singapore dollars for a scheme that will incentivise large local enterprises (LLEs) to partner with promising startups.
Balakrishnan says he wants Singapore’s big corporations “to go and scan the horizon, identify small startups that may have novel, potentially transformative ideas in your industry. Eat their dog food, test it out and if it works, you gain.”
The same goes for fintech. “We believe that Singapore’s future is reliant on being a global financial city,” says Balakrishnan. To encourage fintech startups, the government has set up a regulatory sandbox for fintech, allowing entrepreneurs to grow an idea without having to worry about financial licenses or permits.
It has since been announced that the UK and Singapore have established a “bridge” between fintech companies in either country “which included the signing of a Regulatory Cooperation Agreement between the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).”
The minister explained: “If any of you have an idea, a product or a service in the financial industry, you can start up, you don’t need approval from MAS, you can do anything, as long as you don’t cheat anyone. You will not be smothered by regulations until you become big enough to actually be a threat to the financial system.”
Balakrishnan and his prime minister appear to disagree on the much-hyped distributed ledger technology blockchain though. Balakrishnan said: “I strongly suspect blockchain technology is something profound, but my prime minister has told me: ‘I suspect that this is a solution looking for a problem.’ Meaning we don’t know yet what will work and what doesn’t work.”
AI, robots and VR
The minister also spoke broadly about the technological revolution, identifying three pillars: artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality.
Balakrishnan told a story about how he watched Mark Zuckerberg present Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets in New York a few months ago.
His review was: “It’s pretty good, they have improved it so you don’t get sea sick anymore and the gameplay has improved, but I told Mark, actually, the real killer app for augmented reality is not games, it is actually virtual sex.”
“If you can successfully master virtual sex in augmented reality you will have devised the ultimate UX, user experience. The point is that this is another area that is exploding,” said Balakrishnan, without a hint of irony.
And when it comes to AI, Balakrishnan thinks we are at a tipping point, saying: “Artificial intelligence is improving and I think that, unlike the early promise thirty years ago, that this time, it’s for real.”
Balakrishnan concluded: “So just add these three things: AI, robotics and AR. There is something huge going on in our world right now. They build upon a platform of a couple of key areas: cheap computing power, pervasive connectivity, access to a tsunami of data.”
The minister then laid out the government’s digital strategy in five steps, to allow Singaporeans access to the technology to build on ideas:
The Singaporean government is extending fibre broadband to every home, “to make sure that bandwidth will never be a limitation in Singapore,” says Balakrishnan.
“This connectivity is not just for you to surf and to look at porn sites, even though we know that the bulk of internet traffic is video, but again there is a more serious objective behind this.”
“One key challenge is security and a major subject for security is our identity. How do you prove you are who you say you are? One way is by improving our SingPass system. It has improved with two factor identification but that is only the begging and I believe we need some form of public key infrastructure (PKI) built into our SingPass to give non-repudiation and security end-to-end in order to build trust, so that transactions can take place,” says Balakrishnan.
“The ministry of education will be offering computing as an O Level subject in 19 secondary schools next year,” says Balakrishnan, “and we will roll this out across the board".
“Not that every single person needs to able to code, but at least understand computational thinking, what the possibilities are and how best to become masters and creators of the future artificial intelligence and robots, rather than the losing competitors.”
Balakrishnan also announced that the National University of Singapore (NUS) is launching a platform called Tech SG. “This is a platform that will connect founders, investors, incubators and technology sources to create a platform where ideas, info and smart learning connect to take ideas out of academia quickly and into the marketplace and accelerate options and opportunities to connect you into the larger ecosystem,” says Balakrishnan.
Balakrishnan spoke about Singapore’s world class reputation for research and development (R&D) and the importance of bringing that research out of academia. He said: “The research innovation and enterprise 2020 plan sets aside $19 billion Singapore dollars on translating research into applications in real life. The national robotics programme has been beefed up and we have set aside $420 million to help the industry adopt potentially transformative automation and robotics.”
5. Policy and regulation
“Finally, we need to get rules. They used to say Singapore is a ‘fine’ city. We have a lot of rules, you transgress them, we come after you. What we need to do is have a revolution in our policy and regulation frameworks.”
Balakrishnan spoke about the regulatory challenge around driverless vehicles and the need for government policy, regulation and insurers to all be on the same page.
Despite making the sort of comments a UK politician would never broach, the Singaporean minister made some good points about building a viable tech strategy.
The city state certainly has some great advantages, with cheap infrastructure, access to funding, talent and solid government support to become a tech hub for Southeast Asia. Now it needs a selection of startups and entrepreneurs to inspire the rest of the nation to take on the government’s challenge.