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Dr. Mun-Kew Leong on how to move the Smart Nation vision forward through digitalisation and embracing risk

Recently, OpenGov got a chance to sit down with Dr. Mun-Kew Leong, Deputy Director, Institute of Systems Science, National University of Singapore, to talk about the current state of digital transformation in Singapore Government.

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong oversees the graduate programs at NUS ISS. Prior to ISS, Mun-Kew was at the National Library Board Singapore (NLB) as CTO, Deputy CIO, and Director, Digital & Knowledge Infrastructure.

As Deputy CIO, he started efforts in master data management, enterprise architecture and corporate governance of IT. Before NLB, Mun-Kew was Principal Scientist at Institute for Infocomm Research and VP/CTO of an IT startup.  Mun-Kew received his PhD from Stanford University and has more than 25 years of R&D and commercial experience in IT.

Key Factors of a Smart Nation

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong told us what he believes is required of Singapore, to make it the first Smart Nation in the world. He explains that the nation must embrace digitalisation, in order to move this vision forward. This requires people to change the way they think and operate.

 “Part of what we do now, is try to understand the needs of Singapore and its people. It is not enough to have just the fact that we are a Smart Nation, we must embrace digitalisation.” Dr. Mun-Kew Leong stated.

“Note that I am not saying Digitisation. Digitisation is the transferring something from paper form and making it digital. Digitalisation is the adopting the digital perspective of processes. It is much more than making something accessible by computer.”

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong elaborated on this point. He stated how a city-state may start this process of digitalisation within government, as many believe this journey must begin from the public sector.

“How do you embrace that Digital change within organisations?” asked Dr. Mun-Kew Leong, “One way is by creating the fundamentals like IoT and Smart City platforms.”

From here, we ended up discussing how IoT needs to be used in an intelligent way to capitalise on its abilities to power a Smart Nation. Dr. Mun-Kew Leong shared with us his thoughts on how we are using IoT within government.

“The interesting thing about IoT is that, everything you hear about it, is amateur IoT. These are the wearables, smart bands, and more,” said Dr. Mun-Kew Leong, “It is not enterprise grade, because they are consumer materials. If you were trying to run this in an organisation like government, you would have difficulty because their platform is not ready for enterprise technology.”

As Singapore must build its Smart Nation, Dr. Mun-Kew Leong believes that the nation must also serve a greater purpose to the wider community. The Health sector is where Singapore thrives above the rest in the region.

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong finds that as an opportune area for creating impactful technology and systems, which would have a great impact.

“What area can we revolutionise here in Singapore, which can be exportable, and change the world? I think that is health,” Dr. Mun-Kew Leong stated, “We are building a make-a-lab focused on health, because we want to work on innovation that is impactful on the world stage.  We could build the best transport in the world but it will only have an impact within Singapore. Health is one area where we can make a lot of impact and enable people using information.”

Another factor, essential to Smart Nation development, is the adoption of agile development practices.

“One of the most important things is to create a dynamic team. You need to create a dynamic balance, where it is one person in and one person out. Depending on the needs of it, you may need more visualisation, you need more IT,” Dr. Mun-Kew Leong stated, “It is always agile because you want people who are extremely talented, you put them in an environment where they develop responsibility and personal authority. It is not about control, it is about letting them go on their own and enabling them.” Agile teams will allow for constant restructuring and redevelopment of traditionally rigid processes. This makes it easier for organisations to adapt to changing technologies and trends, which were not previously expected.

Translating Smart Nation into the Graduate Classroom

As for how these ideas translate into the classroom, Dr. Mun-Kew Leong walked us through the first steps of the graduate program.

“The first step is to get everyone doing it, programming in the first place. Then we get the equipment and get people to interact with it,” Dr. Mun-Kew Leong told us.

“There is a sensing level, sense making level, and then decision making level. We must understand the analytics behind this. We have degrees in analytics called enterprise business analytics, and it is about giving people the platforms to look at data and creating the capabilities.”

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong then emphasised how important it is to get his graduates to embrace risk. Risk averse attitudes do not lead to change and revolution, instead they retain the status quo and avoid disruption.

Yet, disruption is what drives a Smart Nation. Dr. Mun-Kew Leong explained this phenomenon to us.

“The other step is to get people to embrace risk. Failure is great because you only learn from making mistakes. Otherwise, you only confirm existing hypothesis and you do not know whether something else could be right or wrong,” Dr. Mun-Kew Leong emphasised. 

“This is what Smart Nation is about and we need to reconstitute things we take for granted, like governance. When you teach governance, the future of governance is about embracing risk.”

Dr. Mun-Kew Leong believes that it is critical that NUS helps drive their graduates to think for themselves and develop the skills required by the Smart Nation.

“As an education institution, it is not about us spoon feeding people, yet about us enabling people to excel and develop those analytical capabilities themselves,” said Dr. Mun-Kew Leong. 

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