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EXCLUSIVE: Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Digital Technology Officer on Singapore’s Smart Nation Journey

Singapore continues its journey as a Smart Nation where people are empowered to live meaningful and fulfilled lives, offering opportunities for all and enabled by digital transformation. Technology is integral to Singapore’s next phase of smart nation-building. It has been acknowledged that for Singapore to continue to prosper and stay relevant, it needs to embrace digitalisation.

OpenGov Asia had the opportunity to gain key insights and perspectives from Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Digital Technology Officer, Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) and Deputy Chief Executive, Government Technology Agency (GovTech) of Singapore, on the initiatives and milestones of Singapore as a smart nation.

Cheow Hoe has more than two decades of extensive experience in senior management positions overseeing organisation-wide IT development and systems. He also has a strong track record of leading IT professionals in global companies and large corporations, to deliver efficient and effective IT systems and solutions. His expertise includes leading organisations through transformational change and connecting IT to the needs of the organisation.

Without a doubt, Singapore is a leading tech power in the region and considered a model and benchmark for a smart nation. While most Smart Nation initiatives have been on track, the last couple of years has put a damper on progress in some areas like the ‘Smart Lamp Post’ project.

Cheow Hoe explains that the Lamppost-as-a-Platform (LaaP) project is part of the broader efforts to transform Singapore into a smart city by embedding smart technology into its urban infrastructure, to improve lived experiences.

No doubt the pandemic has had an impact on the initiative. Trials began in early 2020 and the aim was to complete them in a year. The onset of the pandemic reduced activities and more time is needed to assess its viability. With things under control, trials should be completed next year.

Besides LaaP, the agency is experimenting with sensor data to improve the running of estates. For example, for the JTC building, sensor data is being used to adjust air-conditioning output automatically to save energy. It is also employed for predictive maintenance of any component failure in the system such as the fan coil unit and compressor.

Singpass is another great example. Cheow Hoe says almost 97% of Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents aged 15 and above have a Singpass account, amounting to a user base of more than 4.2 million users.

There are also over 3.2 million Singpass app users transacting with over 460 Government agencies and private sector organisations across more than 1,700 services. With about 300 million personal and corporate Singpass transactions in a year, Singpass is among the most pervasively-adopted national digital identity systems in the world.

The government plans to continue to build up Singpass as an all-in-one gateway for secure access to all Government services. The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), which comprises SNDGO and GovTech, aims to get more private sector companies and services onto Singpass and encourage the use of Singpass and the Digital IC as a way of life in Singapore.

Today,  all Government agencies accept the Digital Identity Card (IC) on the Singpass app as a means to prove an individual’s identity for in-person agency services. Users can present their Digital IC at Government service counters for identity verification or scan the Digital IC barcode at kiosks, such as in public libraries or polyclinics. Businesses can also use the Digital IC as an alternative method of identity verification.

SNDGG has also expanded Singpass features to the private sector to provide more efficient services. For example, Myinfo business enables businesses to pre-fill digital forms with entity data from government sources. It has facilitated more than 120 Government-to-Business (G2B) digital services to date, such as applying for a grant on the Business Grants Portal and invoicing agencies. This service has also been extended to private sector services like opening a corporate utility account and applying for SME loans. Currently, more than 60 private sector digital services have been onboarded to Myinfo business.

To facilitate business transactions, users can digitally sign documents on their Singpass app. This provides convenience and increases productivity and business efficiency as citizens no longer need to be physically present to sign documents and agreements.

The next plan is for Singpass to be used as a trusted digital ID beyond Singapore. Singapore has signed Digital Identity MOUs with Australia, UK and Shenzhen to explore cross-border recognition. For a start, the agency is exploring the use of Singpass for the filing of university applications at selected Australian universities.

Smart Nation Vision

Cheow Hoe touched on his personal view of a Smart Nation. For him, the Smart Nation vision is about transforming Singapore through technology to improve the lives of citizens and businesses and to make Singapore an outstanding city where people can live, work and play. SNDGG applies technology in a systematic and integrated manner nationwide and ensures that the benefits of digitalisation are experienced by all.

To achieve this vision, the agency has been focused first on digitalising itself; to make government work smarter. This means delivering public services more effectively through the use of technology, improving the efficiency of government operations and developing data science capabilities for data-driven policy-making.

The second step is to build digital infrastructure for businesses and citizens, such as digital identity (Singpass), digital forms (FormSG) and encouraging the adoption of e-payments among the population. These include platforms such as Smart Urban Mobility to enhance the public compute and the Smart Nation Sensor Platform, which will enable a smarter and greener city by collecting data such as environment and traffic data.

There is a range of other consumer-facing projects such as LifeSG and GoBusiness to improve the government’s delivery of services to citizens and businesses respectively.

Cheow Hoe is proud of what Smart Nation has achieved so far. In five years, SNDGG has built up significant in-house engineering capabilities. This was tested during COVID-19 where, because of in-house capabilities, the government could roll out digital tools quickly to support public health needs.

More than 90% of the government services are now delivered online in a cashless, paperless and presence-less way. This has significantly improved citizens’ and businesses’ satisfaction with Government Digital Services over the last few years.

According to the Survey on Satisfaction with Government Digital Services for Citizens and Businesses 2020, 85% of citizen respondents and 76% of business respondents were very or extremely satisfied with Government Digital Services.

Despite the achievements, Cheow Hoe explains several areas in which SNDGO can still improve:

  • Drive economic growth and impact: Building tools, platforms, services and capabilities to support the Digital Economy, and to help raise productivity to grow the economy.
  • Need for deeper transformation: Digitalising faster and driving deeper transformation. This requires not just technology adoption but also changing operating models, processes, policies and even mindsets.
  • Being digitally inclusive: Making sure that digitalisation benefits all, not just some. Everyone must have access and skills to use basic digital services. During the pandemic, some people (e.g. seniors, low-income families) risked being left behind. The digital divide must be closed and products for all segments of society must be developed.
  • Growing the talent pool: As with all countries, Singapore is short of engineering talent and the demand is going to grow even more. The number of fresh graduates each year would not be sufficient to fill this gap. Hence, the nation has to upskill the workforce so that more people can contribute to the digitalisation efforts, including in modern technologies like cloud and Agile software development.

Singapore’s International Collaboration

The digital realm offers small countries, like Singapore, opportunities to transcend their physical constraints. In terms of international collaboration, Cheow Hoe explains that SNDGG is keen to contribute to global conversations, collaboration and action.  That is why the agency has open-sourced the codebase for both TraceTogether and the underlying BlueTrace protocol – allowing other countries to build on them for contact tracing needs.

SNDGO is exploring the mutual recognition of each other’s digital identity with several countries and is also keen on exchanging best practices in areas like Artificial Intelligence, data, cybersecurity and digital government with other nations. Cheow Hoe gave several examples of how the agency participates actively in regional initiatives within ASEAN.

Singapore is a member of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN). Beyond sharing best practices, there is potential for closer collaboration. During the pandemic, there were several interactions and discussions with regional and international parties, to exchange and share information and best practices in managing the pandemic through the use of digital tools, such as digital vaccination certificates.

ASEAN must facilitate interoperable and trusted digital tools and infrastructure to drive inclusive growth. Countries in the bloc should work together to build trust and support interoperability to enable an integrated regional economy. This can be done by supporting businesses and consumers to connect digitally beyond borders.

ASEAN can facilitate cross-border digital utilities such as e-invoicing, e-trade documents, digital identity and digital payment. For example, Singapore and Thailand launched the world’s first linkage of real-time payment systems. Customers of participating banks in Singapore and Thailand can transfer funds instantly and securely, using their mobile devices.

Singapore is facilitating these processes even further with Digital Economy Agreements (DEA), both bilateral and multilateral. They are taking it further and building online platforms like the Networked Trade Platform to aggregate players and facilitate trade. These efforts will be increasingly salient in driving its economy forward in the post-COVID-19 world.

AI Adoption in Singapore

Artificial Intelligence represents the next frontier as the government continues on its digital transformation journey. The amount of value that AI can unlock in government is tremendous – not only in terms of providing more personalised and responsive services to citizens but also in strengthening policymaking and planning and optimising government processes for the benefit of citizens and businesses.

Singapore has made early strides for AI, such as using speech to text technologies to transcribe parliament speeches, computer vision to detect drowning in public swimming pools and AI-powered chatbots to simplify the provision of municipal feedback.

The nation has also invested in setting up a capability centre for Data Science and AI to hone its capabilities to develop and deploy AI. Over S$500 million is estimated to be spent in FY21 to accelerate the adoption and deployment of AI for the public sector.

Two years into the National AI Strategy, which comprises ambitious projects aimed at catalysing AI adoption across key sectors, Singapore launched the National AI Programme in Government in November 2021. This is a holistic strategy to drive more widespread adoption of AI and build AI capabilities in the government.

The programme has identified projects that will act as pathfinders to show how AI can be leveraged in the public sector. For instance, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is developing an AI smart planning assistant to help urban planners achieve greater adaptability and sustainability in land-constrained Singapore. Another key project is JumpStart, an AI-enabled platform with recommendation engines to complement the work of career coaches and offer job seekers more personalised and effective jobs and skills recommendations.

Besides these signature AI projects, SNDGG has developed a suite of Central AI Products that can be used across the government. An example is the GovTech developed Video Analytics System (VAS) that can support government agencies in the deployment of video analytics models. The platform was recently used to develop the Safe Distance@Parks portal in less than 4 days, providing live crowd density information for residents planning to visit national parks, gardens and nature reserves during COVID-19.

To empower and enable government officers to fully reap the benefits of AI, SNDGG curated a training roadmap for officers based on their varying levels of AI literacy, organised talks and courses and released an AI Playbook as a  supporting resource for them. Through training and education, the aim is to raise the overall level of AI literacy in the government.

The Singapore Government has developed guidelines for organisations to use AI responsibly. Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has published the second edition of the Model AI Governance Framework in 2020, the Implementation and Self-Assessment Guide for Organisations (ISAGO) and two volumes of the Compendium of Use Cases to guide organisations in implementing Responsible AI. The Model Framework is being adapted for sector-specific use, e.g. in healthcare and government.

Additionally, IMDA is working on an AI governance testing framework to help owners and developers be more transparent about their AI systems to build trust with stakeholders. Further, Singapore is participating in global platforms on AI governance, such as the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI) and OECD expert groups, to exchange perspectives and establish global norms.

Cheow Hoe acknowledges that while Singapore has made some progress in its signature AI projects and central AI products, there is certainly more to be done. Singapore continues to make investments in AI, drive AI adoption, raise AI literacy and develop Responsible AI within the government to unlock its potential to the fullest.

In closing, Cheow Hoe shares key moments and milestones in his journey thus far. First, he is happy about the progress that he and his team has made. Today, 95% of all transactions with the government are digital from end-to-end. He is proud of the improvement of the delivery of digital services to citizens, businesses and public officers.

Second, the contributions SNDGG has made in harnessing technology to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. He is amazed at how his teams rolled out a suite of digital tools within a matter of weeks and helped to streamline operational processes using technology. From timely and accurate informational updates to contact-tracing efforts such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry, the foundations that have been laid for Smart Nation efforts have allowed agencies to respond effectively and quickly.

Third, the recognition from citizens and businesses that their lives have improved. The agency has done relatively well based on various smart city surveys. For example, Singapore retained its No.1 spot in the 2021 IMD-SUTD Smart Cities Index, marking its 3rd consecutive year at the top of the index.  Singapore scored very well in most components of the index, especially in areas like health and safety, work and education opportunities and government efficiency.

From a Smart Nation perspective, respondents rated Singapore highly for the accessibility of information, free public Wi-Fi, internet speed and reliability, online tools to access public services or information (e.g. booking health appointments, monitoring of air pollution, traffic congestion).

Last but not least, he is grateful for the commitment of his Smart Nation team of policy officers and engineers in building Singapore into a Smart Nation.

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