Monday 27 February 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Camp Sequoia Dialogue on 24 Feb 2017

Singapore can do much more when it comes to adopting new technology: PM Lee
He says it's an area where Singapore has an edge, outlines vision of how it can improve life here
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2017

Singaporeans can expect a national digital identity, cashless payments in hawker centres and a transport system that is more responsive to changes in demand in the near future.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sketched out this vision of how he sees technology playing a greater role in improving life here at a recent closed-door dialogue, of which his office released a transcript yesterday.

And there is a lot more that government, businesses and people can do to seize the opportunities new technology creates, he added.

The need to innovate and build strong digital capabilities is a key strategy of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which released its report this month, and the Budget contained several measures to help on this front.

Ministers will elaborate on these plans when Parliament debates the Budget this week and the next.

Implementation will be key, Mr Lee said. Technology is a key focus because, while there are manpower and space constraints, "in terms of ideas, productivity, breakthroughs, the constraint is only what the human mind can come up with, what people can organise and deliver".

Mr Lee's dialogue last Friday with 150 start-up founders and guests from across the Asia-Pacific region was part of Camp Sequoia, an annual tech summit organised by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital India.

He said technology is an area Singapore has an advantage in, as a compact city with high-quality infrastructure and tech-savvy people.

Its Smart Nation Programme Office was set up to spearhead the use of technology and key projects that "will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate". Mr Lee added: "I think personally that, for all our pushing, we really are not moving as fast as we ought to."

He outlined several other projects under way, including a national sensor network that pulls together pictures from cameras monitoring traffic, drains and housing estates into an integrated data source.

As for a national digital ID system, 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.

"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.

Asked which policies had the most impact in fostering start-ups here, Mr Lee listed four strategies:

• Creating a pro-business environment where companies can set up shop easily.

• Creating an ecosystem to support start-ups, from having incubators to encouraging venture capitalists and angel investors to invest.

• Being open to foreign talent. "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," he said.

• Producing people with technological know-how by focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

The CFE has recommended a Global Innovation Network for young people to gain exposure to start-ups abroad and be inspired to start their own things, Mr Lee noted. "The problem is not lack of resources from the Government. Really what is needed is the talent, the drive. And we just have to get out of the way and enable you to do that," he said.

Mr Lee noted that Singapore has built up trust between its Government and people because economic growth has benefited most people.

But as the economy slows, the Government has to convince people to work together to attain 2 to 3 per cent growth, which is good by any international standard, he added.

For if society splits, "Singapore would become a very unhappy and much, much less successful place. It is our responsibility as a government to have policies which will not let that happen," he said.

Leaders must remain open to other views: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He stresses importance of having people able to improve on ideas or provide new ones
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2017

It is important for leaders to not be surrounded by "yes men" who paint only a positive picture, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

Rather, they need people with their own views who can improve on ideas or provide new ones, he said at a dialogue session last Friday.

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

"If all you have are people who say 'three bags full, sir', then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous," Mr Lee said.

"You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, 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."

When making policies, one also has to break out of the circle of common viewpoints, perceive how ordinary people will respond to those schemes and acknowledge the limitations, he said.

"You have to have a sense of what it looks like not from the point of view of the policymaker, but from the point of view of those who are at the receiving end of your policies," he said at the dialogue, a transcript of which was released by his office yesterday.

It is also important to remain open to the possibility of being wrong, Mr Lee told over 150 innovators and disruptors from across the Asia-Pacific at Camp Sequoia, an annual technology summit organised by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital India.

"If the person tells you something, what makes him say that? You may find that after thinking it over for a day or two, he has a point and you have to find some way to accommodate that and acknowledge that you were mistaken," he said.

Asked by dialogue moderator Shailendra Singh, Sequoia's managing director, for his philosophies on leading a country, Mr Lee said: "The most important philosophy is not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously. If you think you have found a formula to succeed, somewhere in there you are going to fail."

Mr Lee added it is important to take in other views, and know when to accept them and when not to.

"You must be able to work with people, take views, take criticisms, change your views, even change your decisions, and then collectively find a way forward, which is collective - and yet where your fingerprint or thumbprint is somewhere inside there. It is very hard. Because if you just lead by consensus, then a bot can do it. But if you just charge ahead alone, you may find that nobody is following you," he said.

Mr Singh followed up with a question on how Mr Lee managed imperfections that he sees, and how he manages change as a leader.

Mr Lee elaborated on how Singapore built up its armed forces, liberalised its banking industry, set up a statutory board for tax collection and privatised the telecommunications sector.

To transform the Singapore Armed Forces, the Government attracted scholarship holders who could take up leadership roles. Many were sceptical but, over time, saw that the scholarship holders could deliver better results, and the move resulted in a professional, competent, technologically up-to-date and credible outfit.

Recalling how tax collection was slow and inefficient in the past when the Inland Revenue Department was part of the Finance Ministry, Mr Lee said the decision was made to free up the organisation so it had autonomy to recruit staff, computerise and improve procedures.

Change is always hard and there is never a final position, he said, but countries that do not change will become increasingly out of touch, and unable to function.

Another participant asked Mr Lee what Singapore would be like in 20 years' time. The Prime Minister said this was "the most difficult question to answer", as Singapore is already an advanced country and "there is no model to follow".

There is, however, plenty of potential to change and rebuild.

He noted that Paya Lebar Airbase will be relocated to Changi from 2030. Flight paths in that area had constrained developments down to Marina Bay, he said. "The airbase area will be opened up. It is probably the size of two or three new towns and the whole of the eastern half of Singapore can be redeveloped."

Should the current peace endure, the population then will have experienced stability and progress for all of their lives, he noted.

"The challenge would be for them to still have that drive to want to make things better, to want to be at the leading edge," he added.

PM Lee on CFE, what keeps him up and what's on his Internet browser
Here are edited extracts of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's responses to various questions at the Camp Sequoia discussion last week.
The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2017


It is a challenging time for a country like Singapore, trying to find an economic strategy which will work for an economy, for a nation, not just for companies in it, but for the population and for citizens.

We are doing our own think exercise. We produced a report by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which came out a couple of weeks ago. We had the Budget this week, which set out some of the strategies to realise the ideas we have. None of them is rocket science. The key is whether or not you can make it happen. And to make it happen faster than others, execute and bring everybody on board and see that this is the right strategy, which will work and which will benefit everybody.

(Technology) is in fact one of our areas of focus. In terms of physical growth, numbers, space, we reach constraints. But in terms of ideas, productivity, breakthroughs, the constraint is only what the human mind can come up with, what people can organise and deliver.


Some of the things which keep you up at night, you cannot do anything about. We spent a lot of time worrying about the United States presidential election. There are other things which can go bump in the night because we are in uncharted waters.

There is a major change of direction in the United States. Other powers will react and how does that interaction work out? If it is a rebalancing, that is manageable. If it is destabilisation, you do not know what the consequences are. That is one big global uncertainty.

Within the region, we also watch very carefully the trends and our neighbouring countries. Whether they are focused on regional cooperation and integration, or whether their focus is on economic nationalism - like the mood in the United States and the developed countries...

We also have to watch our own domestic population trends, our demographic trends. That worries us a great deal and, again, it is something with no easy solution. Our birth rate is too low...


The Trans-Pacific Partnership is off. It is a great pity and it is a setback. We have to continue to pursue free trade with the other partners, which we will. And 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.


We ask what they read so we get some sense of what their interests are. We ask what they have been doing outside of their work so we see whether they have an interest in social issues, whether they have an interest in helping people. We ask what policy issues they care about and have a view on and would like the Government to change. That is usually the question which they find the hardest to answer because they are not sure whether to tell us that we are dead wrong on something or other. But if they give us a good answer, we give them very high marks.


I have on my desktop the news websites open: BBC, The New York Times, The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia. They are there all the time. Because of that, I do not watch the television news any more. If you want to see the snippet, it is there all the time. I have Facebook open and Instagram, because I have accounts.

I track what is happening to my posts, what people are saying and whether we have to respond to it or not. It is quite useful because without those, I would not reach out to significant segments of the population, here and overseas. It is also fun, if you do not become addicted to it.

What other websites do I go to? I look at a page called Astronomy Picture of the Day. Every day, there is a picture, a nebula, a supernova, the Sun, rings of Saturn, something like that. I sometimes look at blogs by mathematicians to track what they are doing...

I look at photography websites because I take pictures. You pick up ideas looking at what people do, how they take the pictures.

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