Minister leads intelligent nation initiative

Minister leads intelligent nation initiative

Minister for Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) Vivian Balakrishnan sleeps about four hours a day.

And its not just because his ministry is busy tackling Singapore's calamities - haze, floods, dengue and rats - or his involvement in various grassroots activities.

By night, Dr Balakrishnan, 53, is a geek.

He usually pores over coding books and surfs the Internet, trying to figure out the nuances of how to create his own mini computer.

The minister is part of a small group of such enthusiasts in Singapore who exchange ideas and solutions.

He estimates the group to number about 100.

And yes, they were surprised when they found out that a minister shares their interest, he added with a laugh.

In an interview with The New Paper at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) Labs last Wednesday, the minister was no stranger to terms like oscilloscope (a device used to monitor electrical signals over time) and C coding.

As he chatted with an IDA staff about creating custom-made drones, he let slip that he was hit on the head by a drone he was operating at home.

"If something happens and it falls on someone, who will be responsible? It could be dangerous.

I know because I hurt my head while operating a drone at home," he said.

The minister was curious about everything in the lab, including the current tech-craze: 3-D printers.

While examining several various locally-made 3-D printers, he knew the cost of production and revealed that he is thinking of creating his own printer.

Given his background, it was no surprise that he was appointed to head the Smart Nation Initiative last year.

But he thinks that it was not just his "techie" side that made him suitable for this new role.


Rather, it is his experience with five different ministries since he became a Member of Parliament in 2001.

Before MEWR, he was with the Ministry of National Development, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (now the Ministry of Communications and Information), and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now the Ministry of Social and Family Development).

He said: "My journey with the five ministries has given me both experience and opportunities to meet people and technology which are relevant.

"I've seen it for myself up close, the benefits of an open, intelligent collaborative use of technology to make life better."

And this is especially relevant in his current ministry, which uses information and data in problems like flooding.

But he admitted that his technology expertise does give him an advantage.

"I understand what people are talking about and I have a rough idea of whether an idea can fly...More importantly, (I have) an estimate of their limitations and potentials."

Dr Balakrishnan is especially passionate about open source software - computer software that can be freely used, shared and modified by anyone - which he uses extensively in his mini computer projects.

He stresses how easy availability of technology and low cost means that such projects are open and accessible to all.

He said: "As technology progresses, and with the presence of more smart machines and robots, Singaporeans should be the owners, creators, the programmers, masters of robots, not people who are trying to compete with robots."

After the interview, Dr Balakrishnan was curious about the various mini computer parts and gadgets of the lab, staying on for nearly half an hour longer to examine them.

"I can't bring any of them home, my wife will be upset," he added with a laugh.

I understand what people are talking about and I have a rough idea of whether an idea can fly.

- Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on how his background helps him manage his ministry which uses technology extensively

He creates mini machines for fun

He was an eye surgeon who planned and did intricate operations and assembling these mini computers allows Dr Vivian Balakrishnan to keep his dexterity and exercise his brain.

He usually takes a few weeks to study how the programming works before he actually puts them together.

He said: "It's not that difficult...You can (learn how to assemble them) with a weekend course.

If I had more time, I would conduct courses like that."


Raspberry pi ($40)

Credit-card sized computer that can be plugged into a TV and a keyboard

He included a wireless module to communicate with wireless sensors in a room

Open source software is used and it can perform tasks such as switching on the air-conditioner, locking the door, checking the temperature

Arduino ($20)

Small mini-controllers with ports. It can be programmed so that it can be used as a sensor or to control things

It can be used for complicated projects such as operating a drone or to perform simple tasks, like measuring the temperature in a room

His own project modelled after the Arduino ($5-$6)

Starting with a board that cost about $4, he added some wires and connectors. It would work nearly the same way as the Arduino

Includes an ultrasonic distance sensor that can detect obstacles



Products such as fridges, air conditioner, lights, TVs and entertainment systems will have elements of smart technology in them.

They will be connected to the Internet, finely tuned to personal taste and preference.

You will be able to control your own environment in a seamless way.


Technology will improve our ability to learn and remember.

Access to a wider repertoire of subjects and information.

Teachers won't be replaced, but they will become navigators of information and guides.


Daily commute is shortened, improved and as pleasant as possible.

You could be entertained and educated along the journey.

Driverless vehicles would mean there is no need to own a car.

You can move from point A to B in the most efficient and cost-effective way, without worrying about parking or maintenance.


Many new jobs will appear.

But at the same time, many jobs might disappear, for example the routine and repetitive types which can be done by computers and machines.

Many industries involving transport, cleaning and security will be transformed.

The human being would not be eliminated, but the nature, number, structure of these industries will be different.


You can no longer conceive of a modern concert without a whole host of digital enhancements - bright screen behind, animations, landscape.

This will progress.

Future artists and musicians will have to master digital technology as it will become part of their entire production.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on using technology to deal with recent issues that the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources faces:


We realised that when we gave people timely information, we would help build confidence, trust and give them an opportunity to solve problems.

We made sure that we have nearly 200 sensors in our drains which would provide early warning about rising water levels.

We automated those sensors and they would send tweets out using the hashtag #sgflood.

Initially, the hashtag was used in a negative sense to make a point that Singapore has a problem with floods.

But today, if you search sgflood, especially during a rainy day, the majority of tweets are from sensors from the drains.


Technology cannot replace human decision making, wisdom and responsibility.

But (technology can help) with the ability to sense and anticipate problems.

This would lead to quicker and more decisive action.

Every complaint is a data point.

For instance, when a person makes a complaint, the information can be used to identify patterns, potential problems and solutions.

It's not a technological question.

It's a frame of mind of anticipating, picking up early signals, identifying patterns and fixing the problem.

This article was first published on Jan 26, 2015.
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