Smart Nation's the way to go, says PM Lee

Becoming a "smart nation" will not only improve lives, but make the country more competitive, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

He was spelling out his vision for the Smart Nation initiative, which calls on the Government, companies and industries to develop technology to improve people's lives, from urban planning to credit card-less payments.

If it does not, Singapore might lose its position among leading cities, as peers like Shanghai and Sydney "attract capital, talent, ideas... (and are) pulling ahead of the pack".

"We have to move ahead with them and stay up there among the leading cities of the world. We owe it to our people," he said at the biennial national infocomm awards and launch of the Smart Nation initiative, held at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

To that end, he has set up the Smart Nation Programme Office, which coordinates the tech efforts of research bodies and government agencies. It comes under the Prime Minister's Office and will be headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. More details will be released next month.

Such a "whole-of-nation" approach helps ensure a systematic way to "make the most of our potential", he said.

At one point during his 35-minute speech, Mr Lee demonstrated how to use a new app to plan bus journeys, to illustrate how technology can make things more convenient for people. "If we can automate the things that are routine, then we can concentrate on the things that really matter," he said.

But beyond personal convenience, technology can also help strengthen the community, and look after the elderly. For example, the Housing Board is piloting a system, which uses motion sensors to detect if an elderly resident's routine has changed suddenly, and send an alert to family members or neighbours if so.

The country is well-placed to become a smart nation, as most own smartphones and have broadband access, said Mr Lee. Many are also tech-savvy, while students' math and science scores are consistently ranked highest in the world.

It is heartening that some government e-services are among the best in the world, he said. Pointing to the Health Ministry's central database, which helps doctors keep track of health records regardless of which hospital the patient is at, he said: "Some countries have spent tens of billions of dollars trying to build a system like this, and sometimes give up.

"We're not completely there but we're making progress and getting it to work."

But even as Singapore ramps up its technology drive, he assured that those less technologically-savvy - especially senior citizens - will not be left behind.

This includes providing those without computers with access to government online services in community clubs. "We have to prevent a digital divide from happening, (between) people who know IT and can afford it, and those who don't have IT and don't know how to use IT," he said.

The local court system, which files documents electronically, has done so, by providing booths and assistance to those who need help filing paperwork. "So you may be rich, you may be poor, if you have to go to the courts, if you need to have access to justice, you get access to justice."

He also promised to beef up security measures, to make sure sensitive information like medical data is not stolen, and protect against malicious attacks like hacking. Several government websites were defaced late last year.

"We already have cyber-security duties residing in the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the IDA, but I don't think that they are as strong as we would like them to be," he said, adding that the Government was also studying how to protect other critical sectors like telecommunications and banking.

But even as the Government works out these obstacles, it must also invest in the next generation of programmers, by encouraging students to learn to code and reviewing the career paths of the Government's engineers. "We need to strengthen our own capabilities. We cannot just be outsourcing everything," he said.

Concluding, Mr Lee said: "We have what it takes to achieve this vision - the capabilities and daring to pull it all together and to make a quantum leap forward."