Singapore must chart bold course in age of digital economy — Tan Wu Meng

FEBRUARY 8 — This week in Parliament, I asked about Singapore's digital connectivity and the policy implications of digital disruptions such as artificial intelligence.

These transformations will shape how Singapore's economy grows.

Growth matters. It creates opportunities for our young to rise, and the wherewithal to maintain a credible defence and infrastructure, alongside fiscal redistribution to build a more inclusive society.

Matured economies generally grow by around 2 to 3 per cent.

Yet we can aspire to do better, while we are at a crossroads of deep disruption and great opportunities.

What are Singapore's choices to chart stable economic growth over the next 50 years?

For the last 200 years, Singapore has benefited from its geographic positioning between East and the West — thriving as a trading port, then as a trans-shipment hub, air hub, and gateway between regions.

But supply chain geography is being disrupted.

As the quality of additive manufacturing (3D printing) improves, custom-made components will be produced closer to assembly and sale.

In many Western countries, the mood is less than sanguine about trade. And jobs are being disrupted every day.

Data flows will create a parallel world economic order for collaboration, competition and opportunity by not just digitising existing ways of doing business, but also creating entirely new business models.

In the life sciences, rapid DNA sequencing was solved years ago. But the analytics of DNA sequences are what created the field of genomics, and then personalised medicine.

E-commerce and e-retail go beyond cashless transactions, and will be about businesses knowing customers even better than they know themselves.

Innovations like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things will change manufacturing and factories — more adaptable assembly lines, better predictive maintenance and quality control.

City of data

So how do we ride the wave of the next 50 years? We must ensure a strong position for Singapore in the emerging digital economic world order.

We must maximise our external network connectivity, ensuring that new network links are easy to add. Spending on digital infrastructure must be seen as investment, not consumption — in the same way that we invest in the new Tuas Mega Port and the expansion of Changi Airport.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are obvious next investments for a data hub. The public sector should be involved, so that insights and intellectual property do not accrue only to private corporations.

Singapore must maintain its reputation as a trusted jurisdiction for intellectual property and data protection.

When an individual sequences all three billion base pairs of his personal genome, or when a company collects mission-critical data from around the world, which jurisdiction will they find safest to store that data in?

This needs legislation that is up to date, even one step ahead. Our laws must keep pace with artificial intelligence — and what happens when multiple autonomous devices interact, as could be the case with blockchain smart contracts, or a crowd of smart vehicles.

Competition law must be ready for trading algorithms that spontaneously organise into anti-competitive behaviour. The definition of mens rea — the legal concept of “the knowledge of wrongdoing” — must be updated for both human and machine intelligence.

It is not too early to think about best practices and aspirational ethical values for artificial intelligence — systems such as Asimov's Laws of Robotics, which began as science fiction in 1942, but which may well be needed by 2042.

Communications security may be under threat with new technologies.

Traditional public key encryption presumes that factorising the product of large prime numbers is computationally intensive. But quantum computing is a promising technology which could disrupt this entirely, by being able to complete prime factorisation faster than was previously thought possible.

On the flip side, quantum-secured communications are on the rise — providing ways to share information so that interception or eavesdropping cannot be concealed.

We are a geographically small country, which may improve the feasibility of short-distance quantum communications solutions. Either way, Singapore must keep up.

By being a trusted broker and first mover, Singapore can help establish shared common standards in Asean and the region, whether it is e-payments, cross-jurisdiction data protection, and so on.

We may be a little red dot, but we can help build an ecosystem of inter-operable systems to benefit all stakeholders. You might even call it One Dot One Web — One shining little red Dot, One Web of partnerships and networks.

All these elements of a world-class digital data hub are within Singapore's grasp. They do not require much land. Our fiscal position is better than many of the developed economies.

What are needed are skills, talent and organisation. The next step is to boldly strengthen our position — converging investments in technology, talent and infrastructure, to create a critical mass of opportunity for Singaporeans and for Singapore.

The role of government

Government has a dual role: Minimising risk and maximising opportunity.

Both are different facets of preventing market failure. Risk minimisation prevents a race to the bottom.

On the other hand, if there are too many administrative or bureaucratic obstacles, it can get in the way of our people and our businesses racing to the top.

Today, the government — more than ever — can and must be an enabler of opportunity, innovation and growth.

Speed of decision-making matters.

We must be able to act fast when we need to be fast.

In the private sector and the world of Industry 4.0, a “slow decision” is often the equivalent of “no decision.” And if there is “no decision,” after a while it becomes a “no” decision as people take their business elsewhere.

When a home-grown or Singapore-linked unicorn lists its IPO in another global city instead of Singapore, it is useful to ask ourselves — in hindsight — how we could have seized the opportunity.

Was it because they could never have listed on the Singapore Exchange? Or was it because the decision-making took too long? Did a slow decision become, in effect, a “no” decision?

Financial overheads matter too. How easy is it for SMEs and start-ups to access credit and funding?

Are there ways to reduce land cost and rental overheads for businesses? Land has to be priced appropriately, but can some costs be offset against future profits or equity, rather than paying it upfront as capital expenditure?

We also need to keep Singapore open to world-class talent. We must be the kind of place that the brightest talent of tomorrow will want to settle down and raise their children in, while creating jobs, wealth and opportunities for Singaporeans.

Some of it starts upstream. Because when bright young sparks grow up in Singapore, these youngsters will feel an emotional attachment to the Little Red Dot.

Sometimes, it is home ties — more than any financial incentive — that determine whether a company founder maintains that Singapore presence even after a company goes regional or global.

Look at Razer — a world-class gaming hardware company. It bought THX, the audio company founded by George Lucas.

Razer's founder, Tan Min-Liang, grew up in Singapore.

Had he grown up in another country, Singapore would have had one fewer star in our constellation of entrepreneurs.

When innovation is matched with entrepreneurship, it stimulates the creation of value, wealth and opportunities.

Beyond infrastructure and policy, it is also very much about the kind of society and culture we want to build.

Starting from very young, we can look at how schools can encourage that entrepreneurial spirit and inculcate useful life skills.

Children from less well-off families will not have the same access to parental support and experience when it comes to opportunities to learn about running a business or having an apprenticeship at an SME. Our school system can help bridge that gap, providing another bulwark against inequality.

Once upon a time, when independence was thrust upon us, we dared — as a matter of survival.

Today, a new digital order is being thrust upon the world.

Even as many incremental improvements are implemented to ready our workers and businesses for the future, we must also have the audacity to dream big — to boldly go where we can position ourselves for new trends that emerge over the next 50 years. — TODAY

* Tan Wu Meng is a Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC, Singapore.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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