Transcript: Interview with Singapore Deputy Secretary for Industry & Information Aaron Maniam

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Jean-Marc Leclerc, IBM Policy Lab co-Director:

I’m Jean-Marc Leclerc, head of EU Government and Regulatory Affairs at IBM and co-director of the IBM Policy Lab. The IBM Policy Lab convenes leading thinkers in government, academia and industry to discuss concrete policy ideas, leveraging technology to tackle some of the most pressing issues about time. If you want to know more about the IBM Policy Lab, or policy papers or events, please visit ibm.com/policy. I’m very pleased to be joined today by the Deputy Secretary for Industry and Information at the Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information, Mr. Aaron Maniam, to talk about technological innovation, and the concept of tech for good. Aaron has previously served in the Foreign Service, in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Center for Strategic Futures, the Institute for Public Sector Leadership at the Civil Service College, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Aaron is also a poet and thinker so this promises to be a very interesting conversation. Aaron, welcome. And thank you so much for joining the IBM Policy Lab today.

 

Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary for Industry and Information – Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information:

Thanks for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here. I’m a huge admirer of what the policy lab does.

 

JML:

Great, thank you. So I mentioned this expression Aaron, tech for good. It’s been used by many organizations to refer to well, technology that improves lives. But the phrase can mean different things to different people. So what does tech for good mean to you? And how does the Singapore government put it in practice?

 

AM:

That’s such a great question to start with, you know, I think of tech for good as comprising two paths. One is that we need to make sure we maximize the tech dividend to make sure that that dividend is optimal, and also that we minimize the divide of technology, that we ensure the dividend reaches to as many people as possible, and that we ensure as broad and inclusive a kind of access as we can. Now what does this mean in more concrete terms, right? It means that we need to make sure our tech environment is secure, it means that our tech exchanges need to be fair, and also that people’s lives overall are improved by the interactions that they do through using technology. And there are a few  different examples that are my personal favorites, in terms of what we do in Singapore. In terms of the safety of the environment, we launched a Safer Cyberspace Master Plan, which outlines our plans to secure our 5G networks in particular, and strengthen the cybersecurity of our cloud services. We think of these as the foundations of the digital world. And therefore, we need to ensure that fidelity such that the tech dividends can be maximized, and the divide can actually be minimized, as I mentioned earlier. Another example that I’m very fond of is the Singapore Personal Data Protection Act. We recently amended that to strengthen consumer protection, while at the same time enabling companies to harness the innovative potential of data. And we think this kind of balance is really critical, we want to make sure that we have that consumer protection, but at the same time that we don’t curb business potential. And the amendments that we put through were ones that actually allowed us to achieve this, this delicate balance, but one that we think is worthwhile to have in overall society. In the realm of AI, there are some good examples as well, that we are working very hard at. One that I like a lot is that we recently launched the second edition of our Model AI governance framework. And this is a framework that sets up ethical principles for organizations to take into account such that they can deploy AI in a responsible, in an ethical, in a safe and secure manner. And we think that having these very concrete guidelines helps us to make sure that the dividend for AI is maximum, but also at the same time that the overall access from that technology is one that we ensure is as inclusive as possible. And then the last one, you know that because you asked about a range of examples, right? One thing I find is particularly important in the realm of access and equity is setting up what we call our Singapore Digital Office, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, actually. We recruited 1000 digital ambassadors to help equip less digitally savvy individuals, like senior citizens, with the digital skills that they need to participate fully and meaningfully in a technology-inflected economy and society. So this is what I mean when I say that we need to make sure the divide is minimized as far as possible. And in order to do that we needed to make sure that as many people as possible have the skills and the expertise and the know how to participate fully.

 

JML:

Well, let’s go deeper into this area, and the disruption element. You know, many avoid concerns about the disruption that technology can bring, like job displacement, for example, and that some can be left behind. So, you know, in your view, how could business individuals cope with such disruptions? What can the government do to ensure that the, well, technology enhances efficiency of course, but also equity?

 

AM:

Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. You know, I always think of technology as potentially achieving two things. Technology can either substitute for human beings, or it can augment us and make us better. And I must confess, I am at heart, that technology augmentation is right, I believe that the augmented potential of technology is far stronger than the substitutive effects that it can have. Now, what does this mean, though? It means that we need to make sure that individuals are continually equipped to participate in the technology augmentation that exists out there, because it is perfectly plausible that if we stick purely to traditional business models, if we don’t actually try and innovate, if individuals insist on working in the same way that they’ve done for the previous decades, then the kinds of transformative shifts that we need to see for technological augmentation to take place will not be realized. But what we’re trying to do in Singapore is to make sure that we continually invest in our individuals so that they can actually invest in their own digital capabilities and upgrade their skills. Because if we get that right at the individual level, then actually at the enterprise level, the overall transformative effects from technology can also be fully realized. And we think it’s really important that we partner, both with individual workers, as well as with firms, to make sure that the augmentation effects are fully realized. In fact, one of my favorite examples of this is something that we do with IBM, you know, we’ve actually worked with you to make sure that we step up to both create jobs and make sure that the training and learning opportunities are as strong as possible. You probably recall that we worked with IBM to train and hire 300 Singaporeans in a range of fields: data science, cloud architecture, AI, blockchain, Internet of Things, data analytics, as well as cyber security. And in all of these, what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we are continually investing in individual skills, such that people can feel they play as meaningfully as possible in the digital space. I think that is at the core of what we need to do here. And of course, in some of these processes, there will be sectors that will find it difficult to digitalize, to adopt technology, and then achieve the kind of augmentation effects that I mentioned earlier. And we think that it’s therefore particularly important that the government supports these transformative effects. We find that micro enterprises, for instance, often face more friction than most other corporate types. And in these cases, you know, whether it’s hawkers in Singapore, or mom and pop shops, we want to make sure that they are supported to actually adopt digital solutions as much as possible. This includes things like e-payments as part of a broader phenomenon of e-commerce. And we spent some fairly intensive efforts, including sending public officers out to engage with the people who run these micro enterprises. We find that it is important for these micro enterprises to be supported, such that they can take the initial steps to move into the digital space as meaningful as possible.

 

JML:

It’s very clear, thank you. And you know, going back to the concept of tech for good, or you can’t deploy, or use tech for good if you haven’t designed that for good. What are your thoughts on this? How can we, governments, everybody, in government, industry, businesses, how can we design tech for good, tech that is inclusive to all?

 

AM:

You know, Jean-Marc, I’m so glad you started with that. Because my own belief is that actually all of us are designers at heart. Design is often seen as something that we associate with physical products, or maybe services. But actually, all of us design things. In public policy, what we design is experiences. We design experiences for our citizens to be part of. And if we do that well, then these overall design experiences are meaningful, they are pleasant, and even if people don’t reach the outcome that they were hoping for, they will still have enjoyed the process and the experience. And so for us, when we think about technological adoption, what we’re really asking ourselves is how do we do that curation, that detailed design, such that when citizens go through those experiences, they have an overall experience that is as enjoyable as possible. And this means a few things. It means in particular, making sure that if groups find it difficult to keep up with technology, that we give them the support that they need to do so. And we found that there are groups that sometimes find it difficult to play in the digital space. These might include the elderly, it might include lower income households, it also includes people who may not be comfortable in English because so much of the language of digitalization happens in English, as opposed to in Singapore at least, with Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and our other vernacular languages. So we found it’s really important to make sure that we don’t push out or exclude people who come from these different groups. And that’s why we launched very specific and targeted programs that allow us to understand the user needs of these different demographics, and then respond to both the pain points that they have, in terms of what we saw, and then we try and maximize the happiness points in terms of what makes people enjoy the whole process. So let’s take a concrete example, right, we have something we call the Seniors Go Digital program, we launched that last year to train the elderly in digital skills, and to safeguard themselves against some of the risks that we see becoming much more prevalent on the internet. And when we did this, what we did was we adopted digital platforms to convey key messages and provide the right sorts of skills to the elderly to take part in digital activities. Another example is at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we started to use a range of messaging media to get messages out to people so that they would have up to date information in terms of what was going on with the COVID situation. And we did this on a range of messaging platforms, including things like WhatsApp and Telegram. But we did it in all four of the Singapore official languages, so English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, such that this important information was transmitted to groups as widely as possible. And that just because they speak only particular languages would not mean that they would end up being excluded from that data. So addressing, I think, these persistent user needs is really critical to make sure that the design is done in a way that is as inclusive and as mutually and universally accessible as possible.

 

JML:

Thank you, Aaron, especially for those examples, very practical examples. You know, in a broader sense this, this point you highlight, and the government highlights often, of collaboration between industry and government. Can you say a bit more about public private partnerships, collaborations with industry in Singapore? And how to drive innovation, technology innovation, in a responsible manner, an inclusive manner, and of course sustainable manner?

 

AM:

That’s a really wonderful question. In Singapore, we believe very fundamentally, in the fact that government cannot have all the answers. We think it’s really important that we work with a whole range of partners from multiple sets of stakeholders – that includes businesses at all levels, it includes community groups, and it involves us reaching out together, with all of these groups to try and solve the kind of public policy challenges that we face. During COVID-19, we started something called the Emerging Stronger Together process, which involves government working together with businesses, and together with community groups, sometimes in what we call Alliances for Action, which actually focuses on solving very, very concrete and quite specific problems that were pandemic-related. This is part of a broader process that we call Singapore Together, which is, which involves precisely the kinds of partnerships that you mentioned. And we see these partnerships playing out at multiple levels. I want to talk about three of them today, because I thought it might be useful to share with you. One is the ecosystem level, but then also at the level of industry and the level of community, we find that different kinds of partnerships can take place. So at the ecosystem level, what we find is really important is that government must work with partners to make sure that ecosystems are as healthy as possible, and that we maintain their integrity and the overall strength and fidelity of our overall infrastructure. So one example of this is we all live in a world where more and more data is being collected – data in greater volumes, greater variety that is moving around with greater velocity than we’ve ever seen. But we find that as these bits of data are collected, the risk of data breaches also increases. And therefore, it’s become much more important for us to create a regulatory environment that safeguards consumer interests with regards to this data, while at the same time encouraging growth and innovation. And that’s why I go back to the example that I mentioned to you earlier, when we amended our Personal Data Protection Act, what we did was to make sure that we could continue engaging companies on best practices to nurture a culture of good and secure data governance, while at the same time ensuring that there was responsible use of emerging technologies and taking care of the welfare of individual citizens. So that was at the ecosystem level. At the industry level, we also want to make sure we work with the private sector to accelerate digital innovation in different technology areas that’s out there. And 5G is actually a really good example of this. We’re on track in Singapore to achieve at least 50% of 5G standalone outdoor coverage by the end of 2022, and nationwide coverage by 2025. But what we recognize is that 5G is not just about the infrastructure, right? The infrastructure is the shell, but it needs to be used and brought to life by industry and in use cases. So we work together with industry partners and service providers to develop a whole range of business and consumer applications of 5G. We started with sectors that we think will have very high growth potential, areas like urban mobility, smart estates, industry 4.0, as well as consumer applications. And on this actually, it’s very encouraging to me that IBM has been one of the partners that we work with. On one of our first industry 4.0 trials, we worked with IBM to develop insights and showcase the benefits of 5G in that particular area. So that’s at the industry level. And then at the community level, what we want to do is harness the groundswell of interest and energy that people have in stepping up to use technology as well as possible. And we think this is particularly important so that we meet some of the needs of the vulnerable groups that I mentioned in your earlier question about designing for inclusion. Using the pandemic is a good example here, actually, because in the last 12 months what we’ve seen is a huge number of nonprofit organizations stepping up to deal with some of the gaps that they perceived in digital technology provision. One example of this was a group called Engineering Good, which does some wonderful work collecting laptops from the community to help less privileged students access home-based learning. And this was particularly important at a time when we had our own version of a lockdown, what we called our circuit breaker, and we made sure that all people who were at home would have the kind of access that they needed to digital resources. And what we were very encouraged by is to see groups like Engineering Good coming forward – citizens stepping up to provide support for fellow Singaporeans who were in need. And this kind of momentum of partnerships we think is important to build upon and drive the digital inclusion where government actually provides some of the basic infrastructure. Together, this partnership between government and community groups will help us to build digital capabilities amongst our people. Probably my favorite example of partnerships, and I felt this was a useful one to share with you, is something we call Digital For Life. Digital For Life is a movement that we actually just launched earlier this year in February, our President is the patron of it. And this is a national movement to mobilize partners, networks and community resources across all sectors – the private, the people and the public sectors, so that we encourage and support ground-up efforts to co-create solutions that will enable all Singaporeans to play in the digital space. And what I love about this is the words Digital For Life – it’s a slight play with double meaning of the words – Digital For Life in the sense that we’re going to do this in the long term, so we can be digital across our lives. But we’re also digital as a way of life. It’s a way of living, and we want to adopt that as something all of us can be used to in Singapore. And this means that all sectors have to be part of the whole process. And it means that we can all support one another, using the strength of the business sector, in terms of its creativity and agility; we want to use the idealism and the energy that exists in the people sector; and we want to use the scale and the institutional reach that the public sector can have. When we bring that together, then I think we can be digital in the long term, and in a very sustainable way.

 

JML:

Thank you Aaron. But you’ve certainly mentioned many government initiatives, programs, great collaboration within the stream. Any final points or other thoughts you would like to share with us today?

 

AM:

The one thing that I was reflecting on, as you asked me these questions is actually how generative technology can be. And what I mean by that is, technology, when used well can actually help us to overcome some of the traditional scarcities that we see in society. If you read any economics textbook, they will tell you in chapter one, that the main problem of economics is the problem of scarcity. That’s why we have to optimize, that’s why we have to make sure that you know, we do things like maximize utility or maximize profits if you’re a firm. But the new economy that we’re in, the economy that is more technologically inflected, is one where actually some of those scarcities are starting to break down. We see more data now than ever before, we see more amounts of knowledge and insight and wisdom being created from that data. But we also see more risks coming about. There’s an abundance of risks as well as an abundance of opportunity. And I think if I had one takeaway, you know, to share with everyone, it would be we need to make sure we use technology in ways that bring up the right abundances, that help us to overcome some of the old scarcities that we live with, but at the same time, we need to introduce new means, new collaborative platforms, and new uses of technology to manage the abundance of challenges that will exist. That’s why, and to go back to what I said earlier, we need to make sure that environments are safe, that technology is overall accessible, and that in the end we are creating value by maximizing the dividend and reducing the divide that can exist because of technology.

 

JML:

Aaron, thank you very wise words on this final thought, and thanks again for sharing your views, all these great examples, especially collaboration with industry in Singapore, so thanks so much for sharing your thoughts today.

 

AM:

Great, thanks for having me as well. I really appreciate it, it was wonderful to chat.

 

JML:

Wonderful. Thank you so much

 

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The IBM Policy Lab is a forum providing policymakers with a vision and actionable recommendations to harness the benefits of innovation while ensuring trust in a world being reshaped by data. As businesses and governments break new ground and deploy technologies that are positively transforming our world, we work collaboratively on public policies to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

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