Singapore: People-centered Smart Nation

The “Smart Nation” program is about harnessing technology to stay ahead as a global city by improving lives

By Zhang Tao, Liao Bowen

In May 2021, drones began hovering over MacRitchie Reservoir, which is unusual in Singapore, where the airspace is strictly regulated.

Water storage reservoirs are very important for the water-scarce country. Like MacRitchie, the country’s other 16 reservoirs are also surrounded by dense tropical rain forests. The beautiful scenery has made them popular leisure destinations for Singaporeans. Regular patrols are necessary to monitor water quality and algae growth and prevent illegal fishing. According to an estimate from PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, it takes 7,200 working hours a year to complete these tasks in six of the reservoirs, including MacRitchie. Last year, the government set up a remote sensing system equipped with drones and cameras in each of the six. The patrollers didn’t have to travel all over anymore. Instead, they started only heading out when a drone requested further investigation. Furthermore, each patroller can pilot several drones at the same time, saving 5,000 working hours each year.

The world’s tallest indoor waterfall at Changi Airport in Singapore. (VCG)

Another smart water management project is also underway. SG Group, a major supplier of water, electricity, and gas, plans to promote smart water meters for commercial and civil buildings in multiple areas early this year. Singapore already has a total of 1.6 million water meters which require manual door-to-door meter reading every two months. Smart water meters will enable clients to follow the volume of water consumption in real time and detect water leakage instantly. According to the plan, 300,000 smart water meters will be operational by 2023, and eventually every water meter on the island will be replaced.

Water and power infrastructure is not the only thing going smart in Singapore. Some libraries under the National Library system of Singapore are now equipped with a special room with sensors and video projectors for children to listen to stories. When a storyteller mentions a tiger in a story, they can make a gesture towards sensors to project a roaring tiger on the wall, which provides listeners an immersive holographic experience. Alongside the motion-sensing devices, libraries have also begun using digital and automation technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robots to improve efficiency and optimize the reading and learning experience. For example, behind the scenes at libraries, an AI information system can track the location of library members to determine how far they travel to reach the nearest library and provide reference for decision making on future new library sites.

Every corner of Singapore is welcoming implementation of the “Smart Nation Initiative.” In October 2021, its outstanding performance in healthcare, employment, education, and pandemic response helped Singapore again rank first among the Top 10 Smartest Cities in the “Smart City Index (SCI)” survey by the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, in partnership with the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Singapore just edged Zurich, Switzerland, and Oslo, Norway.


According to a Singapore government document titled “Smart Nation: The Way Forward,” Singapore aims to become a smart nation “where people will be more empowered to live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all;  where businesses can be more productive and seize new opportunities in the digital economy; which collaborates with our international partners to deliver digital solutions and benefit people and businesses across boundaries.”

Singapore has been seeking development opportunities kindled by digital technology for a long time. The digital revolution is an opportunity for all countries. But for Singapore, a country with a small territory and lack of natural resources, the opportunity is as significant as the wave of globalization in recent decades.

In 2006, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the “Intelligent Nation 2015 (iN2015),” a 10-year plan which summarized the idea of an intelligent nation with 3Cs: connect, collect, and comprehend. The goal was to build secure, high-speed, economical, and extended national infocomm infrastructure (connect), get more ideal real-time data through sensor networks across the country and anonymize, secure, manage, and appropriately share important data (collect), and analyze the collected data to better predict the needs of the people and provide better services (comprehend). According to the plan, the Singapore government would invest S$4 billion (US$2.9 billion) to make full use of infocomm technology to improve Singapore’s economic competitiveness and innovation capacity and build Singapore into “an intelligent global city.”

Ultimately, iN2015 achieved its goals ahead of schedule in 2014, when the Singapore government announced the establishment of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group to promote an upgraded version of the plan which became the “Smart Nation 2025 Initiative,” the world’s first development blueprint for a smart nation initiated by the government.

According to the government’s latest plan, the initiative includes three pillars, five key domains, and several national strategic projects.

The three pillars are a digital society, digital government, and digital economy. The first pillar involves working with citizens to ensure them the means and ability to access e-services created for them, which includes furthering their digital education and providing computers at subsidized rates for low-income families. Under the second pillar of digital government, Singapore created a national digital identity project. Portals called SingPass and CorpPass were created to provide citizens and businesses access to government e-services such as Provident Fund accounts, health records, tax filing, and trade license application. Under the third pillar of the digital economy, the Singapore government is working to accelerate the digital transformation of existing economic sectors, foster new ecosystems enabled by digital technologies, and develop a next-generation digital industry in sectors such as cybersecurity as an engine of growth.

Under the three pillars are the five key domains: 1. Health. The healthcare system will move beyond healthcare to health, with Singaporeans becoming better equipped and empowered to manage their own health; 2. Education. Digital technology is unlocking a new realm of self-directed and collaborative learning. A holistic and conducive environment for more effective learning is emerging. Routine and repetitive tasks are being automated to help educators focus on the work that matters; 3. Transport. Data analytics, smart systems, and autonomous vehicles are key solutions for future transport planning and operations. Roads and transport systems will be optimized to make traffic smoother, public transport more comfortable and reliable, and the air cleaner with less need for private cars; 4. Urban Solutions. Sensors and smart systems will improve the effectiveness of municipal services, save energy, and ensure sustainable use of resources; 5. Finance. Singapore will continue to be a leading regional and global financial hub powered by financial institutions that readily adopt fintech solutions to provide better customer service, greater efficiencies in trade finance, strengthened supervision, and reduced compliance costs.

A robot patrols a residential area in Singapore, reminding people not to smoke in public or gather in groups of more than five, on September 6, 2021. (XINHUA)

The Singapore government has launched several national strategic projects to create the foundation for the development of a Smart Nation including e-payments for individuals and enterprises, a Smart Nation Sensor Platform, and National Digital Identity across platforms and infrastructure that benefit multiple stakeholders.

“I’m not really sure what a Smart Nation is,” said Mr. Chen, who immigrated from Malaysia to Singapore 20 years ago. “But now, everything related to the government can be done online. If that is what a Smart Nation means, I think the government is doing a good job.”

In addition to improving digital services and governance and seizing economic development opportunities, the strategic significance of a Smart Nation under the Singapore state-city model is obviously not limited to within its borders.

“The other thing we’re doing, which we hope will help not just Singapore but the region,  is working on what we call a Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA),” said Prime Minister Lee at the 2019 Smart Nation Summit. “It is a kind of new-age FTA to cover traditional IT issues like data security, data standards like privacy rules, and also new areas, like when you are talking about Artificial Intelligence, what rules should apply.”

He compared DEPA to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), an agreement with far-reaching impact on political and economic relations in the Asia-Pacific region that sprouted from a 2005 trade agreement between Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei.

Government’s Role

The government is clearly the main coordinator of the whole design and implementation of the Smart Nation Initiative, but designers want much more than that.

“In Singapore, we do not believe in leaving everything to the market,” said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore Foreign Minister and Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, in a speech in late 2020. “But we also don’t let the government do everything and crowd out the private sector. Rather, we believe in a government that plays an active, enabling role, providing the foundation on which the private sector and our people can innovate and co-create.” The government mentioned in several documents and on multiple occasions that participation of people and businesses is crucial to realizing the Smart Nation. For businesses to participate in this process, open source data is key.

The Singapore government began to build an open source data platform in 2011. So far, it has opened government data to the public in nine realms: economics, education, environment, finance, health, infrastructure, society, technology, and transportation, and provided developers 14 API data interfaces, ranging from pollution information to taxi information. Businesses and individual developers can make their own mobile apps to do things like taxi booking and parking updates in real-time through the API interface.

In addition to open source data, the government has also used different platforms to support businesses to develop digital capabilities. AI is just one example. Under the strategic guidance of the government, several government-backed agencies including the National Research Foundation are providing AI solutions for businesses and helping them explore opportunities to use AI technology to solve practical problems. They have also provided support in technology, knowledge, project management, capital, and other areas.

However, even the determination of the government and infrastructure construction are still not enough to balance the relationship between the government and the market to build a Smart Nation. A study from the National University of Singapore showed that without a success story to communicate to the public, the government has failed to help the public understand the vision of a Smart Nation. To solve this problem, the government will inevitably need to take the driver’s seat. But the harder the government tries, the more likely it marginalizes the private sector in the process.

Solving Real-world Problems

“When we think of smart cities, we often think of advanced technologies in areas such as smart health, smart buildings, and smart transport,” said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo in a speech at the end of 2021. “But we should always remember that building smart cities is not just about using the latest technologies, but making sure we solve the real-world problems our cities face, improving the lives of our citizens, and helping our businesses thrive.”

In Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative, the word “citizen” is repeatedly mentioned. The success or failure of each product under the initiative must be determined from the perspective of the end-users of technologies. 

The evolution of the “Moments of Life” app is a good example. The app was originally designed to simplify the process of registering birth information and vaccination records for young parents in Singapore. According to the government’s original plan, government services apps would be population-specific, with the elderly, working adults, and parents each having their own specific apps. This path has obvious advantages for technicians because an app with a limited function can be designed and developed in a shorter period of time and updated more frequently.

But the product team realized it was a big mistake soon enough. They started seeing that users could be both a father and a car driver with a nine-to-five job on weekdays and volunteering on weekends. According to original logic, one user would have to download six to ten different government apps to perform various procedures in their life. In May 2019, there were about 170 government-related apps, which would pose a challenge to both user experience and government administration. Therefore, the product development team adjusted its strategy and renamed the app “LifeSG” in September 2020, making it a national project integrating all government services into one interface to provide users with a convenient experience.

The importance of citizen satisfaction is also reflected in the indicators that measure the progress of the Smart Nation. Key indicators such as “satisfaction with government digital services for citizens,” “satisfaction with government digital services for businesses,” “proportion of e-payment government services,” and “proportion of one-stop government services” are all oriented towards providing convenience to citizens and businesses. Based on data released by the government, it is highly probable that the main indicators will reach their targets by 2023. NewsAsia reported in 2021 that “Nearly half of Singaporeans surveyed (49%) agreed that the Government now delivers better digital experiences and 56% of respondents shared that the Government has given them the assurance that their personal information is secure.”

Decision makers see citizens not only as the beneficiaries of the Smart Nation Initiative but also an important pillar for the success of the whole strategy. The strategic plan suggested that individual citizens change in two key ways: First, they must embrace changes in models of education. People need to embrace lifelong learning of new skills. Second, people need to change roles from end-users of digital technology to contributors and collaborators, actively using digital technology to change their communities.

“In addition to technology, the Smart Nation needs smart people, and needs to include every Singaporean,” said the Chief Executive Officer of the Network for Electronic Transfers (NETS), Jeffrey Goh.

An employee (left) checks the commuter application booking on a passenger’s mobile phone before boarding an autonomous bus developed by ST Engineering at the start of a trial run from Singapore Science Park 2 to Haw Par Villa MRT station in Singapore on January 26, 2021. (ROSLAN RAHMAN)

Against this backdrop, the government of Singapore, educational institutions and private businesses have all become involved in improving public usage of digital products and related vocational skills training. Some startups have invited experts in the industry to train young people aged 15-25 in digital marketing and UI design.  Some communities have organized courses to teach the elderly to distinguish information from misinformation and learn to use mobile apps. Some businesses socially responsible have organized workshops in schools to help students use digital technology to create artwork and learn to get along with people online. To improve public awareness of Smart Nation and digital technology, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group sends a “Smart Nation Builder” truck to various communities to explain to residents how to use government services online with interactive technology and collect their feedback on various online services.

In the Bedok Community Center in eastern Singapore, a Digital Transformation Assistance Station has been built by the government. Many elderly people gather there for guidance on using digital services.

“Everybody is getting online for services,” said one senior who chose to remain anonymous. “If you don’t keep learning, you fall behind.” 

A teacher at a vocational college associated with the Singapore government said that compared to a few years ago, digital technology-related courses have increased significantly, and many courses encourage students to reach out to communities to help them with what they have learned.

Security and Inclusiveness

Data and cyber security are inevitable challenges for Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative. As CAN reported last July, the government had a total of 108 data incidents in fiscal year 2020, 33 more than in 2019. Although there were no high-risk cases in the incidents, it sounded an alarm bell for data security.

“In my opinion, cyber security is the flipside of the Smart Nation,” said Vivian Balakrishnan in a speech on the importance of cyber security. Since the launch of a five-year cyber security program in 2013, the Singapore government has been strengthening protection in this regard.  In 2015, the Cyber Security Agency was established. In 2018, the Singapore Parliament passed the Cyber Security Act. In October of the same year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore amended the outsourcing guidelines for financial institutions. All of these efforts intended to strengthen the protection of personal data and cyber security.

There has been public concern about possible abuse of personal data by the government. In the process of promoting the Smart Nation, the public began asking where the data goes and who is using it, calling for the release of open and transparent reports and strict oversight.

A good example is the “Trace Together” app (TT programme), which collects Bluetooth proximity data temporarily to conduct contact tracing. After the outbreak of COVID-19, the Singapore government hastily developed and released the app, but failed to explain to the public how the government would use, protect, and store the data. It simply claimed: “The data will be used for contact tracing only.” Later, people realized that the police were able to use that data to conduct criminal investigation under the Criminal Procedure Code, which the public considered a violation of privacy and abuse of power, resulting in social discontent. Eventually, Vivian Balakrishnan made some clarifications on the usage of TT data in the Parliament.

Another challenge is the digital gap. Some social groups have easier access to new technologies than others and technological developments tend to widen the knowledge gap between different social groups. 

“To be up with the best and outstanding place for people to live, work, and play and the human spirit to thrive, we have to master technology and make full use of it,” commented Prime Minister Lee in a 2019 speech. “There will be hazards along the way, and we have to be alive to the risks while experimenting boldly and breaking new ground.” ■

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