Keynote Speech "Developing Our Smart Nation: Singapore’s Experience” by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the ASEAN Smart Cities Summit and Expo

22 October 2020

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen


1 First, I would like to congratulate Vietnam for hosting a very successful ASEAN Smart Cities Summit and Expo. I am delighted that the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) has grown from strength to strength, and I would like to commend especially Vietnam for growing this network even further. Vietnam also convened the third ASCN Annual Meeting in July, and has continued to sustain the momentum for the ASCN’s cooperation with external partners including the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Singapore is the coordinator for ASEAN-EU dialogue relations, and I express our appreciation for the EU’s Smart Green ASEAN Cities initiative, which aims to support sustainable urbanisation.


2 At the inaugural ASCN Annual Meeting in July 2018, I spoke of two converging mega-trends – first, urbanisation; second, digitalisation. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the changes brought about by these two mega-trends. COVID-19 has reinforced the existential importance of public health amid rapid urbanisation, in addition to already formidable challenges such as congestion, air and water quality, and citizen security. Smart and innovative solutions must play a key role in this endeavour. COVID-19 has also accelerated the pace of digitalisation. It has led to most of us taking our work, and indeed much of our lives, online. We have had to rapidly turn to video conferencing facilities. ASEAN, in fact, has done well in this regard.


3 What has Singapore’s experience been? Digital and smart solutions have helped us to solve problems as we move towards a “new normal”. Allow me to share a few examples. One, to quickly disseminate accurate information to the public. We publish daily updates on the COVID-19 situation through the official WhatsApp channel. We also established web portals such as FluGoWhere and MaskGoWhere to provide information on Public Health Preparedness Clinics and mask collection exercises respectively.


4 Two, to aid our contact-tracing efforts. We developed the TraceTogether programme, which utilises BlueTooth technology to identify people who have been in close proximity with an infected person. We also developed SafeEntry, a national check in/check-out system so that the public can register their entry into buildings, restaurants, parks and other public places. These two tools have greatly accelerated the work of our contact tracers and enabled them to quickly contain the outbreaks rapidly.


5 Third, to boost community preparedness and confidence. For instance, with temperature-taking becoming an everyday routine, we deployed various temperature-scanning solutions at workplaces and commercial spaces to help with this effort. Our COVID-19 response is also about tools that address the economic and social consequences of the pandemic – not just health alone. We set up one-stop web portals to help people find public assistance programmes and to assist businesses with coping with manpower and workplace-related challenges. We have also stepped up efforts to help businesses, especially our SMEs, embrace the digital transformation.


6 In short, COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for us to redouble our digitalisation and smart city development efforts. Here, I would like to emphasise three critical “I”s in smart city development. First “I”, infrastructure; second, inclusivity, and third, interoperability.


7 Let’s deal with the first, infrastructure. Singapore was able to leverage on technology swiftly and efficiently to augment our response to COVID-19, only because of our prior investments in ICT infrastructure, capabilities and engineering talents over many years. In terms of hard infrastructure, we rolled out fibre to every home and office ten years ago, preparing for an ‘always on’, ‘always connected’ world. We have worked closely with industry to build up a National Digital Identity platform and E-Payments infrastructure, for example, PayNow or Singapore Quick Response Code (SGQR). These enable our citizens to transact with each other and with the government in an easy, seamless and secure manner, while enabling businesses to accelerate their own respective digital transformation.


8 Second, inclusivity. Smart city development must ensure that digital services are accessible and inclusive, and ensure that nobody is left behind. Even in this day, not every single person has a smartphone, computers or broadband access. I mentioned the TraceTogether app, part of Singapore’s contact tracing programme. We developed a Token, which is a standalone physical device that works in exactly the same way as the app, so that even those without smartphones will have access to the protection from digital contact tracing. This attitude has helped us to bridge the gap for the digitally excluded.


9 Third, interoperability. As we develop various apps and deploy various solutions, interoperability is critical. A whole suite of digital solutions can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing for our citizens, unless we streamline our efforts and explore how solutions can complement and work with each other. I mentioned the SGQR code earlier in Singapore’s e-payment landscape. We rolled out a single common SGQR code, compatible with more than a dozen e-payment systems.


10 These are principles that we can apply not just at the national level, but also at the regional level. The ASCN has been an embodiment of that. We should work towards regional interoperability, which will allow our systems to communicate with, speak to each other, transact with each other and enable our citizens to cross boundaries and access services seamlessly. This is critical in facilitating regional exchanges in the ‘new normal’. Technologies such as interoperable contact tracing applications, e-payment systems and others will help boost people-to-people exchanges and business linkages as our people would find it easier to make cross-border transactions, to travel, and to engage in a myriad of activities and services, and to do so in a secure and safe way, especially during these challenging times.


11 Underpinning these efforts, I must highlight the critical importance of trust. Maintaining public trust and cooperation has been absolutely crucial for Singapore’s development as a smart city. We have put in place frameworks and capabilities to use data securely, which laid the foundation for us to use these digital tools and data securely to respond to COVID-19. Particularly during COVID-19, trust has been crucial as we took decisive steps and deployed technology quickly in order to support our response to the pandemic. It also why I am a firm believer in open-sourcing and in co-creating with the community. With TraceTogether, we let the experts and the public see for themselves that there were no hidden backdoors to the tools that we were developing and we also remain open to new ideas to improve the system further.


12 At a regional level, I stress that cooperation between cities in ASEAN is absolutely critical. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, it is only through cooperation that we can adequately address and overcome the challenges that we collectively face. Singapore also organises the World Cities Summit (WCS) every two years to bring together government leaders and industry experts to address liveable and sustainable city challenges, share solutions and forge new partnerships. The next iteration will be held in June 2021. As part of the World Cities Summit, Singapore will hold the inaugural World Cities Summit Smart Cities Workshop virtually. The aim of this virtual workshop is to connect cities with relevant partners such as consultants, funders and solution providers in order to advance their smart city goals and to encourage the sharing of experience on smart city development. I look forward to all of you participating. It will provide opportunities for us to network, exchange ideas, learn from each other’s successes and equally, I may add, from each other’s mistakes as well.


13           Thank you once again for the kind invitation for me to share some of Singapore’s experience in smart city development. I wish you all a very successful ASEAN Smart Cities Summit and Expo, and productive discussions in the hours and days ahead. Thank you all very much.


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