My Parliamentary Colleagues Minister Josephine Teo, SMS Zaqy Mohamad
My Friends and Former Colleagues, Lim Swee Say and Yaacob Ibrahim,
President of the Singapore Computer Society Mr Sam Liew
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am glad to join you tonight for this year’s Tech Leader Awards and also for the SCS 55th Anniversary.
SCS’s role in Singapore’s tech development
We’ve just seen the new logo of the Singapore Computer Society (SCS). A new logo represents many things. But importantly, it reflects a desire for renewal and change. And it reflects an ambition to keep the SCS relevant and at the forefront of a sector that has grown substantially over the decades.
And I have no doubt that the SCS will succeed in this ambition, because you are one of the leading association for tech professionals in Singapore. You helped to train Singapore’s first generation of IT professionals in the 1960s, and you’ve continued to provide training and exposure for many more generations of Singaporeans over the years. Today, your membership has grown substantially to over 52,000 members. As you heard from Sam (Liew) just now, so many different events and programs you organise, from engaging our young people, to supporting the career development of your members, your many events have helped to grow our tech eco-system in Singapore.
So let me thank SCS, your Presidents current and past, committee members current and past, and all the members here. Thank you for your many contributions and congratulations once again on your 55th Anniversary!
Technology has revolutionised our way of life. Today we are more connected than ever before. We have many more choices – to consume content, to shop, to learn from each other. But these modern digital conveniences are only possible because we have a vibrant tech sector and we have kept at the forefront of technology in Singapore.
Tech has also contributed significantly to our economy. Tech as an industry has been doing well, growing rapidly. Tech is also a powerful enabler for the rest of the economy. All this has and will continue to create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans.
To fully harness the benefits of tech and the digital economy, we must continue to deepen and strengthen our capabilities. So, tonight I’d like to share our plans to grow the tech sector, and position Singapore as the choice location for digital innovation in Asia and the world.
We have been working on this for some time. In fact, back in 2017 we launched an Industry Transformation Map for the ICT and Media sector. Our target then was to achieve an annualised growth rate of 6% from 2015 to 2020, and to create more jobs for Singaporeans.
Unfortunately, Covid put a spanner to our plans, and so we were not able to hit this target. Fortunately, the economy bounced back quickly, and we met our targets in 2021, one year later, not so bad. Actually, given the tremendous shock brought about by the pandemic, I think it’s still an achievement that we can be very proud of.
More recently, we’ve seen some consolidation in the tech sector. Some of you may be impacted, certainly globally you see some firms having to consolidate. It’s partly because the spike in demand for digital services that we experienced during the pandemic has tapered down. At the same time, rising interest rates has also constrained investment spending, and moderated growth in the tech sector.
But the medium-to-long term outlook for this sector remains bright. Rapid advances in tech, be it in quantum computing or AI, will open up many new opportunities. And for now, the use of technological tools like data analytics and AI in Singapore remains modest. Only about 1 in 10 companies have adopted data analytics. So all the solution providers here tonight, there are many more opportunities – 9 in 10 companies still waiting to be served. The proportion of those which have adopted AI is much less at 3.3% in 2021.
So we’re starting from a low base, but it also means there’re many opportunities before us, not just to deepen our technological capabilities, but also to enable and transform the rest of the economy. If we can get more businesses and workers onboard, we can raise their productivity and incomes, and continue to create good jobs for Singaporeans.
Launch of I&C Industry Transformation Map
So tonight, I am therefore happy to share with you a refreshed Industry Transformation Map for the Information & Communications (or I&C) sector. In this refreshed ITM, we are focussing on specific areas in tech, not the entire such tech space, but zooming in on specific sectors like software, IT services, online sectors, and telecom services. These are areas which we anticipate will outperform the rest of the economy. We aim to achieve average growth of 5 -7% in these specific tech areas over the 2021 – 2025 period, and to generate around 80,000 well-paying jobs in these areas. We will do so through several strategies.
First, we will redouble our efforts to grow our ecosystem of tech companies in Singapore. Over the years, we’ve built up a strong base of global tech companies with presence in Singapore. But we want them not just to have their regional HQs here, but to do more cutting-edge innovation activities out of Singapore. For example, SAP has recently launched its digital innovation hub which will focus on AI and machine learning. It will employ more than 400 highly skilled digital professionals in this space in the next few years. Mastercard plans to establish a Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence for the Asia-Pacific region in Singapore. It has established a lab with NTU not only to conduct research into cybersecurity and privacy enhancing technologies, but train cybersecurity talent. These are just two examples, but there are many of them. We have over the years attracted many companies like Salesforce, Cisco, and Dell Technologies to do more out of Singapore. Collectively, this will help deepen our bench of talent, and increase opportunities for collaboration and ideation within the industry.
So, we will continue to anchor more global tech companies here, and enlarge the range of activities that they undertake in Singapore. At the same time, we will also provide more support to our own stable of local tech firms. For those with high growth potential, we will provide customised support – including ways to identify and seize new market opportunities, so that you can expand and scale up quickly. We will also support our tech leaders with executive development programmes, career coaching and mentorship. This will help you grow your expertise and networks in order to bring your companies to the next level.
I know many local companies starting out often need help to establish themselves in a highly competitive marketplace. We will do our best to support you through IMDA’s Open Innovation Platform, where we will link local tech companies with promising digital solutions to potential customers in Singapore. One beneficiary of the programme is Vouch. Vouch started off as a provider of chatbots for social commerce. But through the Open Innovation Programme, it realised that its product could be useful to hotels as well. So it pivoted its product into a specialised digital concierge to meet the needs of companies such as Hyatt Hotels, Pan Pacific Hotels Group, and the National Heritage Board. And with this track record of success, they have since expanded to Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
Second, we will continue to invest in and build capabilities in key technologies where we have competitive strengths. One specific area which is all the rage now is in Artificial Intelligence, or AI. We’ve been talking about generative AI for some time, but we have seen such rapid developments in recent years that suggest that we are at an inflection point. It reminds me of my experience, and maybe it’s the same for many of you, as a college student in the early 90s. At that time, I explored for the first time the World Wide Web through a programme called Mosaic, which later became Netscape. Thirty years later, look how we far we have come with the Internet.
Likewise, what we see now with ChatGPT is really just the beginning of a new wave, new wave of apps, new wave of breakthroughs – not all will succeed, but collectively over time, they will have tremendous potential to change our lives and I’m sure in the next 20 to 30 years we will see a completely different landscape in tech and in computing, driven by Artificial Intelligence. Singapore will strive to be a digital hub for innovative developments like these. And in the case of AI, we are working on multiple fronts. Through our R&D investments, we have already built up considerable strengths in AI. Our AI research is ranked amongst the top in the world in terms of publication impact, and we have developed capabilities in key fields such as Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision, which are foundational technologies that have widespread applications. Of course, we also know that AI development requires a lot of energy and consumes a lot of data, through data centres. So we’ve been working with the industry to expand this sustainably through green data centres. We have also been working with other countries and experts to guide the responsible development and use of AI.
And last year, IMDA launched AI Verify, which is the world’s first testing toolkit to help companies objectively assess and verify whether their AI systems are responsible and meet key international principles. We’ve also been investing in areas like Cybersecurity and Trust Technologies. So, entities in Singapore are assured that their data is protected and the systems they use are secure. If we put all this together, if we combine our strengths in research and governance with these competitive advantages, I think we can nurture an entire ecosystem to power new digital innovations like AI in Singapore.
The one thing that we do not have compared to countries with larger populations is huge datasets – we will never match China, or India, or America, or EU to have such large databases. But we can still carve out niches for ourselves, develop AI applications that can benefit our people and businesses, and roll them out to the broader region.
AI Singapore, the national programme funded by the National Research Foundation has in fact been focussing on such applications. And one company that has benefited is Q&M Dental Group. Through a collaboration with AI Singapore, Q&M Dental was able to co-develop an AI model that has helped its dentists better detect diseases from X-rays, improving diagnoses and treatment. And with this success, the group plans to deploy this AI solution to more than 150 clinics in the region.
Take another example: Sqreem, a start-up based in Singapore, has developed expertise in using AI to better understand consumer behaviour. It has applied this to digital advertising and market intelligence, serving a variety of companies like Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, as well as retail banks, both here and overseas. So the applications are wide ranging, there’s a lot more we can do because we are only now scratching the surface of the potential of AI and I have no doubt that we will see many more such examples in due course.
Third, we will continue to strengthen Singapore’s position as a key node in the global digital economy, by deepening our connectivity.
We have continued to build up our connectivity infrastructure with the world, through our networks of subsea cables. Domestically, we are also investing in our 5G network, that will power the next generation of digital products and services. We are working to achieve nationwide 5G deployment by 2025, and we have since achieved 95% outdoor coverage nationwide on Singapore’s first two 5G standalone networks, well ahead of our initial schedule. And we are not stopping there. We are already building up capabilities in 6G, so that we can remain at the forefront of communications technology.
Apart from physical connectivity, we are also growing our network of Digital Economy Agreements so that companies here in Singapore can engage in seamless cross-border digital trade with many more countries. We have already signed agreements with major economies like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Chile, and we are working to launch an agreement with ASEAN.
Fourth, and also most importantly, we will continue to invest in our people and grow a pipeline of talent because this is ultimately the most critical factor enable us to realise our goals. We will continue to equip Singaporeans with the relevant skills and we have been working on this on multiple fronts over the years.
For our students, we have been exposing more and more of them to tech from young, through coding and app development programmes. And that’s why student interest has increased over the years. Our Institutes of Higher Learning have increased their intake of Information & Digital Technology courses by nearly a third over the past five years. Today, more than 8,000 students are trained to enter the tech sector each year. The pipeline is very strong and more and more students want to learn tech, want to learn coding, which is a very positive trend.
For those who gained a passion in tech later in their years, we are also facilitating mid-career switches to the industry through the many SkillsFuture and other training programmes that we have put in place together with industry.
But there is one area I think we can still do better, which is how companies hire tech talent. Today, many of us who are hiring – government, public sector or private sector – overly focus on formal academic qualifications, and place too much of a premium on those with university degrees. But, if you are employing someone for roles in coding and programming, there is no reason why our Polytechnic or ITE graduates cannot do the job if they have the right skills. So, I encourage all employers to broaden their hiring practices, and focus on skills-based assessments rather than just paper qualifications alone.
This is not something that Government can do alone just by ourselves. It will require a shift in mindsets and HR practices throughout the industry. And that is why it is critical that we get companies to come on board this effort. I’m glad SCS has been working to get companies to adopt and champion skills-based hiring, especially for our Polytechnic and ITE graduates. You are doing this through your role as Co-Chair of the TechSkills Accelerator for ITE and Polytechnics Alliance. In just eight months since the launch of the Alliance, we have managed to bring on board 15 companies, including large local companies and global tech firms such as NCS, Singtel, UOB, Google and Oracle. I hope many more will join this Alliance over time.
One beneficiary of the Alliance so far is Mohammad Khairin Bin Mohd. Nor. He was previously working in the logistics industry managing Grab food deliveries. But he made the switch to the I&C sector through a part-time diploma programme in Cybersecurity, and now is with NCS Group as a full-time Cyber Analyst. There are many more of such opportunities to hire people. I know many of you say you can’t find enough people to fill the growing number of tech jobs. But there are people out there. If we broaden our horizons, apply more skills-based hiring, continue to train a wide range of people, I’m sure there will be many more who can make the switch to this sector.
Meanwhile, we will also help the existing workers in the I&C sector to reskill and upskill themselves to stay relevant in this very fast-changing sector. For instance, a Support Engineer may find some of their traditional responsibilities soon automated by AI or Software-as-a-Service solutions. To better support such workers, we launched the I&C Jobs Transformation Map last year. It helps identify at-risk jobs that will be disrupted and recommends additional skills and courses which workers can pick up to pivot to growth areas in the sector.
Competencies and skills are important. But in the end, we also need to have the right attitudes and mindset – the dare and gumption to push the boundaries of what is possible and to dream big. We need to have people who have the drive to continue innovating in the face of adversity, to come up with new digital solutions to solve our challenges.
We are fortunate to have many such individuals in Singapore who embody these attitudes, mindsets and values. Some are students and young entrepreneurs making their mark in the industry. Others are established professionals, who continue to serve and contribute to the industry in many significant ways. We will be recognising them with the Tech Leader Awards later tonight – congratulations to all the award recipients! I hope your examples and life stories will motivate and inspire many others to uphold the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, and that desire to give back and contribute to our broader community.
To conclude, the tech and I&C sectors are a key part of the Singapore economy, a very important pillar in the Singapore economy. Despite the consolidation pressures the industry may be facing today, we can still look forward with confidence as we strive to strengthen Singapore’s competitive positioning as an innovative and trusted digital hub for the region and the world.
Let’s continue to grow the sector together, and create many more good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans. Let’s harness fully the power of tech, so that Singapore remains a place of exciting possibilities, with new and improved ways of doing things, more convenient digital services and solutions, more convenient digital services and solutions, and importantly the promise of a better life for all of us.
Thank you very much.