The Singapore government has spared no expense in shoring up the country’s Smart Nation ambitions — a roadmap that will see Singapore become the leading technological powerhouse in Asia — even initiating organisational restructuring to speed up this operation.

But earlier this year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke to various stakeholders in the local tech community at a dialogue, acknowledging the country is still not driving technological innovation fast enough.

At yesterday’s National Day Rally speech, PM Lee once again brought up this initiative to the country’s consciousness.

He spoke about the launch of parking apps that will help motorists pay for parking with just a phone; bolstering Singapore’s surveillance network using IoT, AI and big data; and the need for integrated digital payments.

Amidst these announcements, he acknowledged that Singapore still has not caught up with other countries such as China in terms of digital payments; Alipay in China is about as ubiquitous as ATM cards in Singapore.

Singapore is also lagging behind other developed cities in the area of smart public surveillance.

In that sense, this year’s National Day Rally speech was not so much about dropping tasty little tidbits about country’s technological goals, but rather to remind the country that Smart Nation is the country’s key agenda.

National Day Rally speeches have usually been reserved for bread and butter issues such as jobs, economic growth, housing, etcetera.

Also Read: There has never been a better time to build a startup in Singapore

So the fact that PM Lee has thrusted Smart Nation initiatives to the forefront of national conversation sends a strong signal to the general populace — that they need to embrace tech innovations or risk losing out in the new economy.

Last year, e27 reported that despite numerous outreach and grants, many Singaporeans still do not give two hoots about technological trends. The report by IDC Research stated that only 14.1 per cent of Singapore-based companies believed that innovation was extremely important to driving business.

Many hurdles to cross

Many in the tech community have so far responded positively to PM Lee’s speech, but they also cited major hurdles to overcome.

“Small retailers and hawkers especially will face huge challenges in adopting the new cashless payment modes,” wrote FOMO Pay, in a blog post that addressed PM Lee’s call to integrate e-payment systems.

“Many cite the inconvenience and technological challenges of these payment modes. Further adding on to the problem is the fact that these retailers and hawkers require quick access to cash in order to pay their suppliers who usually accept only cash payments,” it added.

FOMO Pay urged authorities and companies to incentivise business and consumers alike to adopt e-payments for transactions across the board.

The problem is that the majority of Singaporeans still prefer cash to pay low for low cost items. FOMO Pay citied a recent study by RFi Group that found only 38 per cent of Singaporeans could imagine a society that was completely cashless.

“There will be resistance from certain segments of society . Just as other countries have experienced, the road to a cashless society will be a bumpy one, but the fruits of labour will be worth it in the end,” wrote FOMO pay.

Other stakeholders in the tech ecosystem also citied strong resistance from traditional businesses.

“Singapore is behind in payments innovation because incumbents have been able to parlay their strong positions into moats that prevented innovation at scale,” said James Tan, Co-founder of Quest Ventures, in a statement to e27.

“For example, take e-payments for airline ticket transactions. Unnecessarily complicated risk management, lack of direct banking connections, and complex integrations have resulted in comically high transaction (“convenience”) fees,” he said.

“It’s good that our regulators are now taking a hard look at the sorry state of our payments systems, and its effect on the entire digital value chain. Payments may not be sexy or deep-tech, but are vital to an e-economy.”

Other fintech players, such as Matchmove, have also expressed support for PM Lee’s message.

“The Smart Nation initiative provides the necessary national framework around which companies can formulate specific strategies and execution plans to allocate resources to meet the national objectives.  As rightly highlighted in the speech, e-payments needs to be a key area of growth,” Shailesh Naik, CEO, MatchMove.

Spencer Yang, CEO of AI startup KeyReply told e27 that Singapore companies need to actively collaboration opportunities with foreign companies in more technologically developed markets, so that their eyes will be open.

“We can help strengthen the ties between Singapore companies and cities of high innovation adoption – such as San Francisco, Tokyo, Beijing, etcetera,” he said.

“When our citizens travel to these countries, they will experience new trends up close and in person. They can look to apply them back in Singapore or assist in driving adoption in other developing countries in Asia and beyond,” said Yang.

“Our citizens would need to elevate our language skills to communicate effectively with businesses in the US, China and Indonesia, which are key regions for Singapore businesses to tap into,” he added.

Sanjay Aurora, Managing Director, Asia-Pacific of Darktrace welcomed PM Lee’s push for deeper digital integrations but cautioned that this would entail higher cybersecurity threats.

“Cashless payments no doubt deliver convenience, ease of transaction and allow individuals to better keep track of spending. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in text message scams called ‘smishing,’ which can infect smartphones and result in the theft of personal information,” he warned.

Also Read: Darktrace wants to disrupt the cybersecurity paradigm in Asia

“Sensor networks, or IoT, combined with big data…has the potential to make our environment and everyday lives more efficient and sustainable. However, unsecured IoT devices, from smart lamp posts and sensors to network-connected biometric sensors and even fish tanks, can provide additional entry points for cyber-criminals,” he added.

“The success of Singapore’s Smart Nation vision will be heavily dependent on its ability to mitigate new forms of cyber risk. Alongside speed in the delivery of public services, business transactions and even social interactions, there is a pressing need for speed in addressing cyber-threats that can come from anywhere and move faster than ever before.”

At the end of the day, the Singapore government needs to find ways to drive home the importance of Smart Nation to the layman.

“We need to establish a concrete plan to identify specific opportunities for people to adopt technology in their daily lives. Relying on the traditional services industry, finance, commodities is definitely not going to cut it,” said Yang of KeyReply.

And that opportunity could be diabetes, which was another key issue PM Lee addressed at this year’s National Day Rally.

“Singapore has the 2nd highest proportion of diabetes among developed nations, and we need to address this because it is a threat to the nation’s socio-economic wellbeing,” a spokesperson of medtech startup Holmusk told e27.

You can bet that if Smart Nation initiatives can help tackle this issue, everyone in the country will sit up and listen.

“Most people, even when diagnosed, don’t pay attention to diabetes until they begin to experience complications that can lead to serious consequences – such as the loss of a limb. At Holmusk, we’re working to prevent people from reaching that stage…we’re doing this by using mobile technology and data science,” said the spokesperson.

Also Read: Holmusk makes the fight against diabetes a less lonely battle

“The Prime Minister offered the eye-opening quip that ‘When it comes to diabetes, Singapore is almost the world champion’; another area in which Singapore is world-leading, however, is technology. We are optimistic that innovation and people-centric digital health can help to address the burden of chronic disease in a way that scales to the size of the problem.”

It is quite evident Singapore has the infrastructure, the talent and the support in place to foster technological growth; but what is lacking is the attitude of the public to embrace these disruptions and innovations. With more education and incentives,  it would only be matter of time before the general public adopt these innovations.

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