June 28, 2017

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smart nation

by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

Featured image by Flickr user David Russo. CC BY 2.0.

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Cyber attack

by Bertha Henson

I’M WRITING to you now because you’re the only one whose physical address I have. I only have email addresses for all my other friends. I’m sorry if you find it difficult to read my handwriting. I am so used to typing that I am not sure how to hold a pen. So I am using a pencil, so that I can erase ugly writing easily and, thank goodness, I still have a rubber from my Primary School days.

First, I hope that things are fine on your farm. Rearing chickens and growing vegetables don’t require the Internet right? Or are you logged in to that giant brain which is now in a coma? I feel envious of you. At least, you deal with real worms and not those which make you WannaCry. You know what I’m talking about right? Some NSA fellow in the US lost some spying software and now some jokers are holding a lot of people to ransom.

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I’ve been somewhat paralysed over the past few weeks and hopefully, by the time you read this (if nothing goes wrong with flight controls and air traffic), this time of stasis is over. In any case, I am using carbon paper while writing so that I can post a duplicate letter by sea-mail.

Right now, I’m re-learning everything, like what to do with my hands and fingers now that my cell phone is useless. I have taken to pen twirling and using one of those Fidget gadgets that’s become so popular.

Do you know how terrible it is to live without Google? I can’t answer queries in class as quickly as before or finish my assignments on time. I actually had to go to the library to do research. You should see us there…like monks in medieval times copying out notes. Lectures were even almost cancelled because the passes that get us into the lecture halls couldn’t work. We had to call the firefighters to break down the door. It was the first time I saw someone wield an axe in front of me.

Everything has changed.

My grandmother got sick and decided to see the sinseh instead of going to hospital. She’s worried that the hospital will prescribe the wrong medicines now that its system is down. So she had some needles poked into her and we managed to find a traditional Chinese medicine shop to buy the herbs and whatnots to brew her medicine at home.

My father says things are crazy in his office because he can’t get access to his files on the computer. He stopped storing hard copy versions a long time ago. All his old paper documents had been shredded to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

The good thing is that the worm hasn’t burrowed itself into the train system so we’re all still travelling from Point A to Point B. Except that sometimes, the doors at Point B can’t open. Our train operator made it clear it was a signalling problem and had nothing to with the malware although those of us stuck on board really wanna cry.

I can still reach my friends through the landline and watch free-to-air TV. My father bought a transistor radio as well because he said that’s the most reliable communication system we have. I think he’s paranoid.

He doesn’t want us to touch anything electronic or technological because he’s afraid of cross-infection. He wants to buy patches but they’re only available via the Internet, which of course, has died here. By patches, I mean a software that upgrades the computer system, defending it from cyber attacks. Think of it as a band-aid for a cut wound. He wants to buy plenty because the wound is still bleeding. I told him to also get bandages, in case he gets into an accident in his driverless car.

My mother says hi and wants to know how you keep uncooked food fresh when you have no refrigerator. I told her you kill your food or harvest your food every other day. She didn’t know, because she never went on a school exchange programme like I have.

The good thing is that I am getting more sunshine – and rain. I meet my friends more often and visit relatives in their home even though it’s not Chinese New Year. That because I can’t stay cooped up in my room staring at my blank computer. I am actually getting used to talking again. Having face-to-face conversations is such an exciting experience, especially when there’s no ring tone to disturb the flow.

I have to stop here because I have to recite the anthem of the Smart Nation. I think you are wise to stick with Mother Nature, even though we’re slowly killing her. But, at least, she can’t die overnight.

Sincerely,

Your Internet-savvy friend

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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BEELINE BUSES

by Gillian Lim

AN EXPERIMENTAL bus service, Beeline, is slowly gaining traction among commuters in the suburbs. A hybrid service between a public bus and a private taxi (it’s quicker than a public bus but cheaper than a private taxi), it has expanded to 11 private mini buses, catering to a total of 21 routes, since its soft launch in August this year.

Within two months Beeline received 300 bookings. This works out to an average of two to three commuters on each bus route every day. A total of 10,000 suggestions for bus routes have been made by commuters. The more each suggested route is backed by demand, the more likely bus operators will run a particular route, said Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) Director of Government Analytics Liu Feng Yuan, adding that the service was to “help the pockets of people within Singapore that need this service, for example, those who have a really tough time travelling from area to area, or those who might need to take a feeder bus to the train, and then take the train to work.”

He said: “It may not make sense to run an MRT line through such areas and that’s what we have done so far, and we’re hoping to reach out to more people.”

Mr Liu is directing the project, which is headed by IDA and the Land Transport Authority (LTA). When asked who was funding the project, IDA said it was an “in-house” project but did not elaborate.

Beeline uses data analytics and crowdsourcing to cater to commuters that have to make multiple transfers within transport services or train lines in order to go to work every morning. Essentially, it’s a carpool service – but in the form of a mini bus. There are currently two bus operators behind this service: Bus-Plus and AEDGE.

The service is also parked under the Smart Nation concept that the G launched in April this year, in an effort to create a more efficient transport system, said IDA. Initiatives like autonomous vehicles, car-sharing systems and real-time monitoring and managing of bus fleets are all part of the G’s grand plan to not just have fewer cars on the roads, but to also improve the average commuter’s travel experience all over Singapore. This is also an example of how the G is using data analytics, technology and information to better serve commuters, IDA said.

To ensure an efficient service, bus captains have the user names of the passengers listed at their pick up points.
To ensure an efficient service, bus captains have the user names of the passengers listed at their pick up points.

When we joined Beeline for a bus ride earlier today, Mr Liu described the service as a “live experiment”. Some of the questions it initially revolved around were whether Singaporeans would use the service and book seats in advance, and whether private bus operators could make money. Mr Liu said: “We feel the best way to learn the answers to these open questions is to try it out and get feedback.”

Currently, most of the 21 available routes run from areas in the suburbs, for example, stopping at three to four stops in areas such as Pasir Ris or Yishun, to areas in the CBD, such as International Plaza or PWC Building.

There are other conveniences. By accessing Beeline via its website or the smartphone application, commuters will be able to avoid the morning crowd, be guaranteed a seat on the mini bus and they won’t have to switch buses or trains to get to their workplace. It stops at an average of two to three stops in a particular radius in the suburbs, and then hits the highway and lets passengers off at two to three stops in the CBD area. Currently, the smartphone application has reached 5,500 downloads.

Private bus companies have access to data analytics from IDA to plan their bus routes.
Private bus companies have access to data analytics from IDA to plan their bus routes.

As for costs, depending on the bus route, each bus ride can charge up to $5. If a bus route isn’t available, commuters can make a suggestion – and if there is enough demand, bus operators can choose whether to pick it up or not. IDA however was not willing to say how much demand would be “enough” for the bus operators to create a new route.

Although most of the data is driven from the route suggestions that commuters give, a portion of it is also taken from EZ-Link data – this is what IDA calls “anonymised” public transport data. Which means IDA knows where and how you’re travelling – from the minute you tap in, to the minute you tap out – but not who you are. Gathering this data helps IDA chart travelling patterns and whether there could be a demand for a direct bus service in any particular area.

Mr Rajiv Rai, 28, Legal Services Officer
Mr Rajiv Rai, 28, Legal Service Officer

Mr Rajiv Rai, a Legal Service Officer, was a commuter on the mini bus we were on this morning. Mr Rajiv, 28, said that he had been using Beeline since it was launched in August. “I see the same bus uncle every morning, and he’s very friendly. Sometimes when I’m late he will wait five to 10 minutes for me,” he said.

“It costs about $5 per ride, $4 if I book in bulk, and although it is definitely more expensive than a train ride, it’s outweighed by the amount of time saved and also the fact that I get a confirmed seat on the bus.”

Commuters who live near an MRT, however, might not find a need for the service. Ms Christina Liew, 25, an undergraduate student, said that she wouldn’t use it personally as her house is near to the MRT. “Anyway, even if my house was really far away, I wouldn’t use it because if I really wanted to save money on a daily basis I’d take public transport. For those occasions where I want convenience I’d just go for a cab, or use Uber,” she said.

 

Featured image and photos by Kong Chong Yew.

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