Last updated: 13 March 2023
Published on: 06 August 2021
11 MINS READ
By Kami Navarro
From the moment Singapore was ‘born’ as an independent country in 1965 to the many challenges it has faced along the way, our country has always faced the odds stacked against it with a can-do spirit. While our lack of natural resources and domestic hinterland was initially seen as a disadvantage, Singapore managed to turn a weakness into a strength and has since remade itself into a leading digital economy powered by trade, innovation—and most importantly—its people.
This National Day, we celebrate four inspiring individuals who have not only made the most out of adversity but even used digital technology to thrive. Instead of being cowed by challenges like COVID-19 , these Singaporeans exemplified the growth mindset—making the most of opportunities to try new careers, foster deeper connections and even transform the way their businesses work, demonstrating the many ways the nation’s digital ambitions can have a profound impact.
Paying it forward with the gift of technology
Take for example Madam Varalackshmi Hariharan, a retired Principal Master Teacher who now volunteers as a silver-infocomm-wellness-ambassador-siwa(SIWA), encouraging her fellow seniors to learn digital skills. Armed with a laptop, smartphone and smart TV, Mdm Hariharan is one of the more tech-savvy seniors—and with good reason. “Both my daughters live abroad. I started to learn digital ways to keep in touch with them,” she explained. “But the second push for me was that I wanted to keep learning after retirement. I wanted to keep myself relevant.”
When COVID-19 struck, however, she found herself becoming the family’s de facto tech expert as the youngest of seven siblings scattered across the world. To help her older sisters in their 70s and 80s cope with the social isolation, she taught them digital skills. “I started teaching [them] how to use WhatsApp and now we have monthly Zoom meetings. Seeing the joy they had from getting connected—if I can help other people feel the same way, I’d like to do that.”
Being a senior herself, Mdm Hariharan noted, is an advantage. “It helps when seniors help seniors, because they see you’re older and feel that they can be more honest,” she said. “Because we have walked this journey, we can remember how we felt when we first started.”Aside from empathising with their frustrations and fears, her patient nature—well-honed after four decades of teaching—also provides the seniors she teaches the breathing room to explore technology at their own pace.
Along with her fellow SIWAs, Mdm Hariharan believes that their individual efforts can lead to widespread impact. “If we don’t move into the digital future we will get left behind,” she said. Being a SIWA, then, means paying it forward and actively opening the eyes of other seniors to the endless possibilities of technology.
“All of us can come together to help each other connect digitally and nurture a stronger sense of good neighbourliness.”
Leading the charge into the digital future
It’s not just people that can be left behind by digital transformation, but companies as well. For example, many companies still cling to paper invoices and struggle to leave legacy systems behind, even though they are tedious to maintain and more prone to error.
Acknowledging their challenges while rousing them towards change is IMDA Senior Manager Mr Gilfred Chew, who joined the agency’s E-invoicing Project Office in early 2019.
A veritable digital champion, Mr Chew rallies companies to adopt the nationwide e-invoicing method, InvoiceNow, through outreach efforts like business briefings and webinars.
With his unfailing enthusiasm and willingness to get his hands dirty, he also personally engages and guides organisations looking to take their initial digital steps, facilitating collaboration between industry and access point providers and garnering support from partner government agencies where needed.
“It is my job to convince businesses that they can make the digital leap and support them as they do so.”
According to Mr Chew, organisations often have reservations when they first encounter InvoiceNow. “Aside from being cost-sensitive, they’re not sure if e-invoicing will take off and be valuable down the road.”
But with the help of with his team, Mr Chew opens the eyes of these enterprises to the myriad benefits offered by InvoiceNow. “By showing our sincerity, they begin to see how genuine we are in supporting them and they see that they have less to lose and more to gain with e-invoicing.”
True enough, in the two and a half years since the launch of the nationwide e-invoicing method and even against the backdrop of a pandemic , they’ve seen a promising increase in Peppol registrations. “Today, we have over 35,000 businesses on the network!,” enthused Mr Chew.
That number is just the tip of the iceberg, he added, with the Singapore Government actively communicating to its 22,000 suppliers that InvoiceNow is the preferred channel to receive invoices. These impressive gains are ultimately made possible by his firm faith in the positive impacts of e-invoicing.
Driven by their mission, Mr Chew and his team continue to lead the charge for digitalisation by engaging the community in every way possible—via their website, social media platforms, collaborations with trade associations and sectoral champions, influential organisations and digital ambassadors, among others. Through these efforts, he hopes to help enterprises overcome the mental blocks that hinder digitalisation.
“Just as water flows down the path of least resistance, businesses are looking for the fastest, easiest or cheapest way to achieve their goal,” he shared. “As we drive InvoiceNow adoption, businesses have to believe it is the future of business and that riding on the crest of digitalisation is the only way to do more with less.”
Defying the odds to seize new opportunities
For individuals as well, making the digital switch is a matter of mindset. Consider the example of Ms Dawn Lun, whose transition from stay-at-home mother to data analytics engineer was filled with obstacles. Having left the workforce for seven years following the birth of her second child, the prospect of returning to work—and diving straight into the fast-paced tech sector—was nothing if not daunting. Nevertheless, she persisted; in no small part motivated by setting an example to her three girls aged 18, 8 and 5.
“Once they started attending childcare, I started planning for my career again,” shared Ms Lun. “I like solving technical problems, and as my kids get older and more independent, I can take up more challenges.”
However, when Ms Lun decided to re-enter the workforce in 2018, she faced difficulties finding a job due to the gap in her resume. “Getting back to work after a long break is mentally challenging. ‘Can I do it?’, ‘Would I fit into the team?’ are some of the thoughts I once had,” she admitted.
Undeterred, Ms Lun seized the opportunity to upskill herself with industry-relevant skills through General Assembly’s Data Science Initiative supported through the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) Tech Immersion & Placement Programme—juggling her responsibilities as a mother of three at the same time.
Though she felt overwhelmed at times, the key is to press on, said Ms Lun.
“Looking back, I'm in awe that I did it. Transferring into a different industry is never a straightforward decision, and we mothers tend to worry a lot. But be confident, sometimes things are much easier than you imagine.”
Currently, Ms Lun works at semiconductor technology company Micron, where she utilises machine learning to predict product disposition. She is just one example of the many people who have benefitted from TeSA programmes, successfully making the switch to a tech career and directly contributing to Singapore’s digital economy.
Empowering youth to drive tech innovation
Finally, making a difference to Singapore in his own way is Mr Siddharth Mazumdar, the 18-year-old founder of award-winning startup, Newton’s Meter. The company’s flagship product is an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered device that automatically sends a distress signal to nearby mobile phones within seconds of any mishap.
The company was born out of a tragic incident, shared Mr Mazumdar. While visiting relatives in India, he heard a loud bang in the middle of the night, but was unable to see a thing in the darkness. “The next morning, I ound out that a rider passed away that night from a crash,” he explained. “He died due to excessive bleeding. Had he received timely medical attention, he would’ve survived. I felt guilty as I could have saved his life had I seen him.”
Though it was too late for Mr Mazumdar to save the rider’s life, the accident sparked an idea that could save countless more: what if a device could call for help when someone couldn’t? This concept laid the framework for Newton’s Meter, with the consumer version a standalone device that relies on machine learning to build a user profile and determine the thresholds at which impacts could cause injury.
Whenever Newton’s Meter detects an impact, it transmits an SOS message to up to 10 contacts, including emergency services, providing them with the user’s exact GPS coordinates, blood type and even diabetes status—shortening medical response times within the critical ‘golden hour,’ while simultaneously informing loved ones. Meanwhile, the industrial version boosts the personal safety of workers, coming with geofencing capabilities, theft-proof access control and movement tracking to bolster workplace security and productivity.
Despite his current success, developing Newton’s Meter was not without its challenges. “I was 14 years old. I had no technical knowledge! Forget creating the device, I barely knew the words to communicate with the engineer,” said Mr Mazumdar. Seeking answers, he turned to the most immediately available resource: Google. But while the Internet had a wealth of information, it proved difficult for Mr Mazumdar to identify and make sense of the most relevant knowledge.
“By regularly observing and asking questions to my engineers, I filled in the gaps in my understanding,” he recalled. “There was a lot of drafting and redrafting since I didn’t have technical expertise at the start. But finding out what each person in the team was passionate about, aligning my goals with theirs and maintaining open lines of communication allowed us to connect despite differences in age.”
With the combined help of Google and his supportive team of 10, he eventually managed to create a working prototype of Newton’s Meter two years after the incident—with the current iteration now market-ready. Through his indomitable drive to improve personal and workplace safety through technology, Mr Mazumdar is making Singapore a safer place for all, one alert at a time.
“It is incredibly profound to have your ideas translated into real solutions that make the world a better place to live in, so take that leap of faith. The only thing with no chance of success is something you don’t start.”
From taking the initiative to digitalise key activities to making the digital leap and encouraging others—whether individuals or businesses—to also do so, these four individuals exemplify the can-do nature and the mental fortitude that has propelled Singapore to great heights in the past 56 years.
As the Republic continues to forge its digital future, it is through the collective dedication of such Singaporeans that its digital dreams can be made a reality. Indeed, together, through our Singapore spirit, we CAN! Happy National Day!
Photography by Cyril T C Ng