Let's Get Sexy Again

Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Senior Minister of State (Transport and Information, Communications and The Arts) - Speech Singapore Computer Society (SCS) Gala Dinner, The IT Leader Award 2003 Presentation Ceremony, Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore ...

Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Senior Minister of State (Transport and Information, Communications and The Arts) - Speech
Singapore Computer Society (SCS) Gala Dinner, The IT Leader Award 2003 Presentation Ceremony, Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore

Singapore, 22 February 2003

President of SCS, Mr Martin Tsang

Friends & Colleagues

From its humble beginning

My first close encounter with a computer was as an engineering student in an Australian university. I did several IT courses, picked up FORTRAN, COBOL, Basic and enjoyed writing large computer programmes.

After graduation, I had no opportunity to apply my programming knowledge and was a bit disappointed. As the Chinese would put it: "ying1 xiong2 wu2 yong4 wu3 zhi1 di4".Remember this was 1978, some 25 years ago.

I asked Dr Tan Chin Nam when did our national computerisation programme begin? He said that he would put it at 22 years ago, in 1981 when NCB was established. This is of course a public sector perspective. I am sure, if I ask the universities, they might tell a different story and mention an earlier year of birth. Your society, SCS, for example, was founded in 1967.

But whatever the agreed vintage year, it was a time when computers were treated like treasures, too precious to be let loose among the masses. In the civil service, only the Ministry of Finance was allowed to have its own mainframe computer. No other Ministry could set up its own IT department.

To get around this decree, Mr Philip Yeo bought for Mindef its first mainframe computer, an IBM 4341, under the guise of an "intermediate business machine". He got away with it! This covert operation became the foundation for Mindef's systems engineers who subsequently led the national computerisation effort of Singapore.

In the public sector, the first key step was the establishment of the NCB (National Computer Board) in 1981. The intent was to pull the bureaucracy into the modern age. Philip Yeo promised Ministry of Finance that he would only need $100m to computerise 10 ministries in 5 years and he would not disturb the Finance Ministry again. He even offered to put his head on the chopping board, if he failed to deliver.

Well, Philip Yeo did not lose his head. The Civil Service Computerisation Programme (CSCP) was a runaway success.

Philip Yeo thinks big. But even he could not have anticipated the great appetite for IT services. Far from the $100 mil budget he thought was sufficient to complete the assignment, the Civil Service continues to spend on IT, some $500 mil a year!

NCB got its big boost in 1986, when it succeeded in getting the Economic Committee, the fore-runner of today's Economic Review Committee, to incorporate the National IT Plan as Chapter 17 of the Economic Committee's Report. This step firmly embedded IT in Singapore's economic agenda.

Singapore: the Intelligent Island

The next key milestone was in 1991 when NCB released the IT 2000 blueprint to make Singapore an Intelligent Island. The strategic intent was to make IT pervasive in all aspects of our economy and our society.

We did well, even though Phua Chu Kang might seem to have some difficulty.

But elsewhere, IT has become very much a part of our life.

We were sexy!

IT 2000 produced many internationally acclaimed initiatives like Tradenet and Lawnet and the world's first nationwide commercial broadband infrastructure called Singapore ONE. Tradenet alone saved our economy $1 bil a year in processing trade documentation using EDI (electronic data interchange).

Harvard Business School made it into several case studies. BBC produced a special documentary featuring our race to the future with Singapore as an Intelligent Island.

Then in the midst of the internet boom in 1999, the Infocomm Development Authority or IDA was created when we merged NCB and TAS (Telecommunication Authority of Singapore). The focus of our national computerisation effort turned to telecommunications liberalisation and the exploitation of the convergence of computer, communications and content. The Infocomm 21 Plan was conceived in 2000 to intensify the pace of exploiting ICT for national strategic advantage.

In two years, our telecommunications bandwidth has expanded by 400 times. We now have 21 terabits of high-speed submarine cable bandwidth with direct connections to more than 100 countries. Full liberalisation has brought telecommunication costs down sharply for consumers and business.

Today, one in three Singaporeans use broadband to access on-line content from home, school or office. At the same time, our National IT Literacy Programme and the PC Re-use Scheme ensure that no Singaporean is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

From a humble beginning, our national computerisation effort has spawned an infocomm industry of $28 bil with over 100,000 ICT professionals helping to e-power the entire economy. It constitutes 7.9% of our GDP.

The World Economic Forum has just moved us up the global ranking in the Networked Readiness Index from No 8 to No 3 (among 82 countries). This is a strong foundation to take us to the next phase of development.

IT as the Transformer 

Of course, it was not always rosy, particularly in the last three years. The collapse of dot-coms has destroyed the fortunes of many. IT lost its sex appeal. Companies cut their IT spending severely.

But the transformational power of IT remains. Its sex appeal is still there for many to rediscover!

We certainly believe in it. The ERC has highlighted it as a key growth sector. Gartner expects the IT services in the Asia-Pacific region to grow faster than the world IT market.

Singapore IT in Crisis

I was therefore a bit annoyed when a friend sent me an email last month. He wrote that a "CEO friend in the IT industry remarked that Singapore seemed to have given up on IT".

But I sit up when I read, a few days later, that the Singapore IT Federation (SITF), while preparing for its regular dialogue with MITA, had proposed as an agenda item: "Singapore IT in crisis - where do we go from here?".

I sniffed around to find out why. Some said that IDA appeared to be more focused on telecoms than IT. Some said that IDA was more regulatory-minded than the championing NCB. It is an unfair criticism and the misunderstanding should be corrected quickly.

I do not believe our IT industry is in crisis. We certainly have not given up on IT. But that some of our industry players have such a perception is itself significant. We should discuss such a perception candidly and actively dispel it.

I know that in time of economic slowdown, people do feel pessimistic. But it is precisely in hard times when people seem depressed, that it is important for us in leadership, whether political or corporate, to point out the positives and keep the spirits up.

Let's get back to basics. First, is this a growing sector or a sinking ship? The huge potential of IT to increase productivity and transform society has yet to be fully exploited. So, how could it be a sunset industry? If we care to observe, we will find many opportunities, from the army to the zoo, that can still benefit enormously from IT applications. For instance, in the healthcare field that I am quite familiar, I continue to see many unmet needs.

Second, is this a sector where we have competence? My answer is yes definitely. In the application of IT, Singapore is clearly world class.

Harvard Business School did not do the case studies on our computerisation efforts as a favour to us. Likewise, the BBC. We were indeed sexy in the global IT scene.

And we have not stagnated but continued to innovate. Look at our courts of justice, our libraries and our many e-Government efforts. They are truly world-class.

This week, London began charging cars going into its city centre. Hundreds of cameras are deployed to take down car plate numbers so that congestion charges can be imposed on the car owners. On this matter, we are years ahead, both in the public policy of road pricing, as well as the ICT deployed to make the system work.

Let's Get Sexy Again  

Just look at the healthcare sector where I have spent 14 years. During that period, I was involved in many hospital computerisation projects. Frankly speaking, they did not satisfy me as a user.

After 14 years, I could not report that hospital computerisation has transformed healthcare delivery, as Tradenet has transformed trade documentation, or IT has transformed the library service. 11 years after leaving the healthcare industry, I do not think that we have yet achieved a significant breakthrough of using IT to radically transform the healthcare scene. The only consolation is that the rest of the world is equally primitive, though there are little pockets of experiments here and there.

With every home connected via broadband to the Internet, potentially, we can implement total electronic medical record on the Internet for every Singaporean. Think of how this would transform healthcare delivery. Think of how this would make Singapore an important test site for health sciences!

We can be the first country to achieve this feat. I am not suggesting that we pursue this for egoistic reason. But that there are real economic benefits to be derived, besides bringing a higher level of service to the patients. Likewise, there are many other such opportunities, in education, transport, logistics, entertainment etc.


Singapore was sexy in IT because a group of young visionary leaders put their hearts and souls into turning their vision to reality. Their business is not yet finished. There is still new frontier to be conquered. There are yet new mountains to climb.

We need the next generation of visionary leaders to grab the baton, set new vision and work hard to make us sexy again. We need a new road map and have some sexy and achievable goals for our people to shoot for.

But vision alone is dreams without execution and delivery. And IT delivery was always and still is the domain of the young, the maverick, the early adopters, and the challengers of the old systems and processes. The question is whether we are prepared to give greater responsibility and authority to these sweet young things who are in their 20s and 30s?

With the power of IT today, what used to require millions may need very little today to start. And so we have young people now moving into new applications, not as efficiency or productivity tools, but as creativity tools, such as to produce digital media content. We have young kids in our polytechnics and universities, making money doing web designs, composing newsletter layouts, making $800 per edition of a CDC newsletter, while others making a couple of thousand dollars maintaining web-sites for companies and Town Councils. My constituency's Moulmein web-site is one such customer of these inspiring young kids.

In other words, there is now a proliferation of the next generation users. They are leaving behind the old IT applications, traditional career paths and conventional business opportunities. They are the modern day equivalents of Philip Yeo, David Lim and Tan Chin Nam: youngsters with dreams and skills going out to get things done, instead of gazing at their navels. It is most heart-warming and inspiring talking to them.

David Lim, Tan Chin Nam and myself are now near 50 or past 50. In the IT world, we are old men. MITA and IDA are committed to making IT sexy again. But it is a bit difficult to be sexy when you are old.

To get the next IT revolution, we should give authority and responsibility to the youngsters. Our role as an old man is to give air cover, for these youngsters, just as Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Hon Sui Sen used to give.

Above all, we need the support of every one of you in this room. Let's get sexy again! Will you join us?