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SINGAPORE REPORT news feature: An interview with Gabriel Lim, IMDA CEO

A plan, policy and the means to facilitate it, Singapore is gearing up to a digital future where it means to be a worthy contender on the world stage

Above: The towers of the Singapore skyline Below: Gabriel Lim, IMDA, CEO
Above: The towers of the Singapore skyline Below: Gabriel Lim, IMDA, CEO
SINGAPORE REPORT news feature: An interview with Gabriel Lim, IMDA CEO

The Singaporean government has always recognised that its people are its main assets. The country has no natural resources, and the only endowment is its strategic geographical location, a deep port on the main shipping routes between India and China.

Singapore has carved a place for itself on the world stage. Under a paternalistic, anticipatory and interventionist government (the People’s Action Party) which has been firmly in control since 1959, this one party city state has flourished into a world contender that tops league tables in financial services and education. It’s become a place where global business likes to do business.

Despite unprecedented success in a generation, Singapore’s tried and tested formula of taking stock, anticipating trends, creating a plan, supporting that plan with policy, initiatives and finance, then mobilising the population to do what it needs to do, has been reactivated.


A newly formed government department the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is responsible for facilitating the 2025 master plan, which sets out the country’s intent of being the world’s first smart nation. On a recent visit to Singapore, we spoke to Gabriel Lim, CEO at the IMDA, and former chief of staff to the current Prime Minister, about Singapore’s advancement towards a smarter society.

SCW: Why is the formation of the IMDA so important to the government?


GL: We don’t establish a new government agency that often, so in itself it’s not a regular occurrence but I think most importantly it signifies the next phase in our development: how we transition into a digital future. How we transition into a future where you have infocomms and mediacomms coming together, changing the way we live, work and play. Creating the opportunities for businesses and for people.


IMDA is going to take a leading role in bringing the country along. That’s one of the core missions that we hold very dearly. It’s not just the economic development role that’s important. It’s also about raising social capital, raising the quality of life of ordinary Singaporeans not just for the technopreneur who’s looking for a unicorn start-up, but actually also for families who need to get help to access the Internet.


As a general statement, we are a very wired and connected people but we want to make sure that in creating opportunities for growth we always take care of everyone, so when we go into a digital future we don’t leave anybody behind.


SCW: Your country’s strength seems to lay in the fact that your multi-racial, multi-lingual citizens first and foremost regard themselves as Singaporeans. Is this sense of togetherness an ingredient that will take you successfully towards a digital future?


GL: We are not a single race, single tribe country. We are heterogeneous. We are very diverse. We are an immigrant society and if you want to forge a sense of nationhood or brotherhood with one another, you have to find a way to make everyone feel a sense of progress, of uplift when the nation progresses regardless of where you come from, as we are all Singaporean together. Your grandparents may have come from China. Your uncles from India or South East Asia but at the end of the day we make common cause.


Moving forward, the trends are such that it’s going to be more difficult because when you talk about globalisation, you talk about technology, and left unattended it may accentuate the divides. But if we can come up with a strategy to turn this round, we can turn a digital divide into a digital multiplier. Really and truly, we’re creating opportunities for everyone and that’s why we think this is a critical part of our mission. It’s the correct thing to do.


SCW: Adaptation and focus are two words that spring to mind when thinking about Singapore. Would you agree?


GL: We’re so small that we have to actively seek out new opportunities – we’ve got to reach out. No one owes us a living. I don’t have a tonne of oil in the ground that I can just pump out and support myself.


When we first started in 1965, we basically set about attracting MScs into Singapore. It didn’t matter what you did. Come here and set up a factory, create jobs. We made textiles, we made TVs and light bulbs, whatever job you wanted, we could get it done. Then we moved into advanced manufacturing so we didn’t just make light bulbs we did circuitry and control panels. Then we went into services especially financial services, insurance, health care and then we went into research and biomedical sciences and so on.


The next phase in our view is everything to do with the digital economy and infocomm media is a big part of that. That is why a big part of the IMDA is to find media and bring it into Singapore -- at least to get companies interested to do this in Singapore -- and more importantly part of our mission is to build an eco system to support their efforts.


SCW: What will Singapore of 2025 look like?


GL: Everything would be about our standing in the world. For me this is most important. In ten years time we want to be an even more attractive global city – a place that stands out – one of the top ten places in the world to be in. You have a good quality of life here; you have clean air, clean water, you have safe streets. It’s a good place to do business as you’ve got exciting opportunities. You’ve got good manpower, good connectivity, a very progressive eco system. It’s a good place to travel with interesting cultural sights that sets us apart from many cities in the world.


In each info comm domain we want that to flow through. We want to see very eco savvy business. We want to see a very connected people a much more pervasive, faster broadband. That’s a microcosm of the bigger picture. When people anywhere in the world think of Singapore, they will think, “Singapore, wow that’s a great place, I want to go there!”


That’s’ never going to stop. I mean 2025 you’ve got to redefine yourself again, that’s the burden of a small state like us. History hasn’t been kind to small states, if you don’t move, if you’re not you’re not nimble, or you’re not flexible the world passes you by.



SCW: What does a smart city mean to this nation state?


GL: Smart cities aren’t solely defined by equipment, technology and hardware but that’s obviously part of it. A smart city is about how the people in general see themselves. Are we progressive? Are we moving with the times? Are we prepared to adapt to technology, and not say, “Oh this is going to change my way of life, I’m going to push it and resist it and just turn it back.”


So a smart city resides in our minds and in our hearts because once you are able to achieve the right mind-set – the right way of thinking about this, then actually technology just becomes a means to an end. Technology will always evolve but there is always going to be some tremendous progress that originates from some far-flung corner of the world. It is the ability of a people to understand technology, to use it in the best way possible, to use it wisely. How socially progressive is technology? How socially progressive are your policies? I think that is ultimately what a smart city is.



SCW: What areas of technology do you see yourselves investing in?


GL: Areas like smart nation – investments in areas like IoT, sensor technology, data not just the collection of it but the analytics. That’s going to be a big part of it. We’ve also identified cyber security as a big growth area, but frankly speaking so has everyone else.


The global market for cyber security professionals has gone ballistic but it is something we see as a growth area. We see lots of opportunities in areas such as machine learning, natural language processing and AI in particular. In those areas we have to find a niche otherwise you’re going against the Googles and IBMs and these are massive, massive, massive companies with a tremendous amount of research talent and research dollars.


We have to be quite careful where we pick our niche and in doing that, make sure we are good at it. Create deep expertise and then use that as a basis with which we can to engage the tech industry.



SCW: Singapore is known for financial services – how do you envisage the transition period through digital disruption that is hitting this sector?


GL: I think with financial services the way to maintain our lead is to make sure that we operate in, and continue to nurture this environment of trust. The disruptive technologies are plentiful whether you talk about mobile payments or e-payments and so many variants, on and so forth. When you’re looking at blockchain technology to be able to look at cash settlements, the financial reconciliation of transactions or just book keeping in a much more secure and accurate manner. There is a tremendous amount of research being done all over the world in these areas and we are part of that too.


For us we need to make sure that we have an environment of trust, because in all of these transactions if you don’t have a layer of trust, I think there’s a real risk you might have of fraud and the whole system crumbling from within.



SCW: Do you think Singapore will pioneer models of trust in financial services?


GL: Why not? I think we have a shot and the reason is this. Ironically in some areas being small is beautiful. You’re not building an eco system that becomes a threat to someone else; you’re a neutral small independent party. We are open to all. We are happy to work with whoever and out of this we are able to generate a viable model. Here we’re not not talking so much about technology but rather governance, we’re talking about security models that others can ride on, then why not?


We’ve seen this happen by the way in the free trade agreement frameworks. Today one of the big multinational free trade agreements we are discussing is the Transpacific partnership – it is linked to the US and Asia Pacific.


It actually started with Singapore and three other small countries: Brunei, Chile and New Zealand. We started it because we saw the potential of an Asia Pacific wide free trade agreement. We started with small economies, it was no threat to anyone; we can trade among ourselves. We set some basis for the rules of how you look at tax harmonisation, and facilitation and it grew over time. And now we’re looking at a FTA that’s going to cover 40 – 50 per cent of global trade – that’s a phenomenal achievement. It germinated from a small, humble, modest, idea that is little, safe and beautiful. If we can do it with FTAs, then why not other areas?



SCW: What is the role of citizens in creating a smart city?


GL: What you have had with technology is a democratisation of influence because everyone has a say now. If you go to social media for example, you can’t manage communications in the way you once had when one person had the monopoly on a printing press. With social media, it gives the crowd the ability to get together to articulate a point of view in an unorchestrated basis. It is spontaneous, it reflects an outpouring, it is real.


In Singapore, we have all recognised that that is the way things are going to be. In fact that is the way things are now. As a government we have tried to be more progressive in how we engage the public on many levels.


On a politician’s level they are all active users of social media accounts and it is live spontaneous feedback. I used to be chief of staff for the current prime minister and I was one of the guys who helped him set up his Facebook account back in 2012. Back then we weren’t quite sure how it was going to pan out. It was a new thing. But from there to now, the prime minister has more than 1.2m followers.


Singapore is quite remarkable. You can see the way of communicating – direct communication in real time. He was in Japan yesterday and he’s streaming stuff, he was streaming the reception at the Rose Lawn in the Whitehouse last month. It’s a direct communication and a way for him to interact directly with his followers. From time to time he will exchange comments on his wall.


So that’s one simple example, but the other way is how we can use technology as a platform to engage the public. So for example, simple things like municipal services. You see a puddle on the floor or your traffic lights aren’t working. You take a photo, geotag it; send it over to the government agency to take a look at it. They log it, follow up, close it and send the report to you. And you do it so you don’t have to deploy people to go around inspecting things anymore. So there are many examples of how we do that.


As we get more familiar with the opportunities and more adept at using technology, we will roll out more and more services to engage the public, but certainly there is no doubt in our minds that the future lies in a much more multiway, multimodal exchange between government and people.


It’s no longer the government on top and the people below, that’s a very hierarchical authoritarian structure that doesn’t really work anymore. It’s more of a networked flatter hierarchy. It’s not absolutely a flat hierarchy –leadership is still important and from time to time the government has to step in and to take the lead especially in emergencies and crisis -- but generally on a day-to-day basis it’s much flatter and the opportunities to engage are more plentiful, so everyone is getting on with the programme.



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