How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
My current role at the World Bank is a Senior Technology Advisor after serving as the Chief Technology Officer. This is a transition from an inward focus on internal Digital Transformation to an outward facing role. As a Senior Technology Advisor, I work with our developing countries on how to embrace new technology such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and internet of things to do more with less. Therefore, it is about the digitalisation of government.
One example of how we are using technology to solve real world challenges in fragile conflict zones, is to apply early famine warnings for these countries. Last year, the World Bank launched our first ever Famine Action Mechanism. A multilateral global initiative, the Famine Action Mechanism leverages technology, like artificial intelligence and data analytics, to predict famine so we can intervene early and bring international organisations together.
I’m also part of the board of directors for GovTech Singapore. The Smart Nation initiative is a good example of applying new technology for Digital Government transformation.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in recent years?
We issued our first blockchain bond at the World Bank in August 2018. The World Bank has over 75 years of history in the area of multilateral development work, and our treasury group has been doing a lot of different bond issuances, including green bonds.
Last year, our former treasurer and vice president wanted to embrace new technology, such as blockchain, to change the way we deliver our services. There are so few organisations around the world which are embracing this new technology and taking it all the way into production. It’s exciting because we were one of the first few organisations to do that.
The objective of using blockchain for bond issuance is to make the origination and distribution processes more efficient, transparent and faster. Essentially, it is about using the technology in a way that will help the counter parties transact easily.
Blockchain has been one of the most hyped technologies out there for many reasons: speculation, cryptocurrencies, ICO etc. There is a lot of excitement around the potential of blockchain in impacting people’s lives. However, there are a limited number of projects using blockchain for social impact. There are quite a lot of proof of concepts but we have to follow through all the way to see what it will take to do something of this magnitude. We also need to look at the key supporting elements besides technology: governance, legal framework, regulatory compliance etc.
Thought leadership has to transcend talk and paper into real execution. That was why we wanted to give it a try. It we don’t succeed, at least we’ve learnt from it.
What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?
I was born in Singapore in a very difficult environment. At the time, an 18-year-old mother having a child out of wedlock was not something that was commonly talked about. It’s not typically easy for someone like me to be a part of society because at that time, women were still supposed to be seen and not heard. I didn’t fit into this society because I didn’t have any parents to provide the warmth of a family. I lived in different homes, in very humble and poor environments.
However, I wondered if life could be better than what I was born into. I gravitated towards education. I was very good in school. My passion was in the arts and all the way until Hwa Chong Junior College, I was very much into all things related to arts, culture and history. That was my first love.
But when I reached 17 or 18 years old, I had an existential crisis. I questioned my own identity and the meaning of life, and I wanted to know my mother, so I went to the US to find her.
That was the journey that took me from Singapore to the US. But it was a hard one because I realised at that age that you can wish for a lot of things in your own personal life, but it doesn’t always happen. And you have to make the most out of what you have.
I did not want to accept the reality I was born into. But I knew I could use my voice and my education to change my own fate. I realised that I need to finish school, go to college and get a degree, but I didn’t have money. I wrote to many schools to apply for scholarships and the only scholarship I received was in computer engineering and mathematics. That’s when I pivoted 180 degrees into the sciences. It was a new world. I was out of my comfort zone. But I had always done well in school in Singapore. I am grateful for the good education in Singapore that gave me a strong foundation. Even as an arts and humanities student, I was quite good in math and science.
I think the Applied Sciences was what I was really interested in. I was interested in engineering, problem-solving, and shaping the unknown to create clarity. The problem-solving skills carried on with me for the rest of my life. I started my education in Singapore, and I went to the US to continue my education, and that east and west education perspective created a stronger combination and gave me a strong leverage that helps me later in my career.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?
I’ve seen a full spectrum of the private and public sectors, and what I’ve learned is that the interdisciplinary part is very important. The ability to unpack a problem and get to its core, and looking at how technology can solve that problem, is important – rather than the other way around, where technology looks for a problem to solve.
That was one of the lessons I learned when I work on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Solving a problem for an emerging country is not the same as solving a problem for a first world country. For instance, in Singapore, connectivity is not an issue because there are a few telco providers. There is a strong digital community here and a good talent pool of skilled labour to rely on. In some of the developing countries, we struggle even with connectivity. How do we address the basics? Could mobile solutions be a first point of entry before we even get to other bells and whistles like the AI and the blockchain of the world?
Sometimes, simple is good enough to drive adoption. My goal is operationalising technology, and it could be a whole gamut of technology, not just one single thing. I am not obsessed about using just one tool or another, it could be a combination of different tools.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?
With digital identity and mobile wallets, we can reach the people who are in the remote villages so that they do not have to walk miles and miles to go to a place to receive the subsidy or government funding. They could do it on a mobile phone in real time.
For women who do not have to be out of the house, they can still be a caretaker for the parents and children and be able to receive the funds on their phone. That is empowering, because it gives them freedom. They can receive economic support without having to leave a space where they are supporting the family for the young ones and the elders. That’s where technology can make a meaningful impact in people’s lives, across disciplines, from one industry to another and from one sector to another.
What are your priorities for 2020?
Recently, I pivoted from an internal focus role as a chief technology officer to an external facing role advising several of our member countries in the emerging world to embrace technology and how we can use it to solve problems. There will be further deepening in that area in some of the countries, where it is more complex.
The other priority is academia. I received my fellowship in June 2019 from Cambridge University, so I can focus on doing more research on FinTech and RegTech. In addition, I am now a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy. It gives me a chance to expand my knowledge network in digital government with several leaders around this part of the world and to help connect the dots between FinTech and GovTech.
On another front, I would like to focus on my own personal passion around data governance, which encompasses data protection, data security, data collection, data use etc. This is an important area because we are generating more data through IoT from mobile phones and through various channels where AI and data come together. We realised that there are various concerns around data privacy and there are different standards in different regions around the world. More work needs to be done on Data Governance with the collaboration across international organisations, academia, private sector, and government in 2020.
One of my hopes is to help empower and inspire the next generation of women leaders in government and show them what’s possible. There is a path forward, have a seat at the table and let’s come together with the rest of the community to deliver the outcome that we’re looking for in digital government.
What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?
On the personal side, the academic pursuit will be a new frontier for me, especially teaching. I have been given a new appointment as Professor of Practice in Zhejiang University and it will be my first time teaching at a university. I have been a guest lecturer from time to time and I really appreciate the new experience. I have a few top-notch professors who are my mentors and great role models as I transition into this new role.
On the professional side, I think some of the technology areas do need time to mature, like blockchain. It’s exciting that President Xi Jinping recently talked about going all in on blockchain. It’d be interesting to see how China would take it at scale. If I have a chance to spend some time in China, I would like to learn more about how to drive scale and help other countries in the developing world adopt this technology to solve government challenges in going digital. I would like to look at some of these technologies, apply it to practical use cases in government, and deploy that into production.
What has been your fondest memory from the past year?
The six weeks in Singapore as Lee Kuan Yew Senior Fellow is one of my most treasured experiences. I’m grateful that Singapore has given me this special opportunity to be part of this programme. This is the first cohort for National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where the thought leaders of Singapore government put a lot of effort in creating this programme and sharing with us some of the key lessons from the founding fathers of Singapore.
We had close discussion with Professor Lim Siong Guan and Professor Tan Yong Soon, who are amazing leaders in government, and they have learned from Lee Kuan Yew in the past. Now, they’re sharing that knowledge firsthand with us, and these are things that you don’t read in a book.
All 36 of us are thinking about how to take these learnings to the next step of building the community and knowledge across borders and driving impact in our own respective country or area of responsibility, and then also bringing others along and inspire others to do more. We hope to create a multiplier effect as we grow the community of like-minded leaders around the world to create a better tomorrow.
The networking with other senior leaders in this programme has been the most fun and educational because we do a lot of activities outside of class. For example, I am the Food Ambassador of Singapore for this cohort and I introduced Singapore cuisine in various social gathering so that they could experience the diverse and rich heritage in Singapore. This is what we jokingly called the Food Diplomacy.
And most importantly, I enjoyed taking six weeks out of our busy schedule, to have dedicated time to think, to reflect, to figure out what we want to do in this journey. Most of us come from senior positions, but seldom do we take the time to think about how we want to pivot, and how we want to create the next chapter for ourselves. I think this is a rare opportunity. Many people have gone through a very busy and hectic career without taking a moment to pause and do soul searching on what they want to do. For me, that has been one of the greatest gifts – taking time to reflect about what I love to do and follow that passion to do more.