“People are getting impatient,” says Saw Ken Wye, CEO of a Singaporean govtech supplier called CrimsonLogic. “Government needs to be able to react to that and cater to their needs faster, better, cheaper,” he tells GovInsider.
We are sitting in his office in a local industrial estate. The company, he tells us, is funded by the government of Singapore, and builds systems both for the city state, but also for nations across the world. It specialises in procurement and trade platforms, using Singapore’s reputation for transparency and commercial savvy.
GovInsider caught up with Saw to discuss how Singapore supports its govtech suppliers; the local battle for talent; and why government service delivery is speeding up.
Need for speed
But first, some context. Governments are changing how they commission and build services, he notes. Projects could be planned over years, and then over months. “Now it’s one month to three days,” he says.
This is because citizens are becoming more like customers. “In the past, if I sent a letter to government to complain, nobody else sees it. If I post it on Facebook and it gets reposted, then retweeted, suddenly there’s a following behind that, and government has to respond,” he adds.
However, governments do still “tend to procrastinate” on decisions, he believes. “You have this interesting tension going on now. Because of transparency, [the government] can’t act fast because everything will be questioned.”
As governments try to work within their constraints, the private sector is racing ahead, he continues. The most advanced mobile payment systems in the world, Alipay and WeChat Pay, emerged from China, where the government “doesn’t interfere that much”, Saw points out. “They started first, a little bit unregulated; just happened overnight.”
“Now, if you have a government committee saying, ‘Why should we have a mobile money strategy?’ Well, they will still probably be thinking about it,” he remarks.
Here, Saw believes the best course of action is “just to try new ideas”, but be ready to pull the plug on projects that are not working out. “In this new world, you will never have full understanding of what you need,” he muses. “You need to be more open to starting pilots and trying out stuff. If you want to wait until you get the full idea, it will take too long.”
“You need to be more open to starting pilots and trying out stuff.”
Dealing with digital citizens
Governments are also “grappling” with finding the easiest way to identify the person they’re interacting with. Technologies such as two-factor authentication and biometrics has made it easier to ensure that citizens are really who they say they are, Saw thinks.
The rapid spread and advancement of these innovations in recent years has enabled governments to deploy them at scale. Conveniently, the average citizen already holds several of these technologies in the palm of their hand. “Five years ago, you want to put biometric, it’s tough. Where are you going to get the biometric reader? Now, most phones have some form of biometric reader. Most smartphones have the camera; with the camera, I can read your face, take a selfie,” he explains.
With identification, the level of security is key. Two-factor identification and biometrics can be used together for even greater security. Three years ago, Singpass, the online government services platform for Singaporeans, was hacked—which was made easier by the fact that many Singaporeans used their identity card number as both username and password, according to Saw. “Your identity can be stolen, passwords can be stolen… people had user ID, identification card number, password. That’s why you need that second factor.”
He adds, “Maybe we can go one further. Could biometric help? I can steal your phone, still do transactions. But with biometric, it gets harder.”
Governments therefore need to be “smart” about the problem they want to solve, Saw believes. Facebook logins are one way to identify the person at the other end of the screen. But if a citizen needs to carry out transactions, that is where “governments not only need to know who you are, but [they] need to be able to validate it in a way that cannot repudiate the transaction”, according to him.
The ins and outs of trade systems
CrimsonLogic’s expertise lies in trade systems, which comprise 60% of its business. The company launched TradeNet, Singapore’s national single-window system for trade declarations, back in 1989. In fact, the company just launched a cross-border e-trade platform for the country just last week, one which helps traders with the complex trade documentation process.
The trade system that CrimsonLogic built for the Bahamas government is a study in how to build solutions for government, he claims. In the past, CrimsonLogic would custom-build solutions based on the client’s needs, but sometimes, “people can’t articulate their requirements accurately”, according to Saw. “You ask three people for the same thing, they say three different things,” he laughs.
Based off of their previous experiences, CrimsonLogic then decided to create a ready-made system that can be tweaked to suit the client’s needs. “Now I have the ability to build repeatable solutions that are now built on stackable technology. That makes it easy for me. You want Oracle? No problem,” he says.
This move away from bespoke was driven by “the need to survive”, Saw explains. “I can’t do things the same way; it’s too expensive.” Price is a crucial factor for procurement bids, and CrimsonLogic needs to be able to “consistently” deliver things at lower costs, he adds. “I have a base to work from that limits all the unknowns,” Saw says. “The key thing that drives project costs up is unknowns.”
“The key trends people talk about really are AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning.”
The trick to attracting tech talent
There is fierce competition for tech talent in Singapore, but CrimsonLogic doesn’t just compete on salaries. His graduate employment programme in Singapore pitches experiences instead. “Rather than work you do, it’s the adventure you gain”, he says. “You have a 20-month adventure”. Graduates rotate across projects and countries, with a mentor bringing together their experiences.
His rivals can’t necessarily “bring them on safaris… or to Panama”, he says. “I self-select. People who come to work for me must be ‘high in adventure’,” he explains. “I’m not sending you to London, Paris, New York. I’m sending you to Botswana, Rwanda, Namibia. Be ready to see a different part of the world; if you find that exciting, we have a match.”
Speedier services, faster decision-making, greater security: these are how government agencies can better cater to citizens, who have become the customers. Moving forward, the focus of governments should be clear. As Saw puts it: “The key trends people talk about really are AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning. That plays in line with, once you get it, how do you make faster decisions?”