“Singapore cannot afford to be left behind,” warns Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Minister-in-charge of Public Service Innovation. “Now, more than ever, Singapore has no path to follow and no models to copy.”

The challenges the country faces are large and complex. The workforce is shrinking as the country ages; there is a “vocal citizenry with rising expectations”; and technology is “drastically reconfiguring” almost every industry, he says.

But these challenges create opportunities too. The best innovations come from necessity, Ong believes. He caught up with GovInsider to set out his vision for how civil servants can effect change.

Three key ingredients

Ong has “urged all public officers to ‘Think Big, Start Small, and Act Fast’”, he says. “Innovation is a gradual evolution, not a big bang creation. Let passion and belief, not bureaucratic reports and KPIs, drive the process.”

“Innovation is a gradual evolution, not a big bang creation.”

This approach requires three key ingredients, the first of which is time. “You have to make time for innovation, just like exercise. When you get over your inertia and actually exercise, you feel good and look good.” The same is true when government officials set aside time to think of new approaches to tackle policy problems.

The second is support. Officials must not look for excuses by saying “my boss doesn’t support me”, Ong says. “Even if that is sometimes true, we can always make a start – no matter how small – in our own areas of work”.

Third is particularly relevant to a small island state with limited space – resources. “The best ideas do not arise from having ample resources – they are instead the product of some desperate need,” he explains. Officials should identify areas where there are the greatest problems and focus their attention on these issues.

E-payments is the future

One area where Singapore can turn its weaknesses into a strength is e-payments. There are much bigger markets, such as China or India, that have less regulation and appear more attractive for big companies. This has enabled them to leap forwards, with payments being conducted through facial recognition in China.

In comparison, Singapore is a fraction of the size, and with a more developed regulatory frameworks. But government can be its killer app, Ong notes, with “every agency chipping in to make what seems impossible today, possible tomorrow”. The government will select key agencies to start using advanced tech in e-payments, encouraging others to follow suit.

Second, it can create “regulatory sandboxes” where there are limited regulations within defined risk parameters. This allows companies to really push the boundaries, while still protecting the markets and consumers from undue risk.

Regular de-regulation

De-regulation will make a big difference for Singaporean innovation, Ong believes. Agencies can use new methods of procurement to attract different players to bid for business – for example through challenge tenders where government requests ideas rather than a specific solution.

Ong is keen to see agencies work together to streamline tender processes, create regulatory open space, and encourage new ideas. For example, the Ministry of Home Affairs is working with the Singapore Tourism Board to create a regulatory sandbox where hotels can trial facial recognition technologies.

Since independence, Singaporean civil servants have proven their ability to run against conventional wisdom due to “imagination, gumption and pragmatism”, he believes. The country prioritised its airport when it had limited domestic traffic; created home ownership programmes rather than public rental schemes; and invested in technical education as other nations prioritised academics.

Now, the nation faces new challenges, and needs that inner grit more than ever. But Minister Ong Ye Kung is an optimist.