Exclusive: Inside Singapore CPF’s digital vision

By Vanessa Gu

Tech chief of retirement funds agency shares plans for blockchain and building microservices.

The Central Provident Fund (CPF) manages the retirement savings of all Singaporeans and permanent residents, and is also used for investments, healthcare, and housing needs. Like with any other financial institution, CPF’s customers expect to be able to manage their money digitally.

The agency’s Chief Information Officer Ng Hock Keong believes that it must be able to adapt to and use new and emerging tech to service citizens better. This foresight is guided by a keen eye on users’ needs, building modular digital services, and reusing existing tech platforms to make speedy changes. “CPF, especially, touches 3.9 million members. It is very important for us to understand for every investment in technology, what it brings to the customer.”

In an exclusive interview with GovInsider, Ng discuss how CPF is changing the way it builds tech, designs our citizen needs, and is testing the possibilities of blockchain.

Building the foundation for agility

Ng wants to build a common digital infrastructure that will enable new technology to be easily integrated into its systems. “We get a common stack, we build microservices so that it is modularised, then I can reuse,” he says.

The CPF board is currently undergoing the mammoth task of migrating some 34 million lines of code out of the mainframe to a unified platform by 2024, he reveals. The project, he explains, is part of efforts to build a more agile tech ecosystem. Having all the codes on a unified platform will allow new developers with only a functional knowledge to take a concept and turn it into a finished product.

Instead of having developers learn a new system each time they want an upgrade, future improvements and adjustments can be added in without disrupting the entire system. It is also in line with the Singapore government’s plan to quickly roll out new services using a standard interface.

It is a difficult, but necessary process, he says, and this could mean making some immediate sacrifices for long term gains.“At times, I would build something that is fit for use, but not 100 percent to your needs because I have this enterprise architecture in mind,” he adds.

Besides working on the tech architecture, Ng also wants the over 600 IT professionals in CPF to think about their work as building a “town” instead of individual “buildings.” He goes on to say that if everyone is focused on their own projects, “you'll build buildings and buildings of systems, but you may miss the big picture of how the two building connect.”

User-centricity in tech deployment

As CPF builds a foundation for more agile development, the agency has also long been redesigning services to fit citizens’ needs.

Ng was part of a team that launched CPF’s first online services in the late 90s. While it sped up processes, he recalls that many did not use it, preferring instead to speak with officers. To encourage its use, he redesigned the CPF lobby so that computers were the first point of contact, and had officers helping around the e-stations instead. He says, “this is one example where the technology is the same, the solution is the same, but the implementation makes a difference.”

Instead of being a first mover in technology, Ng prefers instead to “link existing technology, package it, and benefit the citizen.” The Chief Information Officer says he watches existing trends closely, and acts quickly when he sees the connection to customers.

Take the example of how in 2018, the CPF Board started using PayNow, an existing consumer-to-consumer digital wallet started by a local bank, to allow people to withdraw their CPF funds within seconds instead of four days. Previously, they had to go through the process of filling up forms with their personal information and bank details, and then wait for the money to be transferred. The agency was able to cut down the time taken because the CPF Board already had all the information available and verified.

Innovation in the public sector

Looking ahead, the CPF boards wants to use blockchain technology to update personal particulars, ensure authenticity of documents, and make form-filling more anticipative. Ng has a vision for a citizen digital journal powered by blockchain, where authorities can authenticate and contribute, while individuals own the full data.

He reveals that the CPF board is currently trialling blockchain to ensure CPF statements cannot be repudiated. But Ng notes that “blockchain only makes sense if you have cross-organisation data sharing, then you need to make sure that non-repudiation type of things comes in.” The CIO sees the potential for blockchain, not just within CPF, but also in job applications, healthcare, and grant applications.

Ng explains that having a digital journal powered by blockchain will give service providers a more “complete picture” of a person, which could be used across multiple agencies. “you authorise whoever is processing the request, read his journal, and actually you can get a very complete picture of the person,” he says. This eliminates the need to fill up forms repeatedly when the information is already available.

Meanwhile, Ng encourages innovation in CPF through its Transformation office, which he heads. The office provides a sandbox where officers can try out new ideas while providing a “safety net”. “You want to try things, try it at the sandbox. If it works, we upgrade, if it doesn't work, okay, let's move on,” he adds.

When it comes to adopting new technology, he says “the issue will be timing.” While Ng is prudent in his approach to technology, he believes there is still space for innovation to flourish. He says the key is “to move faster than what the citizens want you to move,” but at the same time understanding that “we should still be responsible for how you invest public money.”

Ng says: “If you know you do something for the greater good, if you do something that majority of the citizen benefit, then I think you can sleep.” “I sleep very soundly at night,” he adds.

Images by WikiCommons and CPF Board