Exclusive: Singapore could host data from other countries using their laws

By Joshua Chambers and Medha Basu

Idea proposed in new report giving alternative futures and radical ideas.

Could Singapore host data from other countries using the laws of those countries to govern it? This is one radical proposal put forward in a collection of ideas published today by Singapore Prime Minister’s Office.

“Just as Raffles made Singapore a free port in 1819, welcoming traders from any country, Singapore today could be a free data port,” wrote Peter Ho, Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures and former Head of the Civil Service. “It could allow data centres in Singapore to hold data governed by the laws of another country, as if it were stored in the source country.”

He also wrote that: “This would anchor the data in Singapore, perhaps allowing local-based companies access to it.”

The suggestions were made in a report by the Centre for Strategic Futures. The centre exists to think of alternative opportunities and challenges, giving long term advice. It does not make policy so it is only a concept rather than a draft law.

Ho also raised the concept of Singapore building “charter cities”, which was first mooted by an Australian law lecturer in the Straits Times in 2017. The model would see Singapore use its governance models and laws in another geographical location. “This raises the possibility that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island,'' Ho wrote.

Other contributors warned that Singapore could see increased mental health problems caused by a changing employment model. “Even for gig workers with a single ‘job’, the hours can be gruelling, leading to disastrous consequences, including, in some extreme cases, suicide,” write Angel Chew and Liana Tang from the Centre for Strategic Futures.

They warned that ‘gig economy’ companies could take on “virtually zero duty of care” for employees’ mental wellbeing. They recommended that government “look out for signs of mental illness among job seekers and retrenched workers, especially those involved in the gig economy, and ensure that such workers have better access to mental health support”.

The economy could also come to value time more as a commodity, the report theorised. It looks at a concept called “time banking”, where time is a unit of currency.

“In a climate of increasing inequality and decreasing trust in financial institutions, time-banking promotes equality and the building of trust,” Ho said. A doctor and a gardener would be equal under this currency system because they both have 24 hours in a day.

Robots and artificial intelligence technologies need to have more humanistic design, Ho also suggested. He points to Japan’s vision of robots living alongside humans. “Rather than build cold metallic objects to disrupt jobs and society, the Japanese have taken robots and made them soft and cuddly—turning ‘objects’ into ‘social beings’,” he writes.

The full report looks at how government can communicate challenges around AI to citizens; features letters “from the future” to inspire government officials to think strategically; and features science fiction from local authors.

Read the full ‘Foresight’ report by the Centre for Strategic Futures here.