How the Singapore Government can move to the cloud

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

The Prime Minister announced that the government will soon be using commercial cloud services.

Imagine rebuilding an aeroplane in mid-flight. That will give you some idea of the challenge that Singapore is facing as it attempts to “re-engineer government”, as the Prime Minister put it.

Last October, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the government will begin to use commercial cloud services. It is no longer an option, but a necessity: “The question for the government is not whether we do it, but to what extent we can use the cloud.”

This presents a compelling opportunity for private sector to lend its expertise and experience, while the government embarks on the journey to migrate onto the cloud in a much more comprehensive way.

Beyond legacy systems

The need to revamp existing IT infrastructure was one major takeaway in the Prime Minister’s address. “As technologies advance and policies change, systems must be modified, built upon, brought up to date, fixed. This is an endless task,” he noted. Many government systems can “in principle” run on the commercial cloud, Lee continued, and Singapore intends to migrate some systems in the next few years.

Security will naturally be a major consideration for the government as it makes this transition - and is also a major priority for industry. “If we don't get security right, we won't have a business. It is the most important thing that we do,” Peter Moore, General Manager of Sales, Strategy and Operations for Global Public Sector, Asia Pacific and Japan at Amazon Web Services (AWS), tells GovInsider. An “incredible amount of effort” goes into ensuring that any service that is released is secure, he says.

Because of this, the cloud is actually the more secure option for public services, notes Mark Diekmann, the General Manager for Cloud in Asia at DXC Technology. “The vendors of cloud platforms have invested significant dollars to make sure that cloud services and their corresponding data centre environments are secure; it's very difficult for private and public sector organisations running their own data centres to replicate that level of investment and security,” he says.

But beyond revamping public services, there is great potential for government to leverage on cloud to bolster the digital economy. The country needs to “speed up the transition to public cloud platforms in order to enable a digital economy”, according to Diekmann. “The ability to innovate quickly with the right agility; it's really fundamental to cloud,” he adds.

Much of Singapore’s infrastructure is built on legacy systems that were designed before cloud technology existed, the Prime Minister had noted in his speech. Crucially, while Singapore’s economy is currently one of the most advanced in the region, emerging economies such as the Philippines which do not have legacy infrastructure can leapfrog faster and adopt the cloud much more easily, Diekmann warns. “These economies are moving very aggressively. I think awareness is building in Singapore that we have to step up and move faster.”

Improved services

The cloud will be key in creating exceptional experiences for citizens to interact with government. Citizens demand “transparency, open access, ease of use” in their interactions with the government, just as they do with private companies, AWS’ Moore says. “Increasingly, governments realise that they have to be responsive to these expectations.”

Governments can innovate and iterate services rapidly and securely on a cloud platform, without compromising existing government systems, and at low cost, he believes. “What is the Airbnb or Uber of government? It has to be a government that is agile, that is able to be responsive, that provides access to modern mechanisms to government services,” Moore adds.

Around the world, governments are using the benefits of cloud to rapidly innovate in often surprising ways. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the US, for instance, carries out agile development right in the field, using the cloud to greatly speed up intelligence gathering: “finding people we care about, knowing who they are, what they're doing, their intentions, where they are”, said Sean Roche, Associate Deputy Director of Digital Innovation, last June.

Previously, the agency’s various teams of developers, operators and integrators would work together to develop custom intelligence solutions, but “it took too long and rarely satisfied the requirements”, he noted. Now, small teams consisting simply of a data scientist, programmer and analyst head out to develop solutions right where the action is.

These teams were able to rapidly collect information on persons of interest through language analysis and other tools, and in less than 30 days, Roche continued. The Turkish coup attempt in June 2016, for instance, happened on a Friday night, but the agency was able to carry out analyses and “have answers by Saturday morning”.

The right skills

But when Singapore’s big shift begins in earnest, it is essential that agencies ensure that they have “the right skills and understanding of cloud platforms and cloud services”, says DXC’s Diekmann. The government will need to support the shift by equipping agencies on both the technology and skills fronts. “It's not just the technology question, but there is also a business process and people dimension,” he says.

Next, the first step for governments keen to move to the cloud is to understand which applications can move over first, and quick. “Organisations need to identify which application groups are ready for the cloud, and which are the areas that require some touch, some refactoring, some variations in order to be cloud-ready,” Diekmann explains. He advises that each agency create a clear roadmap for its cloud transition, as well as clear cut areas where they can get started.

The Singapore government has recently announced several initiatives that will complement this transition. There will be a “fundamental transformation” of how services are built: where agencies will not need to build from scratch, but rather, by “reusing services”, said the Prime Minister. To this end, the government is creating the Singapore Government Technology Stack, a suite of common software components used in application development that will allow agencies to develop websites and services faster, without needing to worry about the nuts and bolts.

And to grow the digital economy, the government has outlined the importance of Cloud Native Architecture to enable future services which are envisioned to be end-to-end, frictionless, anticipatory and empathic. This architecture will provide “easier access to emerging technologies that make it more cost-effective and scalable for companies, and meet customers’ needs in a more agile manner”, says Jane Lim, Assistant Chief Executive, Sectoral Transformation at the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

These businesses will also be able to train their workers in emerging technologies, helping them to upskill, Philip Heah, Assistant Chief Executive of the Technology & Infrastructure Group at IMDA, tells GovInsider. “More training and skills development programmes targeted at different levels and functions of the organisation, such as the leadership, middle management and development teams, would also be important to align the mindset shift that may be required in the transformation,” Heah says.

In November last year, IMDA launched the GoCloud programme to help ICT SMEs in training their workforces, he continues.

It will be no mean feat to re-engineer government. The cloud will underpin this ambitious undertaking, and enable a more agile, innovative and responsive Singapore.

This article was produced in partnership with DXC Technology