Lessons from Asia’s Smartest Nations: China, Japan, Korea and Singapore

By Joshua Chambers

Joshua Chambers explores the differences and similarities, drawing on a new United Nations report.

Innovation is everywhere, but it’s still a relatively new concept for government. President Abraham Lincoln once warned people to “beware of innovation in politics” when on his deathbed.

In recent times, though, things have changed. Governments across the world are innovating furiously to tackle problems including manpower shortages, ageing populations, extreme weather events, and an increasingly volatile and complex world.

A new study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) has examined how four leading Asian nations have innovated to tackle their challenges. The nations are China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, and all have a markedly different approach to innovation - with lessons that can be learned from each.

Singapore’s model of innovation is primarily from the top. As a small city-state with a skilled civil service, it has set far reaching central targets for its Smart Nation strategy with clear milestones and organisational responsibility.

Its GovTech Agency of 2,300 employees has hired 640 dedicated engineers, coders, hackers, systems and network engineers. “They represent only one third of ICT engineers spread across the public sector”, according to the GovTech Minister. It has even made its government cloud and data platform - CODEX - a ‘national strategic priority’, which is overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office.

This is different from Chinese and Korean public service innovations, which have used private company platforms or civil society to achieve many of their objectives. In Japan, meanwhile, the government has used the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as a fixed deadline to hasten the delivery of these projects, demonstrating how government can catalyse change across society.

Private sector led innovation in China

First, let’s look at China, which prefers to use private sector apps to national level systems when delivering its public services. This is partly due to the vast size of the country - it is much easier to set a strategy than to deliver it for over 1 billion people.

For example, business permits, utility payments, traffic fines, and even marriage and divorce appointments are available through Alipay. WeChat Pay also provides a range of services that you would normally expect to be provided by government. In Guangzhou province, for example, you can use WeChat as your digital identity, and also for your e-prescriptions at the doctor’s.

Could governments in South East Asia channel this approach? The region has seen a growth in “mega-apps” such as Grab, Go-Jek, Ovo, and increasing Chinese competition too. Could governments use these apps to deliver their digital services, reducing the time and cost spent on their own tech? Vietnam already has. The nation’s homegrown super app, Zalo, hosts city egovernment services and announcements, which they have dubbed ‘zgovernment’.

There are two challenges to this approach, however. First, the companies must see an opportunity to solve citizens’ pain points. Is government willing to partner with them and share data, like in Australia’s federated approach to digital identity? Or do APIs let them connect their payment systems to utility bills or traffic fines?

The second challenge is around regulation and trust. China has explored taking a 1 percent stake in the biggest companies and putting its people on the board to regulate big tech. This model is likely not possible in non-communist countries, but strong data protection regulations and cyber security regulations are required.

South Korea’s inclusive approach

Korea, meanwhile, provides useful lessons on citizen engagement and public trust. A well-publicised corruption scandal caused trust levels to plummet to new lows, according to a 2018 OECD report. The government has used its innovation strategy to engage and include citizens, winning them over and reshaping the way that decisions are made.

On the national level, it launched the Gwanghwamoon 1st Street initiative - a 100 day programme that asked citizens for their ideas to reduce corruption, improve efficiency, and plug gaps in public service delivery. The project received 180,706 suggestions, and more than 1,700 of them were integrated into government policies.

On the local level, Seoul has an m-voting system that allows citizens to vote on controversial proposals, particularly in the knotty area of urban planning. There is also a famous participatory budgeting scheme, which allocates $8m a year to a total of 35 projects selected by citizens.

Mission-centric innovation in Japan

Turning now to Japan, we can see how government sets out a vision and innovates across sectors to achieve it. The government views its ageing demographic as a “national crisis” which requires massive social change. Ministries across government have been told to figure out how to serve this community and reduce their reliance on manpower. This includes funding robotics for the social care sector, such as a large robotic bear to carry people and a self-driving toilet.

The environmental catastrophe of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has also inspired radical change. The Tokyo Olympics will coincide with the launch of a ‘Hydrogen Society’, with the Games and its transportation powered by this cutting-edge fuel. Government is leaning on its massive industrial know-how to launch new cars, and is subsidising new refueling stations and fuel generation plants.

Each of these countries is using its own strengths. Singapore benefits from a history of civil service innovation and a strong, centralised system. South Korea utilises the opposite - its network of citizens to engage and assist with policymaking. Japan has a fixed deadline of the 2020 Olympics for many of its policy programmes across healthcare and energy, and has also called upon its world class industry. And China has enabled its vast tech companies to step in and run e-government services for the people on its behalf.

While every nation has different strengths and challenges, there is one approach that works in all occasions: state the problem clearly, and ask for help from as many sources as possible.

Even Abraham Lincoln would agree with that.

This column reflects the views of the author, and not of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific.