How Singapore launched a payment service in two weeks

By Yun Xuan Poon

Talitha Chin, Product Manager at GovTech Singapore’s Open Government Products unit shared her team’s core principles for building tech.

Singapore took just two weeks to build PaySG, a service that allows travellers to pay for swab tests and stays at quarantine facilities online.

Tech products usually take the Singapore government four months to build - what did they do differently this time? The Open Government Products (OGP) unit at GovTech identified and zealously tackled the core problem: Singapore urgently needed a way to collect digital payments, so incoming travellers didn’t have to worry about exchanging cash before they arrived in the country.

Talitha Chin, Product Manager at OGP, shared three core principles underlying her team’s strategy at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation.

1. Get to the root

When OGP first started work on the digital payments tool, each of the ministries involved came forward with a long list of features they wanted the tool to have. Some wanted multiple digital payment methods, while others wanted it to integrate with their own portals on the intranet.

This is common in government. “We often start building products by listing down all the nice things a product could do,” Chin shared.

There are good intentions behind this: governments want to solve many problems, instill confidence and be ambitious. “But the reality is this: there are urgent needs on the ground, and we would not have been able to get things in the hands of the users if we didn’t trim things down,” she said.

OGP worked with the agencies to zoom in on two essential features: a payment link, and a receipt that lists what users have to pay for and provides an identifier to track who has paid. Once the team knew what they needed to focus on, they were able to build a prototype for PaySG in just three days.

This principle of tackling the root issue underlies a lot of other tech the unit has built, Chin said. For instance, the team built Isomer, a template for government websites, as “many websites in government didn’t meet useability standards”, she explained. RedeemSG, which helped the government track mask redemptions, saved officials from striking out names manually on paper.

2. Use off-the-shelf tools

Another key reason for PaySG’s speedy build is that they used off-the-shelf services. PaySG has three main steps, and each of them uses tech that’s already available, Chin said.

The first is FormSG, a tool to collect user and payment information through an online form. “This is a solution that Open Government Products built in house but it’s an off-the-shelf system that any agency could use,” she added.

Next, PaySG sends emails with the payment link to users through Postmark, a system which allows emails to be delivered reliably. “It makes sure that the emails don’t go to someone’s spam box, for example. There were also ready templates that we could just take off the shelf and use,” she said.

Third, OGP used payment provider Stripe to process payments. This made creating the checkout form easier, and it even gives an admin dashboard.

“If you’re in a startup, [using off-the-shelf products] might be very natural to you,” Chin said. “But for governments and large organisations, we have the tendency to commission custom built products.” This could be due to security concerns, or because there are specific features agencies need.

But existing tools can be “highly functional and highly secure” as well, she noted. After all, many companies have invested in building helpful tools to meet the needs of their customers, including governments, she explained.

OGP uses readily available tools for their own processes, from hiring to coding. “This drastically boosts our productivity,” Chin said. For instance, the unit uses Pingdom and Opsgenie to monitor service downtimes and schedule incident responders.

3. Ditch products that don’t work

Finally, teams should actively seek to understand whether a product works for users, Chin shared. For instance, when OGP wanted to digitise vouchers to save the cost of paper vouchers, the team went down to hawker centres to understand how visitors were using their digital vouchers.

The key thing is to listen to the user and understand their perspective. This means being “willing to shelve design, or even products, if they don’t work”, she said. The team found that it was confusing for customers to key in a hawker code pasted on the stall. They are testing other options for what will work on a national scale.

Governments are now needing to build new tech faster and better. Doubling down on the root problem, using available resources and focusing on citizen needs are part of Singapore’s strategy to meet urgent needs in a crisis.

Catch up on GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation here:
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the headline as 'How Singapore launched a payment system in two weeks'. That is inaccurate, and GovInsider regrets the error.