How does Singapore build tech so quickly?

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Tan Chee Hau, Director, Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (Planning and Prioritisation), Prime Minister's Office.

Singapore built a total of nine GovTech tools to combat Covid-19. That was almost too many for the GovTech minister to name in a minute.

The fastest of these projects took just 24 hours to create. Singapore has structured its government to enable this sort of quick building. It set up the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) in 2017, bringing together officials from various ministries so it could implement digital initiatives fast.

Tan Chee Hau, Director of Planning and Prioritisation at SNDGO, gives five reasons behind Singapore’s quick response in the pandemic.

1. Steady investments in digital

Singapore’s “steady investments over the years” in digital was a key factor that allowed it to build tech so quickly, Tan says. This proved essential during the pandemic. “Governments who were able to invest in core capabilities, under the condition of a pandemic, had just more options in their hands,” Giulio Quaggiotto, Head of Strategic Innovation at UNDP, told GovInsider.

For instance, GovTech provided in-house engineering capabilities, so government didn’t have to go through the slow process of buying new tech. “Having that capability, that talent within the public sector meant that when we needed something built in a hurry – and we have had many things we needed built in hurry, including, for example, our interface to WhatsApp, MaskGoWhere, the initial TraceTogether protocol – we could turn to our teams,” said GovTech Minister Janil Puthucheary.

Singapore also has a common repository of tech tools that agencies can use to build their own digital services, Tan shares. This allows ministries to introduce quality services within a shorter time frame.

2. Cross-ministry collaboration

SNDGO is designed to cut across several ministries, as “digital projects are by nature multi-disciplinary”, Tan says. Agencies can collaborate easily to build impactful services.

For example, SNDGO worked with MOH to understand contact tracing needs when building TraceTogether, a bluetooth app that logs which devices have been in close proximity, and SafeEntry, a QR code system that records which buildings citizens visit.

The trade and manpower ministries built an online portal for businesses to apply for exemptions and receive the latest info on Covid-19 regulations. The National Parks Board also worked with GovTech to trial a robot dog that would help to enforce safe distancing. The robopup is equipped with remote control, 3D mapping and video analytics to count people in public parks.

3. Open source

Open source code allows countries to build on one another’s successes. Singapore has made its bluetooth contact tracing app, TraceTogether, available for other countries to use.

“Since we launched the App, more than 60 countries have expressed interest in using the BlueTrace protocol,” Tan shares. BlueTrace is a method of recording Bluetooth encounters between devices while protecting users’ privacy, according to a GovTech report.

4. Simple processes

Bureaucracy is the biggest deadweight to building tech. SNDGO worked with the Ministry of Finance to allocate more resources for pilot trials and to streamline approval processes, Tan shares.

“Rather than requiring very detailed project proposals, sometimes it’s better to simply do a prototype, measure the impact and user feedback, and then to decide whether and how to scale up,” he explains. Singapore also uses off-the-shelf products, including cloud services, to simplify the procurement process, he adds.

5. Built trust

Trust is an important element in any service that uses citizen data. Singapore recognised this early on. “For the public to support digital initiatives, we must help them understand how the technology works, what benefits it brings, and maintain an open channel to gather and respond to feedback,” Tan says.

For instance, Singapore conducted community roadshows last year when it launched LifeSG, a consolidated app for government services, to include services for elderly. Citizens got to try out the app and provide feedback before the launch, Tan explains.

The government also recently launched a policy webinar series, where public officers and citizens discussed Smart Nation issues candidly. Engaging directly with the public helps them “put a face to the products and policies, and it’s not just a faceless organisation,” he says.

There’s no time for bureaucracy in a pandemic. Strong in-government digital capabilities, effective ministry collaborations and simple processes have helped Singapore pivot quickly to serve its citizens in a crisis.