A new age of digitalisation is redefining how governments interact with people, how businesses innovate, and how people experience the world – both physically and digitally. Groundbreaking technological innovations such as 5G networks and metaverses can unlock numerous opportunities for digitally-oriented nations.

But forays into the frontiers of the new digital era also carry risks, with concerns over data privacy, cyber supply chain attacks and a tech talent crunch top of mind. Instead of playing catch-up with the fast-evolving digital space, governments and businesses must be a step ahead to avoid potential pitfalls.

At the 35th CIO Workshop, held recently in Singapore, Tan Kiat How, the country’s Senior Minister of State, and other industry leaders explained the ways in which governments and businesses are gearing up for the next wave of digitalisation.

Digital infrastructure and regulations

Tan said that when it came to digital transformation, the key to success was “right place, right people, and right time”, a mantra that he explained meant creating a conducive environment for digitalisation, training a skilled workforce, and investing in a digital future as soon as possible.

To make Singapore the “right place” for companies to kickstart their digital transformation, the city-state’s government aims to establish a favourable environment for them to gain a competitive edge in the digital economy, Tan said.

A robust digital infrastructure is the bedrock of a secure and resilient digital economy, and the rollout of 5G has facilitated innovations using the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, Tan said. Singapore tech and media regulator the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has also launched open testbeds through which businesses can access readily available infrastructure to develop and commercialise 5G innovations.

But physical digital infrastructure is merely a foundation. On top of it, development and innovation related to “softer” infrastructure” is also important, Tan said, such as means to verify digital identities and regulations for secure data sharing.

To facilitate digital trade, the Singapore Trade Data Exchange allows enterprises in the supply chain ecosystem to share encrypted information securely and swiftly, he said. Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency (CSA) will also be developing cyber supply chain initiatives to boost the country’s resilience to possible attacks.

Laws and regulatory frameworks further fortify Singapore’s digital infrastructure, and the government regularly updates them to ensure that they are adapted to the evolving digital environment to protect public interests while harnessing the benefits of new technologies, Tan said. The CSA is, for instance, reviewing the Cybersecurity Act to better deal with cybersecurity threats.

The digital space is borderless, and so is the potential for firms to expand beyond the boundaries of Singapore. To help firms scale globally, the country has established international partnerships in the digital domain, Tan said. Singapore has signed digital economy agreements (DEAs) with five countries, building a consensus on cross-border digital trade rules and collaborations, he added.

The DEAs provide a framework for government-to-government cooperation that allows Singapore to align with other nations on data policies, transactions and even the use of digital identities, according to the IMDA. This means cross-border data flows are secure, making it easier for businesses to engage in global digital trade.

Nurturing digital talent

Even if the digital infrastructure and regulations are in place, “digital transformation will remain but a vision without the right talent to execute it,” Tan said, adding that the tech industry required a “robust pipeline of skilled digital talent”.

Tertiary education institutions are thus catching on to the wave of digitalisation. In partnership with IMDA and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the Singapore Institute of Technology has announced a programme in applied computing with a specialisation in fintech. “[Students] will be trained not just in finance, but in software engineering, blockchain and machine learning, too,” Tan said.

Students from polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education can contribute significantly, as they account for more than half of all tech course graduates every year, Tan said. The TechSkills Accelerator programme connects them with IT companies through internships, helping them to gain industry experience.

Tan urged companies to provide more hiring pathways for graduates and adopt progressive hiring practices, “by looking beyond academic qualifications and using skills-based assessments”.

For experienced tech professionals, IMDA provides leadership training and mentorship to help them better lead their companies in more senior positions. The SG Women in Tech initiative also aims to develop more women in the tech sector, especially in leadership positions, through mentorship programmes.

To keep abreast of fast-moving digital developments, Singapore must also be open to global talent, Tan said. Businesses can bring in tech leaders through the Tech@SG programme and the Tech.Pass visa scheme to complement local tech talent.

These initiatives can build “a network of tech leaders who can contribute to the tech ecosystem and uplift new generations of tech talent in Singapore”, he said.

Changing landscape for tech leaders

Tech leaders in government agencies and business also need to keep up and adapt accordingly, said Joey Pang, Senior Vice President of Legal and Compliance at DBS Bank. They are no longer required to be so specialised, as technology is used across several areas.

Pang said it was no longer sufficient for technology leaders on boards of directors or executive committees to focus only on one area, such as application programming interfaces or infrastructure.

As technology becomes embedded in more facets of daily life and presents more opportunities, it also introduces risks. In such a context, Pang said, IT leaders need to recognise that they are required to know enough about these risks to manage them.

He said that knowing enough referred to understanding technicalities and processes as well as legislation. “Regulators have come to expect, and sometimes demand, that technology play a central role in terms of managing events,” he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, technology leaders could be subject matter experts with long, illustrious histories in specific industries, focusing on particular specialisations. Now, however, that is no longer enough, Pang said, emphasising that they must have a deep understanding of all the technologies and interfaces with which they interact.

He said businesses are now looking for “M-shaped” professionals and leaders who possess expertise in multiple domains, adding that intersectionality matters.

It appears that future tech leaders, including CIOs, are expected to ride the next wave of digital change by applying their IT knowledge across various areas of expertise and situations. They are at the heart of Singapore’s digital infrastructure, and it’s crucial for them to constantly improve themselves so they can remain valuable and relevant. After all, a solid digital infrastructure is the foundation of a healthy and sustainable digital economy.