Data protection is one of those knotty topics that requires reams of regulation and legislation. So how can you create the space for companies to try out innovative new things?

Tan Kiat How, CEO of the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore, wants his agency to do just that. He wants policymakers to “try, experiment and learn by doing”, rapidly assessing “what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace”.

IMDA has created a “sandbox” for personal data where companies can push the boundaries and build new, more personalised services.

Digital businesses

The programme launched last year, and loosens the rules within a limited framework. “In Singapore, we decided to just be quite sensible, be really upfront and give certainty to businesses,” Tan tells GovInsider.

Businesses can share citizens’ data and create a more detailed picture of service users, building products that “enhance benefits for the consumer”. Take car insurance, for example. Companies could develop much more targeted insurance programmes by using real-time data, which could be collected from sensors. “Is the driver always speeding? Is he on the road very often? Does he get into accidents?” Naturally, this means that “safer drivers get lower premiums”, explains Tan.

IMDA’s job, Tan says, is to figure out how this data exchange can happen safely, only with consent, and without breaching regulations or putting people at risk of identity theft.

He also has a vision to build the world’s first “global data exchange”, based in Singapore. This would allow for the sale of user data in a regulated marketplace. “For example, if I am interested in going to market in Indonesia, I would want to understand a certain segment of consumers and their consumption patterns,” he explains.

Taking the hassle out of digital business

IMDA has a remit to drive digitisation across the nation. Tan challenged his agency to create a “tattooable” mission statement that summarised their aims: “Drive Singapore’s digital transformation with ICM”.

As a country without natural resources, Singapore is reliant on its people – making tech talent a key priority. The agency’s Tech Skills Accelerator (TeSA) is currently helping 21,000 ICT professionals in Singapore to get trained, as part of a $120 million Manpower Development Plan that was announced in 2016.

IMDA has teamed up with SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore to provide training and career advisory programmes related to network and infrastructure, software development and engineering, data and analytics, cybersecurity and more. This includes “hot skills” in domains such as AI and big data.

It’s not just the tech professions, either: “It’s about every worker and professional in workplace,” Tan points out. “In a bank, you may be front office, or a client-facing wealth manager. You need to have digital skill sets, basic programming knowledge.”

Future economy

Singapore is “at an inflection point”, he believes, with the environment in South East Asia becoming more and more attractive to large investors. Tan hopes to see the next tech giant emerge from within the fast-growing Southeast Asian region. “Question is, can we groom these giants from Singapore? I think we have a fair chance,” he says.


“It’s inclusive, it’s collaborative, and we work together as a team.”

To enable this, the 41-year-old CEO has a vision for his constantly-evolving government agency. “It’s inclusive, it’s collaborative, and we work together as a team,” Tan says. IMDA’s unique role as both regulator and strategist “requires a much more nimble and porous system”, where information can flow laterally across the organisation.

Through innovation, experimentation and the continual development of talent, Singapore could become known as the home of Asia’s unicorns.