Singapore’s connectivity is expanding on all fronts. One of the largest airport terminals in the world, a new “mega port” for ships and a high-speed train are all coming up in the next decade.

The customs agency must keep up with a huge increase in the volume of people, goods and transactions crossing its borders. But “increasing manpower, going out there to recruit more people, is not the answer,” says Sung Pik Wan, Assistant Director-General (Checkpoints) at Singapore Customs.

Sung oversees revenue collection at the island’s major border checkpoints, and must find a way to “do more with less”, she says. “The straight answer is we have to innovate”.

GovInsider met with Sung to discuss the future of AI at Singapore’s ports; how Customs will keep up with mobile payment technologies; and its efforts to encourage staff to think outside of the container.

AI at seaports

Automation is Sung’s first response to increasingly limited manpower. She is focused on how artificial intelligence can help scan the contents of containers at Singapore’s seaports. “We are looking at if we can develop certain primary detection software, whether we can analyse the scanned images,” she says.

Potentially, this would use machine learning to identify objects that may not be allowed through the borders, like weapons. Software would analyse X-ray images of the containers, and learn how to identify items from previous scans. Customs has a “huge, rich database of all the past scanned images” which can be used to train the software, Sung says. It would alert officers to come in and check any suspicious items manually.

This idea is in an “exploratory stage”, she says. There is no existing software in the market to do this, but it would be useful for all customs and border security agencies across the world, she says. “If such software is developed and is useful, a lot of other customs administrations will be interested.”

Self-service payments

Another way Customs is looking to automate is by encouraging passengers to self-service. Last year, it launched a payment app, allowing travellers to declare dutiable goods and make customs payments on their own. “We are prepared to trust that travellers can do that,” Sung says.

Users can currently make payments via major credit cards, but in the future, they may also be able to pay directly from their smartphones using services like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. “We are trying to expand to that,” Sung says. Both of these allow users to pay with their fingerprint, she notes, without having to key in credit card numbers.

While it looks to new payment technologies, the agency must also ensure that travellers are willing to self-service. Before Customs built the app, it installed digital kiosks at the airport for travellers to declare goods and pay on their own. These have proven popular among regular travellers, such as airline crew members, Sung says. Now, “we are trying to migrate them to the mobile app”.

New ideas from within

At Customs, innovation has become part and parcel of the officers’ work, led by Sung. She heads an innovation committee that encourages officers to share ideas. They want to “create a nurturing environment that allows failures, and that encourages bottom-up ideas to be surfaced and looked at,” she says.

A key suggestion has been to shorten the agency’s procurement processes for small purchases, which can take the form of magazine or software subscriptions. Government procurement is typically “quite a long process”, and Sung hopes to speed it up by setting aside a pool of money that officers can propose uses for.

“They have to convince us why they need this and what they intend to do with it, and we will let them try it,” Sung says. Customs will begin to “streamline” the process this financial year, she adds.

The agency also organises internal crowdsourcing events to encourage other innovations. “Hackathons are useful if you can identify what kind of problems you want to solve”, Sung says. Customs is perceived as a regulatory organisation, but Sung is trying to change this perception.

Most Singaporeans, of course, won’t be concerned by the ins and outs of Customs innovation. But if it keeps them safe, and helps them get quickly on to their destination, they’ll be better off thanks to Sung’s initiatives.

This is a series of profiles on Singapore’s public service officers in conjunction with the Public Service Division’s ‘Public Service Week 2017 – Towards a Bold and Innovative Public Service’, held on 15-21 May.