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Keynote Address by Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister Of State for Law and Finance, at the SURAWU Symposium

28 Nov 2017


Mr Patrick Tay, Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC,

Mr Han Yong Hoe, Deputy CEO of URA,

Mr Manogaaran S/O Karuppiah, President of SURAWU,

Mr Mohd Yazid Bin Idris, General Secretary of SURAWU,

Mr Vincent Low, Chairman of Energy Efficiency Committee


Brothers and Sisters,


  1. I am very pleased to join you today at the very first URA Workers’ Union Symposium. The topic is Embracing Technology Disruption, and I want to congratulate your union on organising this, because it is a very relevant topic. People are worried about tech disruption, and it’s very natural in this day to be concerned about it. I myself have issues with it. At the NTUC supermarket, the self-checkout counter – it is very stressful. Not because the system is difficult to use – it is stressful because I’m worried that if I don’t use it properly and get stuck, everybody in the queue will be watching, waiting in line as I’m holding up the queue. So as a general rule, when I can, I go to where there’s a human. It’s so much easier and you don’t have to worry about making a mistake!


  1. The truth of the matter is that more technology is going to creep into our lives, our jobs and we will have to be able to cope with that. The first thing I want to tell everybody is that it’s not just you that’s concerned about technology and disruption. It’s going to affect all of us, from union workers to Ministers – all of us will have to adjust. So how do we face this?


Digital Revolution: Changing the Way We Live, Work and Play


  1. Earlier this month, you may have participated in the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, or Singles Day online sale, popularised by Alibaba through its Taobao and T-Mall platforms. Just to give you a sense of the scale, in 24 hours, you can see how e-commerce has become a formidable force in our world today. These are some of the facts –


  1. Sales hit a billion US dollars in just two minutes after the shopping spree opened at midnight on 11 November;


  1. At the end of 24 hours, sales ended at a record US$25.3 billion. That’s equivalent to about half of Singapore’s total government expenditure last year;


  1. Almost all of the shopping was done on phones and tablets; and


  1. Alipay, Alibaba’s mobile wallet app, processed more than a billion transactions.


  1. So this is how shopping will be done. Looking forward into the future, there’s going to be more and more technology-enabled platforms. Since its launch 8 years ago, the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival has grown exponentially to become the “biggest shopping day on earth”. But it is not just about online shopping eclipsing the brick-and-mortar shopping. The event also saw how the Digital Revolution has fundamentally transformed the retail industry, which Alibaba now calls the “New Retail”. All across China, Alibaba has enabled shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores to visualise how they will look in a piece of clothing using Augmented Reality. Basically, before you buy, you don’t have to struggle into a piece of clothing too tight or too loose – you stand in front of a computer and see how you look like. You might not even be in a store, because it can be done elsewhere.


  1. The other day, when I went for a Bloomberg interview, I sat in a room and there was no cameraman. The interviewer said the cameraman is operating out of London. I’m sitting there, looking at the screen – she’s got this earpiece and she’s talking to the London studio operating the camera. So that’s how technology is starting to move into jobs and changing things.


  1. For shopping, shoppers can also make fast and easy payment using QR code or increasingly, facial recognition technology. So you can see, the Digital Revolution is sweeping across all kinds of industries, not just retail. We’re going to see technology transforming the way we live, work and play.


  1. One obvious one is transportation. You can see already the ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Grab – these have really upended and disrupted the transport industry.


  1. In education, you have the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Their mission is to put out things for free online so people can have continuous education. It basically allows anyone with an internet connection to have access to courses from top universities like Harvard and MIT.


  1. Traditional media like television, radio and newspapers no longer have monopoly over media content, because anyone could be seen or heard through social media such as a YouTube channel, Instagram account or Facebook page.


  1. Even in manufacturing, 3D printing has enabled anyone with a 3D printer to manufacture products in their home. Going forward, you will also be able to manufacture body parts. Tooth enamel – you can use 3D printing for that. You may be able to use your own cells and grow a new heart! We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there. The mood is going in that direction. Gene editing – lots of moral and ethical issues. If you can spot the deficiencies or problems in your chromosomes or DNA early enough, you can make changes to head off some of the potential diseases. All of this is the future, and all of this is starting now. All the little things are going to come together to change the way we live, change healthcare, change careers. All of that is starting to come together slowly, and we are at the cusp of it. So this is what we’re trying to prepare our workers for.


  1. The Internet of Things is a widespread phenomenon. What does it mean? It’s just a very complicated phase for saying everything is connected by the internet. You can put sensors and microchips in almost everything. This means that we can have a constant stream of data from anything, without needing human intervention. From living things to non-living things, we can measure and analyse a tremendous amount of data that is generated. This gives rise to Big Data, that we can tap on to enhance our decision-making.  


What the Digital Revolution Means to Urban Planning


  1. There are many opportunities that these trends can bring to urban planning.


  1. First, technology is able to help us improve liveability of our urban areas. For example, sensors placed on our roads and transport network can help us to better manage traffic flow through toll gantries and save time by allowing commuters to better plan their trips.


  1. Secondly, technology can also help us overcome some challenges in resource constraints, such as land scarcity in Singapore. Our LTA colleagues are leveraging technological developments in autonomous vehicles to see how we can relieve pressure off limited road capacity. Imagine utility vehicles, such as waste management trucks or road sweepers, as well as logistics trailer fleets operating during late-night hours, so the roads can be less congested during the day. People can sleep as well – they don’t have to be driving the waste management truck. You can do that all autonomously. While people are asleep, you’ll have a whole army of vehicles doing cleaning up at night.


  1. Above all, technology can help us make urban planning more responsive to citizens’ needs. Planning can be more data-driven and evidence-based. URA and other agencies have already been collecting vast amounts of data – from roads and infrastructure to demographics to social media and ground sentiments – all of this, to get good insights on human behaviour and how people use infrastructure and facilities. In Santa Monica, California, their planners have gone further. They ask their residents to indicate their preferences for aspects of their environment, from street furniture to parking to bicycle lanes. That’s done through CitySwipe, which is modelled after the Tinder dating app.   


Becoming a Smart Nation


  1. Cities all around the world, whether big or small, are not spared from the Digital Revolution. Each is on its own journey to adapt and leverage technology to improve people’s way of life. For Singapore, being able to embrace technology and innovation is non-negotiable, so that our industries can continue to stay relevant and prosper, and Singaporean’s lives can be made easier and better.


  1. As emphasised at PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech this year, Singapore needs to make it a priority to become a Smart Nation. And to do so, we must take full advantage of IT. We need to take an active role in adapting to the new economy. We are doing this in a few key ways:


  1. At the national level, key infrastructure will be built to support Smart Nation. These include a national digital identity for all citizens and businesses to transact digitally and securely, a sensor network across the island, and e-payment platform to make swift, seamless and secure payments.


  1. Further, the Government is investing significantly in research and development in areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber security and data science. These capabilities can then be tapped on to devise innovative ways to deliver new services.


  1. We will support businesses in generating growth and creating opportunities in the digital age. More than 20 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) have been charted together with stakeholders, each encompassing specific plans to promote productivity and innovation with a special focus on digitalisation.  These ITMs also identify the skills gaps measures to future-proof the workforce.


  1. Individuals can also use the Skills Framework, which is an integral component of the ITMs, to make informed decisions on education and training, career development and skills upgrading based on the sector, employment, occupation / job role, skills and training information in the framework. To help individuals transit to new jobs and industries, wage and training support are available. In the first half of 2017, well over 10,000 workers were placed by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute through the Adapt and Grow initiative.


Embracing Technology in the Public Sector


  1. The Public Service also needs to transform itself to adapt for the future. We have a lot on our plates – this is a time of not only digital disruption, but also fiscal tightness, manpower constraints and increasing expectations from Singaporeans. The challenge lies in doing more with less, but at the same time ensuring high quality of public service and meaningful jobs for our officers.


  1. The Public Service’s transformation is starting from the top. Public Sector Leaders have set the tone that everyone, from the most senior to the most junior, all need to embrace innovation and be bold in trying new ways of doing things. They are expected to set the right culture that supports innovation in their staff, to empower them and help them remove obstacles.


  1. But innovation is ultimately born from the ground up. It is up to each of our 145,000 public officers to take small steps to improve the way you do your work every day. This is also where technology can come in to help you do more, do faster, and do better.


  1. For example, technology can help to free up some of your time and relieve you of repetitive administrative work. Some agencies are looking towards using robotics and machine learning to automate administrative tasks. For example, the Ask Jamie chatbot helps to handle basic queries on government rules, leaving officers to handle the more complex queries and cases. Officers will then have more time to focus on planning, analysis, problem solving – or in other words, more strategic work. Whatever is routine, whatever can be commoditised, we will do that through technology and robotics.  


  1. You can also make use of the many digital tools at your disposal, or create new ones to support your work. Apps and dashboards can bring together information, present them in an intuitive way and help in decision-making. Where you previously needed to manually search and collate data across many sources across different agencies, now they can all be retrieved in a few clicks and be made available at your fingertips. It is not only more efficient, but also provides a more holistic, integrated and coherent view of the information.


  1. You can also tap on tech expertise outside of the public sector. An example is how IRAS has engaged the industry and citizens to come up with outside-the-box solutions through hackathons. One such solution is Tinkertax, which helps SMEs simplify the submission of their corporate income tax returns. This approach unlocks endless possibilities that IRAS would otherwise be unable to attain on its own. And that’s the best way because you are hearing directly from the user. Once you understand their concerns, you shape, configure the system to work around the customer’s preferences.


  1. As the Public Service pursues more technology adoption to augment our officers’ work, it is important to ensure that both the hardware and heartware go hand-in-hand.


  1. One issue to address upfront is that technology adoption does not mean cutting headcounts and eliminating jobs. There has been much talk about automation resulting in mass job losses. Such concerns may be overstated. A recent OECD study suggests that just about 9% of jobs stood a high chance of being substantially automated, far lower than previous estimates.  For the vast majority of jobs, human beings will still be needed as not all tasks are easily automated. What is certain, however, is that the use of technology will intensify and we should leverage this to up our game and move up the value chain. This may mean some job redesign, and individuals must be open to working differently. Each must see that their careers are not built on static jobs, but on constant learning, adapting and improving.


  1. Besides, adopting technology is often the easy part. It’s easy in that it’s a matter of finding the right technology or writing the correct code. What is challenging is the softer aspect of embracing the technology – such as questioning assumptions, reframing issues and coming up with new perspectives. I’ll give you one example. It is technically not complicated to install security cameras and have a few security personnel remotely monitor a cluster of premises for security breaches, without the need for the constant physical presence of security guards. But it is a huge challenge to convince stakeholders, especially residents, that this is a viable approach. They want to see the security guards there. It’s the same with policing – you want to see the policemen on the ground. Then you feel safe because you see a physical presence on the ground. It’s not enough to have a hidden camera which you can’t see, and somebody monitoring it, because you also can’t see that person. Many do feel that roving security guards are necessary, because that has always been the way things are. So it is not just about the technology, but more importantly, mind-set change.


Investing in Everyone to be Future-Ready


  1. The Union has a role to play in helping our workers be future-ready. At this year’s Public Service Union Management Gathering, Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing challenged our union leaders to work in partnership with the management to better prepare our workers for the future. We will embrace technology and work together to enhance the skills of our workers to a higher level, so that we can improve the quality of life for our workers.


  1. The Government and unions have made available many training opportunities and resources for you to tap on to develop yourself. NTUC just shared with you about the U Futures Leaders Exchange. SkillsFuture is also available to help you gain and deepen skills that are needed for your current jobs, as well as jobs of the future. Let me just share some of the SkillsFuture programmes:


  1. Launched just last month, the SkillsFuture Series is a series of short modular courses that aims to equip working adults like yourselves with specific skills sets to meet changing job demands in eight priority and emerging areas – in fact, one of the focus areas is in Urban Solutions. The courses draw reference from the ITMs and feedback from industry partners, which makes them highly industry-relevant.


  1. There is also the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace programme. Through two-day customised courses, developed with technology companies such as IBM, Lazada, Microsoft and Samsung, the programme will equip you with basic digital skills. You will also be able to develop basic understanding of emerging technologies and their impact on the workplace, learn how to interpret and use data, as well as cultivate a mind-set for change, innovation and resilience.


  1. IMDA is also leading the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative, that will help to support both ICT and non-ICT professionals to upgrade and acquire new skills and domain knowledge that are in-demand, so as to stay competitive to meet the challenges of a fast-moving digital landscape.


  1. Details of these and other programmes can be accessed via the MySkillsFuture Portal, which was launched to allow you to make informed learning and career choices for skills and career development throughout life. The portal has tools and resources to help you discover industry insights, as well as explore training programmes based on your learning needs.


  1. On top of these, there are also URA’s in-house programmes to help you upskill yourselves. Initiatives like communities of practice, briefings, workshops and URA’s signature Analytics Immersion Programme are all intended to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed for your roles.


  1. I encourage everyone to be proactive in seeking out training opportunities, take ownership of your continual learning and development and future-proof yourself to keep yourselves ahead. At the end of the day, what does it all boil down to? We can’t hope to know all the technology that’s out there. We also don’t know what lies ahead in the future. But one thing that will keep us going is a mindset that is willing to learn. Because that way, whatever comes your way – even if it’s something that you’re not used to, even if it’s something that is uncomfortable – so long as you have a mindset to try to figure this out, once you start to learn, you’ll be able to navigate all these changes that are coming your way.


  1. And this is where the tripartite approach comes in. The Government will support with funding for development of courses, and we will work with the unions to better understand your needs, and basically help equip you for the future. And this is an approach which I don’t think any other country in the world has. This is the approach where employers, workers, government are all working together to challenge this very new and exciting future that is going to come upon us.


  1. It’s exciting but it’s also scary at the same time. Scary because you don’t know how exactly it’s unfolding. Some teenagers know this technology better than you – you look at them on their smartphones doing stuff, and there you are struggling to press certain things and the whole thing disappears from your screen, and you have to try again. But this is part and parcel of it.


  1. So my constant message is, don’t be afraid of technology, approach it with an open mindset. Technology is for humans to use. It is meant to serve humans, not meant to take over. And it’s the same thing with jobs. Technology will not take over jobs, but it will change the way that jobs will be done. And that is the reason why you need to come to terms with it.


  1. Second Minister Josephine Teo and myself – we went to visit UOB, because the finance sector is also being heavily disrupted. So we were trying to understand how UOB is preparing its own workers for change. The training session had nothing to do with the content of banking. They were playing with tech tools to draw, create music. We asked the service provider why they took this approach. They said they start with this because people need to learn that technology is fun. It’s a mindset thing. One of these things was musical wires hooked to fruits – oranges and grapefruits. If you tap on the correct grapefruit or orange, you can play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’! Each fruit is connected to a different note – just follow the sequence. Why did the technology come about, and who developed it? It was actually the father of a boy with cerebral palsy. He wanted his son to have fun, to be able to do things that other people could do. And his son liked music, but because of cerebral palsy, did not have the same dexterity to play an instrument. So he hooked it up to fruits and made it fun. That’s what technology can do! It can transform the life of a little boy who has cerebral palsy.


  1. Another thing they had at the UOB training centre is a software program called Alexa, hooked up to the utilities. So you can say ‘Alexa, turn on the lights’ and the lights come on. Jospehine said, “Alexa, play music” and it came back with a Spotify playlist. All this seems like fun, but think of how it will help the elderly. At night, it’s hard for them to get out of bed to go to the bathroom – they have to search for the switch and sometimes may fall down. And you want to avoid the elderly having falls because it’s very dangerous. With technology like that at home, all your mum or grandparents have to do, is talk to the machine and say “Lights on!”




  1. For those of you who have been with URA for a long time, you would have witnessed how URA has come a very long way since the days of poring over stacks of hardcopy documents. URA itself has gone through significant transformation to embrace technology, particularly in the past three years. You are now digitally savvy, with an arsenal of tools to enable a more data-driven approach to urban planning. This makes you more able to focus on planning and thinking, putting yourselves in citizens’ shoes.


  1. This transformation would not be possible without your collective will, from senior management to junior staff, who are committed to this change. I am certain that with URA’s strong organisational culture of innovation and excellence, you are all good stead to seize the opportunities that the digital future brings, and to bring your capabilities to the next level, and use it to make Singapore a more liveable place and a better home for all.


  1. Thank you.