If businesses in Singapore never eventually ride the global wave of digital disruption that is upending all sectors now, it won’t be because the government here hadn’t tried hard enough.
The latest push from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to get Singapore’s businesses ready for the incoming tide is yet another example of earnestness, as well as concern at how slowly things can move here.
Smart nation or not, Singapore’s businesses are often not the fastest to take up many of the latest technologies. Digital services and transformation mean nothing unless they can demonstrably improve the bottomline, as many business leaders will tell you.
Among the IMDA’s latest plans, it wants to get small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the infocomm sector to get trained to develop apps that are cloud-native and become more agile in the way they create digital services. Apparently, many such tech firms still can’t do so.
The infocomm and media agency also wants to expand an “innovation space” called Pixel that encourages local companies to focus on user experience and design. These are increasingly important differentiators in a globalised market.
Not stopping at that, IMDA is setting up an outfit to bring the emerging technologies in research labs here to the market to solve problems that the industry needs to be solved.
These initiatives, announced today by Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, are so broad based that they will take some time to take root and deliver meaningful results.
The big idea is that they will eventually make Singapore’s developers ready to create digital services that are easy and intuitive to use.
Businesses, meanwhile, will have the means to deliver these services to increasingly demanding users. Perhaps an SME offering a laundry service can offer an app for customers to check when their clothes are ready for collection.
The question is whether the government can once again lead in the big change that it is calling for in the local industry. This time, the transformation is a lot more complex.
In the 1980s, the government led the way for computerisation by bringing computers into the civil service. When the Internet came in the 1990s, it developed online portals. As broadband came calling in the 2000s, it encouraged businesses to hop on the bandwagon with tax incentives.
This time, the change calls for something more than one-time hardware setup and cost savings. It needs a mindset change as well as the building up of new capabilities – much tougher asks.
If you see how big companies – from publishing giants to transport conglomerates – have taken a beating even with the best minds plotting against disruption, what can smaller outfits do, even with a push from the government?
Certainly, the government has shown by example again this time. GovTech, the agency that is transforming how the government interacts with citizens, has some encouraging victories under its belt.
An app now lets drivers pay for parking easily to avoid the scourge of the parking auntie. Plus, you can apply for a credit card or bank loan online by authorising the bank to access your income details. These are just two obvious examples.
But can these successes translate into similar improvements in a private sector that can be fragmented and often guarded against change?
The path ahead won’t be easy, that’s for sure. In the past couple of years, the IMDA has pressed ahead with more tactical industry “plans” that help local companies pick the right digital tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots for online service providers or smart sensor technology for retailers.
Now, the government seems to be seeking the big change that it has experienced itself. Sure, it’s a challenge worthy of one of the most well-regarded digital economies, but it is also a little worrying that the government once again has to take the lead.
It would be a refreshing change if local enterprises took a first step instead, to take on the opportunities that disruption brings. Nothing is permanent, after all. No, not even Singapore’s cherished “hub status” that many Singaporeans take for granted.
It’s always better to be prepared. As the bigger companies have learnt to their dismay, when the big wave washes over one’s head, it is too late to start learning how to swim.