The Paternalistic State – Strikes Again in SNDGG

New ministerial-level group to raise game in planning, executing digital tech policies

is reported in the news (source: http://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/new-ministerial-level-group-to-raise-game-in-planning-executing-digital-tech). ” Abstracts is as follows:

THE Singapore government, aiming to become more effective in drawing up and implementing policies for the deployment of digital technology, will set up a ministerial-level unit to see to this.

Several units already involved in the design and implementation of digital technology policies across the public sector will, from May 1, come under one roof.

The private sector views this move positively. Among the priorities of the new agency, called Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), are the development of a digital identity system, a nation-wide electronic payments system, an island-wide wireless sensor network and urban-mobility solutions.”

My first response is “again” the government is taking the lead in activities which the local private sector should do in the first place. The government has been encouraging the local companies to go digital and to go high-technology to improve productivity, but this repeated call for the past few years is not heeded fast enough according to the Government’s sentiments. So the government sets the “example” to show how the government can do it first. Take,for example, the national broadband exercise has been very much evaluated to be a “catastrophic” failure, carried out by Open Net now known as Netlink Trust (OpenNet was jointly owned by a few government-linked and listed companies). The exercise to get a nation-wide electronic payments system has also failed. A prolific number of electronic payment arises – from Nets under different banks, CashCard, TransitLink Stored and Value Card. The digitization of the economy has been very slow, when compared to China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, and PM Lee Hsien Loong expressed this sentiment in February 2017 when he said that Singapore could have done better in this arena. He said “I need a good electronic payment system. I have got banks which offer Automated Teller Machines. In the old days, they considered that a great step forward. They have presence on the Internet. It works, not badly, some even win prizes. But actually from the point of view of users, and if you compare with other countries, there is a lot more we have to learn. We have not gone as far as we need in order to do cashless payments in hawker centres, in shops, between people. I was complaining to my Permanent Secretaries the other day. The Ministers have lunch once a week together, we pay for our own lunch and there is one Minister in charge of making a collection. We made a great step forward when he said: “I do not want to receive cash anymore, please write me cheques”. The Permanent Secretaries told me they are one step ahead, they use Pay-lah, which is a DBS application. But it shows how non-pervasive it is and what the potential is if we can get it through.” (source: http://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/dialogue-pm-lee-hsien-loong-camp-sequoia)

The next question is “why?”

Singapore companies and Singaporeans are well taken care of by the government. To such a extent, that individual relies on government for subsidised housing, transportation, education and life-long medical care. The companies rely on government for grant and hand-outs. This paternalistic nation is widely known as the “nanny state” to the external world. Singapore is also well-known for its efficient and clean public service sector.  If you are not a local, it is hard to understand the extent of interference that the government has on each Singaporean. This “baby-sitting” deters the innovation and creativity development for individual and company as well as development of self-reliance and critical thinking abilities, crucial for achieving success in the new economy. Hence, we are at this state of catching up, to a large extent.

If the government continues to lead in this digitization endeavor for the nation, it can bring about short-term successes but on the long run, the “babies” do not know how to do those innovations themselves. Will it be sustainable for the government to carry out many initiatives and “set many examples” in the long run? And the most important question is would it be better to Singapore’s economy in the long run with disruptive technology and relentless global competition? Would the  top-down approach led by high-level ministers to carry out digitization initiatives be cost effective? Or would it be better left to the individuals? As creativity-based activities very much evidenced from global successful cases, were best carried out using the least cost through bottom-up approach, for example, Airbnb, Uber, Grab, Snapchat, Wechat, Amazon and Alibaba. A bureaucratic approach might do more harm to stifle innovations. Government is best left to carry out its role of infrastructural building to support the creative individuals and companies to perform innovative activities at the lowest possible cost and encourage risk taking through education and subsidy.

 

 

 

 

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