Singapore trade minister urges global 'integration' to drive tech innovation

The global economy risks being balkanised if certain countries continue to pull away from multilateral cooperation and the likes of IBM and Google will find it tough to flourish. The openness of the international environment will determine the continued success of these technology giants and all organisations should urge their respective governments to support the exchange of global ideas, according to Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. 

Chan noted that IBM, for instance, would be able to ensure its continued success only if there was an “integrated world”, particularly in the digital space. Speaking at the IBM Think Singapore conference Wednesday, the minister warned that many parts of the world today did not subscribe to this and risked creating a global environment that was fragmented and balkanised.

“And we will all be poorer for it,” he said. “Companies such as Google, IBM, and PayPal [or] any company that relies on digital services and on having data flow across borders to produce products and services, won’t survive very well.”

He added that the world would be a better place if everyone chose to integrate and optimise their production systems and supply chains, and allowed the sharing of ideas across borders.

During a media briefing at the conference, ZDNet asked if Chan’s observation about the risk of fragmentation and whether IBM found the current environment inhibitive given the company’s US heritage

IBM Asia-Pacific CEO and Chairman Harriet Green noted that in the company had witnessed many levels of globalisation in its 108-year history and remained “completely committed” to open and fair trade. 

Green said it was everyone’s role to ensure nations understand the difference between “securing your data and being open about your data” as well as the downsides of protectionism. IBM, too, had diverse workforce and would continue to source for the best talent and skills from around the world and to continue to “keep free trade and global trade alive and kicking”, she said. 

Apart from the need to integrate, Chan also underscored the importance of innovation, which had put IBM in good stead and enabled the tech vendor to hold the highest number of patents globally. Big Blue also had expanded its focus to services and software, including artificial intelligence (AI), beyond mainframes and servers, he noted. 

Singapore itself believed in the need to continue to integrate with the rest of the world and to innovate, fully aware that the past was not a promise for the future, the minister said. “Products and ideas that worked well in the past is not a guarantee for [future] success,” he added. “The moment we lose [sight] of integration and innovation, we’re all done for.”

He also stressed the importance of doing business with others based on transparency and a rules-based system, regardless of the products and services organisations and governments were innovating. 

Green also lauded Singapore’s open economy and transparent regulatory environment as well as smart nation initiatives–all of which were underpinned by collaboration across its ecosystem. 

Elaborating on the company’s focus on Singapore, she said the city-state now stood as a standalone market in IBM’s Asia-Pacific operations, where it previously was part of the Asean pack of six markets including Indonesia and Thailand. She noted that the difference in industries, technologies, and capabilities in Singapore–compared to the other Asean markets–required IBM to “intensify” its dedication and level of investment and approach in the country.

This would not lessen its investment in the other markets, she said, where IBM continued to scale its business.

She added that any organisation should focus on three fundamentals in building its competitive advantage, including enhancing customer experience through the implementation of intelligent workflows using AI, for instance. Infrastructures also needed to be modernised, with mission-critical apps moving to a hybrid cloud environment. In addition, everything should be carried out with a focus on ensuring trust as well as reskilling.

Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB), for one, currently is transforming its architecture and reviewing more than 500 business processes, according to its CEO Cheong Koon Hean. Speaking at the IBM conference, Cheong said its strategy focused on digital services delivery, empowering its workplace, facilitating collaboration, and building smart urban habitats. 

Parked under the Ministry of National Development, HDB has built more than 1 million public housing apartments in the country, where 94% of people own their homes and just 6% rent.

Cheong said that the government agency had developed 200 e-services and processed some 50 million transactions a year. Its website clocks 25 million visits a month. 

She said it currently tapped predictive data analytics across several functionalities including points-of-sales, parking, and customer analytics. For instance, data analytics were used to assessed loans, demographics, and income so it could predict when a household was likely to go into arrears. This would enable the government to step in and help vulnerable households if necessary, she noted. 

The housing developer also used environmental modelling and simulations, such as windflow analysis and noise modelling, to design flats and environments that were more conducive for residents.

HDB also managed 1,800 car parks, comprising 800,000 lots. The charges for several of these could be electronically paid via a mobile app, called Parking.SG, which Cheong revealed soon would evolve to a “smart parking” platform where drivers would be “automatically” charged once they parked their vehicle. 

While she did not elaborate on the technology underpinning this, it likely was tied to Singapore’s plans to roll out a satellite-based road pricing system next year. The Land Transport Authority had touted this as a better alternative to the current system, which encompassed physical gantries that were expensive and occupied land space. 

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