STACK Developer Conference 2018

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Good morning to everybody, very delighted to be here to join you for this inaugural GovTech Stack Developer Conference. We have here more than 1,000 developers, designers, and product leaders from all over the world – both public and private sectors – present with us. It is the first time that we are having such a large gathering of the tech community in Singapore.

 

Many of you would already be familiar with the Singapore Government, or have worked with us in some capacity, because this government was an early starter in adopting information technology (IT). We were one of the first governments in the world to computerise, to digitise our data, and to move our services online. We did this to improve public services, and to serve the needs of Singaporeans and businesses. Overall, we have not done too badly in this effort. Whether you are applying for a passport, or paying your taxes, or managing your HDB housing mortgage or CPF retirement savings – our services are efficient, convenient and popular with citizens. We were also one of the first cities in the world to implement electronic road pricing. This is an effective and transformational use of technology, although alas not so popular with drivers.

 

Our ambition now is to become a Smart Nation – using technology to better meet our people’s needs for the future, and to improve their lives. Many countries and cities have similar ambitions to be smart nations or smart cities – Estonia, for example. New York, Sao Paolo, Shanghai – first world or third, everybody has captured the buzz word but each city has different needs, and we each have to develop it in our own way. The vision is vast, but we are working on several specific strategic projects to focus our efforts, like a national sensor platform, a national digital identity, and urban mobility.

 

Re-engineering Government

One of these projects is to re-engineer our government. We have a lot of work to do on this front, and let me explain why. Firstly, because we were early adopters of technology, so we now have many legacy IT systems built up over the years, in different government agencies. These enterprise IT systems have to be maintained and upgraded. As technologies advance and policies change, systems must be modified, built upon, brought up to date, fixed. This is an endless task; you could even say it is a Sisyphean task. You think you have completed rolling the stone up the hill, it comes down again and you need to start again. Over time, modifications and fixes accumulate, and the whole structure becomes harder and harder to maintain. At some point, incremental changes are no longer adequate, and we have to consider radically overhauling the existing systems, or replacing them altogether. It is a long process. For example, in some corners of the government, we still have code that is written in COBOL, and PCs using Windows 98 because the old applications were written for that platform!

 

Secondly, we must apply new technologies and develop solutions to new problems. These need not be grand enterprise system projects. They can be small applications or programmes that improve Government services and the citizen experience. For example, last year we launched an app for car parking, called parking.sg. With this app, at last motorists can dispense with the paper parking coupons, which we have used for 40 years. They can now pay for exactly as long as they park. If you park for 18 minutes, you pay for 18 minutes. And if you find that you need to park for longer, you can extend your session remotely, and do not have to rush back to your car to tear and add another coupon before the parking lady comes.

 

With technology, we can go beyond tweaking existing ways of doing things, to reduce bureaucracy and simplify our processes significantly. For example, HDB launched a resale portal for buying and selling HDB flats, which drastically simplified the paperwork and verification procedures. Transaction time has been halved, from 16 weeks to 8 weeks. Buyers and sellers now only need to visit HDB once instead of twice to complete a transaction. Most of the time, you can dispense with a separate formal valuation of the property because there are enough indicators and comparators, and the system knows whether your price is credible or not.

 

Often the technology for these applications is not complex, but the re-engineering and redesign of processes requires a lot more work and a deep understanding of the end user’s perspective and psychology, as well as organisational dynamics and change. How do I get the change accepted, implemented and then replacing the old ones? We need to know, also from the user’s point of view, what problems are we solving, what he wants to do, what his pain points are, how he prefers to perform his transaction, and what sort of difficulties he is likely to run into. Addressing these specific needs is how we use IT to deliver value to citizens. For example, we have developed a set of apps and web services called ‘Moments of Life’. These deliver a bundle of digital services to the citizen when he needs them most, during key events in their lives, like registering the birth of a child, or searching for preschools; or managing the passing of a family member. Events that are not daily occurrences but significant milestones and transitions, sometimes exciting, sometimes sorrowful, often stressful and part of the stress is dealing with the bureaucracy. ‘Moments of Life’ will help smoothen that process. The aim is not only to save citizens a lot of time, running around from one department to another and dealing with multiple government agencies, but to reduce worry and stress.

 

Thirdly, we have to revamp our existing IT infrastructure in order to fully exploit the potential of new technology. In particular, we have to learn how to take maximum advantage of cloud technology. Putting systems and services on the cloud brings many benefits. Developers have access to more toolkits and better software services, and can upgrade and improve your systems more easily. Operating and maintenance costs can be much lower – sometimes by orders of magnitude. We can scale up or down services easily and quickly by sharing computing resources. We can run systems 24/7, without having to provide for expensive dedicated backups and hot standbys. Today, nearly all government IT systems are located on premise. We are this way because when we built these systems, cloud technology did not exist but for many government systems, cloud technology is now a viable and often will be, an attractive option. Many private sector firms are moving their systems onto the cloud, and some have become totally reliant on it.

 

For a government, security and data protection will be major considerations in using the cloud but even companies with stringent security and privacy requirements, like banks, are using the cloud extensively. So the question for the government is not whether we do it, but to what extent we can use the cloud, and how we can overcome the problems and minimise the risks. We have to decide which government systems can use commercial cloud services, and which cannot. For systems that cannot go onto the commercial cloud, we have to design and build our own government cloud, so that at least these systems can share the government cloud infrastructure, and benefit from its efficiencies and economies of scale. And finally, for those systems that are so sensitive or critical that they must be isolated – have air gaps, guarded rooms and Faraday cages – we have to figure out how to develop and operate them, in a future when everything else is on the cloud.

 

We have done a preliminary study, and concluded that many government systems can in principle exist in the commercial cloud. Over the next few years we will begin to migrate some systems onto the cloud, gain experience in this new mode of operation, and take bolder steps in light of what we learn.

 

That brings me to the issue of cybersecurity – a vital prerequisite for us to benefit from new technology in a more connected world. Recently, the SingHealth IT system was hacked. 1.5 million outpatient medication and personal records were stolen, including mine. It was a harsh reminder that cyberspace is not a benign environment, and we have to do much better in keeping our IT systems and data safe and secure. The attacker was sophisticated, well-resourced, and determined, probably a state actor. But this case has also revealed internal weaknesses and lapses in our IT systems and organisations. We have to improve these and put them right. We have to train up our people, institute robust processes, inculcate the right mindsets, and enforce accountability. In fact, we started doing this several years ago, especially after the Anonymous group launched a DDOS attack on the Singapore Government in 2013. Notably, we set up the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) to lead our efforts across the entire public and private sectors to tighten up and bring our cybersecurity up to scratch.

 

This latest SingHealth incident only drives us to redouble our efforts. We must be alert to detect intrusions, respond decisively, and recover quickly. Cybersecurity is a long and unending journey. Our cyber defences will never be absolutely impregnable against those who wish us harm. We must continually strike the right balance between security and usability but there are many things we can do to tighten processes and fix weaknesses without affecting the user experience. That is the responsibility of agencies, service providers, CSA, professionals, and the responsibility of the government to oversee them and make sure it is done.

 

Finally, we will fundamentally transform how we develop government software and applications. A generation ago, it needed a brilliant programmer working for Atari, to build the arcade video game Pong – Allan Alcorn he had to build everything, starting from scratch. Today, one engineer can create a hugely sophisticated game, with fabulous CGI, in just a few days of effort. Not because today’s engineers are cleverer than the guy who built Pong, but because he has much better tools, and is able to exploit all the work done by generations of engineers and developers over the last decades – graphics packages, physics packages, AI packages, game engines, millions of line of code hiding behind APIs. He can build on all that has been already done before, and does not have to reinvent the wheel again. He does not need to understand the insides of all the software packages that his code relies on, but he can build something new using them, and later on perhaps others will use what he has done and take it to yet another level.

 

This is what we have to do for government as well. Take for example our government websites, we have hundreds of them – needless to say their quality varies. Instead of every agency building their own bespoke website, at great expense, and often repeating the same coding errors and bugs, we can do it more efficiently, and get better results, by reusing technologies. Or instead of every regulatory agency having its own online licensing processes or web forms, we can set up one central system that agencies can adapt for their use. Forms can be pre-filled with information, and users then do not need to repeatedly give Government data that we already have.

 

This is why we are building the Singapore Government Technology Stack (SGTS) – the theme for today’s conference. The SGTS is a suite of common software components used in application development. It comprises three standardised layers between the data and the application. First, common hosting platforms, like Amazon Web Services, so that all the agencies use the same set of tools and the same programming language. Second, shared middleware, such as centralised API gateways, and an automated solution for testing of web and mobile applications.

 

Third, a library of commonly used micro-services, such as payment and authentication, so application developers can just plug and play. The SGTS will help us to deliver better public services to citizens through reusable software, much faster and at a fraction of the cost. It will complement our greater use of the commercial cloud, and support our efforts to share data more easily through published APIs. Together, SGTS, cloud and data will enable us to re-engineer the Government’s digital infrastructure. This will form the dev-ops and digital environment for in-house engineers and users, and will also enable greater collaboration and exchange with the private sector.

 

Developing our People and Capabilities

To drive our digital transformation, the government has to develop strong engineering capabilities and nurture a deep engineering culture. This entails building organisations that invest in and build up our people, to provide them with the right skills, experience and perspectives, and to empower them to make a difference.

 

We recently created several new organisations to drive these efforts – the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), along with GovTech, both under the Prime Minister’s Office; the CSA; and the Infocomm Media Development Agency (IMDA). We also set up the Hive as a centre of excellence within GovTech.

 

We must develop IT capability not just in centralised agencies like these, but also in all our Ministries and agencies too. IT can no longer be an afterthought or add-on that is grafted onto the organisation. It must be intrinsically part of what the organisations do, even if their main mission is something different but has to use IT to succeed. Agencies must understand what technology can do for them in their mission areas, and how to apply technical and engineering solutions to enhance their capabilities. They have to be informed consumers, able to write their own operational requirements, and make intelligent procurement and development decisions. They cannot be totally dependent on, and hence at the mercy of, outside consultants. This is so, whether you are the Ministry of Home Affairs in charge of Police and Civil Defence and public security, or whether you are the Land Transport Authority in charge of the public transport system and the road network, or whether you are the Ministry of Health responsible for delivering healthcare and managing patient records and data, or whether you are HDB administering one million households in Singapore, each one having his HDB flat as one of his most important assets. Without IT, they will all fall down on their job.

 

Developing an organisational IT capability in the centre in all these agencies requires expertise and talent at all levels. Teams with deep technical skills – like cloud solution architects, cybersecurity specialists and UX designers. You need mid- to senior level engineering leaders, whom younger engineers can look up to and learn from; and seasoned, senior engineering leaders who have spearheaded major IT projects, who can make strategic engineering decisions and judgements, and will supervise and mentor the next generation of talent. We also need the top leadership in the public service – our Permanent Secretaries and CEOs of statutory boards – to be tech savvy or at least tech informed, because they have to make the final decisions on IT projects. They need a feel – what is this about, does it sound right, is this the right order of magnitude, am I solving the right problem, am I paying ten times too much for the job? If they cannot feel that but must depend on somebody else to tell them that, then I think we are in a much weaker position.

 

With senior engineering leaders and support from the top leadership, we can grow a strong engineering culture over time, and integrate this constellation of talent into a real, significant and formidable IT capability. This is the sort of organisation and working environment that ambitious, talented, and enterprising engineers and IT professionals look for. Remuneration is important; we have recently revamped our salary schemes to pay our officers competitively, and for exceptional talent, we can even pay for person. There are some further adjustments which we are making, but we have made substantial changes already.

 

But far more important than competitive salary are the intangible factors – being given challenging responsibilities and big problems to solve; being provided support and resources; and being empowered to make decisions. Talented people want to be deployed to the best teams, to work under able leadership, to see their efforts lead to results. They want to change the world, and why not? To recruit the best, we must offer the organisation, the culture, and the leadership, where talent can find growth opportunities, deepen their expertise, and make progress in their careers. If we are successful, we will be able to attract and recruit engineers of the calibre that companies like Google, Netflix, Dropbox, Slack, and Gojek hire, whether fresh out of the university or already mid-career. We want talented IT professionals to consider the government as an employer, just as seriously as any of one of these companies.

 

We have made some progress on this. At the Hive, we now have a team of close to 300 talented engineers but we need many more, not just for GovTech, but also CSA, IMDA and many other places in the government. Some of these people will work for a few years with us, and flow out to the private sector or even to Silicon Valley, because that is the quality we are aiming for. We can accept this provided we have a similar flow of talent into the government as well because then we can maintain an equilibrium and show that we are competitive and that people come to us because they are able to do great things with us.

 

Of course, the government’s efforts to strengthen our tech capability do not happen in isolation. They support our larger plans to build up our tech scene in Singapore, as one pillar of our future economy. We aim to grow a vibrant IT industry. Our universities are producing more good IT graduates, because students have started to realise that IT skills are in demand. All of a sudden, cut-off scores for getting into IT courses in universities have gone up – you now need three ‘A’s.

 

We attract IT talent from the region to work here. We keep in touch with Singaporeans working in Silicon Valley and other tech centres in the world, and try to bring some of them home. We welcome IT companies, from startups to established players, to set up shop here Many are here already – Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Grab, Stripe – and they are growing. They are doing not just project management or marketing operations, but increasingly engineering work. Such a vibrant industry will provide the matrix within which the Government can build its own capabilities, and meet its IT needs and lead the Smart Nation efforts.

 

There are exciting developments in Singapore in the IT industry, both in the public and private sectors. We do not know if all of our initiatives will go as we plan, but as a GovTech officer said to me recently, we are rebuilding the aeroplane even as it is mid-flight! But if you are game for this challenge, please join us as we strive towards becoming a lean, agile and digital Government, and a Smart Nation.

 

Thank you very much.

 

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Last updated on 02 Nov 2018