James Henderson

Has the emerging tech pendulum swung in favour of Singapore?

As the laundry list of emerging technologies available to Singapore continues to expand, enterprise appetite to cleanse out-dated environments is intensifying with a sense of strategic coordination.

Despite product availability and market enthusiasm seldom syncing, the city-state can now be considered as credible embracers of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G – a tangible step in the direction of transformation.

This is an assessment not based on predicable platitudes – those spouted by vendors with a responsibility to blindly drum up market interest – rather genuine examples of innovation in action.

“Singapore has been actively embracing emerging technologies to support innovation, improve productivity and drive economic growth,” observed Wai Keat Cheang, Partner, Consulting at EY in Singapore.

Wai Keat Cheang (EY Singapore)

Supplementing such enthusiasm is a government aggressively investing in research and development (R&D), talent and up-skilling programs and innovation initiatives to ensure the nation remains at the forefront of technological innovation. In other words, the public sector is taking a lead role in setting the conditions for private sector transformation.

Advancing AI, igniting IoT and firing up 5G

According to Wai Keat, organisations are increasingly exploring the potential of AI and ML to gain insights, automate processes and improve decision-making.

“AI applications are ranging from chatbots and virtual assistants to predictive analytics and intelligent automation,” he explained. “For example, CFOs are beginning to fit AI into various sections of the finance equation to help with forecasts and predictions that can lead to making better business decisions.”

As recently outlined by EY global chairman and CEO, Carmine Di Sibio, on CNBC, the EY Intelligent Payroll Chatbot currently answers more than 500 employee questions a day, leveraging ChatGPT via Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI Service.

In Singapore, the government has launched several initiatives to promote the development and adoption of AI – namely the AI Apprenticeship Programme and AI for Everyone Programme which rolled out in 2018.

As well as more than five years of up-skilling on AI and data literacy, the government also continues to invest in research institutions such as the AI.SG initiative and the National AI Office to encourage R&D specific to AI.

In June 2023, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) – housed under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – unveiled the Artificial Intelligence Government Cloud Cluster (AGCC), a new platform designed to accelerate AI adoption in Singapore’s public sector, advance local research efforts in applied AI and support the growth of the local AI start-up ecosystem.

More importantly however, government investment is appearing to play out in the use cases, namely at DBS, the largest bank in Southeast Asia and a continuous example of Singapore-born innovation.

As noted by Sameer Gupta, chief analytics officer at DBS, the banking giant has long recognised the potential of AI.

“A few years ago, when we started this journey, our vision was to maximise outcomes from data,” said Gupta, when speaking with McKinsey. “That is still our aim today, only we refine the outcomes yearly based on future casting.

“This year, what we’re asking at the bank level is: “How can we be an AI-fuelled bank?” What that means in practice is that AI is pervasive across all parts of the bank. Our business model needs to be built with AI at the centre, with the outputs informing processes across the bank.”

With data and technology viewed as “crucial” to the bank’s success, DBS currently employs approximately 1000 data scientists, data analysts and data engineers – that equates to roughly twice as many technologists as bankers.

In addition to AI, IoT is also gaining traction in Singapore across various sectors including smart homes, transportation, logistics and manufacturing.

“Organisations are leveraging IoT technologies to collect and analyse data, optimise operations and enhance efficiency,” Wai Keat added. “Many organisations are investing in these technologies to create new products and services, improve operations and gain competitive advantages.”

Supporting the implementation of IoT from a connectivity standpoint is 5G, with Singapore heavily investing in 5G infrastructure to accelerate the development of innovative services and applications.

“The rollout of 5G networks is a significant focus for Singapore, as it enables faster and more reliable wireless connectivity,” Wai Keat said. “Many organisations are exploring opportunities to leverage 5G for applications like the IoT, remote work, augmented reality [AR] and virtual reality [VR].”

“Singapore has been actively embracing emerging technologies to support innovation, improve productivity and drive economic growth”

Wai Keat Cheang (EY)

In 2020, Singapore completed the auction of 5G spectrum and allocated 100 MHz of millimetre wave spectrum for 5G deployment. As a result, several major telecommunication companies have launched 5G services in Singapore with the government also launching a range of 5G innovation programs to encourage the development of 5G-enabled applications.

Meanwhile in 2021, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced a new S$30 million fund to fast-track the adoption and commercialisation of 5G solutions.

Creative credentials

With Singapore consistently ranked as one of the world’s most innovative countries by various indexes, Wai Keat recognised the government’s active push for companies to be more innovative to stay competitive.

Notably, government-led events such as the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) help to create platforms and ecosystems for innovative discussions and collaborations. The Smart Nation initiative – which aims to harness technology to improve the quality of life for its citizens – has also been a driving force behind innovation in the country.

“Consumers in Singapore have also shown a strong appetite for innovation,” Wai Keat outlined. “They are generally early adopters of new technologies and tend to embrace innovations that enhance convenience, efficiency and quality of life. Singapore consumers also have a high level of digital literacy and readiness.

“This is evidenced through the high mobile and internet penetration rate as well as the widespread use of mobile payment systems, smart home technologies and the adoption of digital services in areas like transportation, health care and finance.”

As a nation, Singapore has the creative credentials to ensure emerging technologies are embraced with the city-state recognised as a global leader in blockchain technology, evident by initiatives such as the Blockchain Challenge and the Blockchain for Trade and Connectivity Network.

On the topics of robotic process automation (RPA), the government is investing heavily through projects such as the National Robotics Programme and the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre.

“Many organisations are using technology such as RPA and digital workflows to streamline their business processes and automate repetitive tasks while reducing manual workloads and errors thereby improving efficiency,” Wai Keat highlighted.

“One example is the use of chatbots to provide quick and personalised customer support and data analytics to better understand and anticipate customer needs and to provide personalised marketing services.”

And let’s not forget the now mainstream embracing of digital transformation, cloud, cyber security, data analytics and business intelligence.

“The technology priorities of Singapore-based organisations are likely to be driven by a combination of factors including the need for digital transformation and innovation, post-pandemic considerations on consumer needs and business operations, and the growing importance of cyber security and data privacy,” Wai Keat said.

To summarise, Wai Keat observed:

  • Digital transformation: Many organisations here are prioritising digital transformation initiatives to stay competitive and meet changing customer expectations. This includes adopting cloud computing, data analytics, AI and automation technologies to streamline operations, enhance customer experiences and drive innovation.
  • Cloud computing: Cloud adoption, where moving data and applications to the cloud offers scalability, flexibility, and cost-efficiency, continues to be a priority for many organisations. Hybrid and multi-cloud strategies are gaining popularity, allowing organisations to leverage the benefits of different cloud providers and deployment models.
  • Cyber security: With increasing reliance on digital technologies, organisations are placing stronger emphasis on cyber security such as implementing robust security measures, employee training and risk assessment processes to protect sensitive data, manage cyber threats and ensure compliance with regulations like the Personal Data Protection Act.
  • Data analytics and business intelligence: Organisations are increasingly recognising the value of data as a strategic asset and investing in data analytics and business intelligence solutions to extract meaningful insights, improve decision-making and drive business growth.

Innovation comes with a caveat

Despite the direction of travel being clear, Wai Keat stressed the importance of accepting that appetite for innovation still varies, especially across different industries.

“While some Singapore consumers may be highly enthusiastic about adopting new technologies, others may prefer more traditional approaches,” he cautioned. “Additionally, factors such as cost, accessibility and perceived benefits play a significant role in determining the level of adoption and acceptance of innovations.

“There are also concerns around issues such as privacy, cyber security and job displacement that could result from technological disruption. As such, while there is appetite for innovation, it is important for innovators and policymakers to address these concerns and ensure that the benefits of innovation are widely shared.”

While Singapore has a well-developed and supportive ecosystem for innovation, there are several challenges that can hinder innovation.

Top among them is a lack of talent with the country facing a shortage of skilled workers in AI, data science and cyber security, which makes it challenging for companies to find and hire the expertise required to drive innovation. Another key barrier is availability of funding and resources.

“Innovation often requires significant investments of time and resources,” Wai Keat added. “While several funding schemes and support programs are available for innovation here, some companies still struggle to secure the necessary funding and resources to pursue innovation.”

While Singapore has a business-friendly regulatory environment, Wai Keat acknowledged that such hurdles exist that can impact innovation, notably for data protection and cyber security which can add complexity to the development and deployment of emerging technologies.

“Singapore is a relatively small market and that can bring challenges to companies that are looking to scale their innovations beyond the local market,” he qualified. “This can limit the incentives for them to invest in innovation here.”

In essence, while Singapore has a strong foundation for innovation, there are still challenges that can impact the success and adoption of innovative solutions.

“Addressing them will be critical to maintaining Singapore’s competitiveness and leadership in innovation,” Wai Keat said.


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