On November 24, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the Smart Nation initiative, aimed at improving the lives of Singaporeans through an integration of information technology, networks, and data. Under the initiative, a Smart Nation Programme Office will be set up under the Prime Minister’s Office, led by Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan.
There are two aspects to the Smart Nation Initiative, one is technological and the other organisation. Both represent the government’s attempt to improve the daily lives of citizens. However, these attempts may not be reciprocated by citizen contributions to improving policies.
Even before the initiative was launched, Singapore had long been toying with technological solutions to the various urban problems faced by its citizens. For instance, plans were announced earlier this year for LTA, SMRT, Starhub and IBM to collaborate in applying advanced and predictive analytics to managing the public transport system. Other existing efforts include IRAS e-filing and the National Health Records System. The Smart Nation Initiative thus builds on these existing applications of technology to policy by integrating and consolidating them.
To this end, the formation of the Smart Nation Programme Office serves to centralize and consolidate existing and future Smart Nation policies. This mirrors the Municipal Services Office established earlier this year. This allows for a ‘whole-of-government’ approach that will encourage greater efficiency and minimize policy duplication across agencies. This reflects a significant level of foresight on the part of the government, and places Singapore as a forerunner in such Smart initiatives.
However, these efforts may yet fall short if citizens do not play their part as well or worse still, if citizens take a cynical view of the Initiative. This is already happening. One need only look at the skewed coverage of the Initiative that can be found on the alternative media.
Chief among complaints is a fear of the government infringing privacy rights and becoming a ‘big brother’ through the proliferation of sensing and surveillance technology. Others have chosen to complain about the costs and inefficiencies associated with broadband providers such as MyRepublic or even Singtel. Lastly, there have also been concerns that citizens will be paying for ‘things they do not need’, in terms of technological solutions.
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These complaints reflect an inherent contradiction in the mindset of these netizens. If the government does not explore technological solutions, they will complain about how inefficient the MRTs are or how the government is not making any efforts at solving their various daily problems. Some will be go so far as to point at the technological solutions offered in other countries such as Korea and ask why Singapore has not done so. Yet when the government decides to make efforts at solving citizens’ problems, netizens cry ‘big brother’ and worry about the government monitoring them or imposing unnecessary costs on them. Worse yet, they may berate the government for not working fast enough, without appreciating the fact that the implementation of any policy takes time.
It is truly a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The government is caught in a catch-22. This stems from a citizenry that is imbued with a deep sense of entitlement and do not appreciate the effort of people who are doing the real work of solving urban problems (this includes both civil servants and private sector service providers).
Singapore’s efforts at becoming a Smart Nation are laudable. It is making a real attempt to solve the various problems faced by its citizens. However, becoming a Smart Nation is not enough. Singapore needs Smart Citizens too. Citizens who are focused on working with policy makers to solve their problems, rather than making vacuous complaints and non-constructive comments.
The proliferation of information and technology alone will not guarantee the formation of a smart citizenry. Rather, greater availability of information is likely to facilitate what Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan calls “Identity-Protective Cognition”, whereby individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens or goes against their pre-existing values or biases. In other words, the Smart Nation initiative’s open data efforts will only provide critics with more ‘ammo’ to support their pre-existing views and biases, in the process politicizing what is really a genuine effort to solve problems faced by citizens in their everyday lives.
While policy makers and political leaders should always keep their ears to the ground and be aware of issues and problems faced by citizens, they will also need to accept the fact that there is simply no pleasing some people. However, what they can do is begin a conscious effort at political and civic education. A smart nation will not amount to much if it does not have smart citizens as well. There is a need to focus on imbuing citizens with a stronger sense of nationhood, morality, and civic consciousness, all three of which currently exist in their warped forms.
Becoming a smart nation involves more than building up technological infrastructure and capabilities, it is also about developing smart citizens who, imbued with a strong sense of civic consciousness, are able to work with policy makers in making Singapore a more liveable place, regardless of whether this involves the use of technology or not. Technology will not be very useful if it is not matched with savvy users. The future of Singapore and the Singaporean identity thus lies not in its technological infrastructure, but its social and moral fabric as well.