by Zafar Anjum

Budget 2021: Where Singapore’s government plans to boost digital transformation

News Analysis
Feb 23, 2021
Digital TransformationGovernment

Providing a CTO-as-a-service programme is one of several planned initiatives meant to help Singaporean businesses and public agencies structurally adapt to a digital world.

Singapore skyline, central business district
Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images

The Singapore government has charted out tech directions for businesses and industries in its fiscal 2021 budget even as the country is in the midst of fighting its way out of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Overall, the government has allocated S$24 billion to enable Singapore’s firms and workers to emerge stronger through the next phase of transformation over the next three years.

The key highlights of the budget include a S$1 billion fund for schemes and support programmes “to cofund mature enterprises’ adoption of digital solutions and new technologies”, invest in three key platforms, enhance the Productivity Solutions Grant – Job Redesign, support green tech under the Singapore Green Plan 2030, and set up a CTO-as-a-service initiative.

Accelerating structural adaptation is key for Singaporean government and business

In his budget speech in parliament, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that while last year’s series of budgets focused on providing “emergency support” as the pandemic kicked in and the country faced its worst recession since independence, the emphasis in this year’s budget is on accelerating “structural adaptation” as Singapore’s gross domestic product contracted by 5.4% in 2020.

The reasons for the Singapore government’s focus on deepening technology usage and skills are about adapting to the changing world. “We are facing the convergence of multiple technologies simultaneously,” said Andrew Milroy, founder of Veqtor8, a digital risk advisory firm, based in Singapore, and former analyst with Frost & Sullivan and Ovum. “Large scale multicloud initiatives, 5G, AI/data analysis, edge, IoT [internet of things], and new security technologies are rapidly coming on stream at roughly the same time,” he said.

“To many firms, they don’t know where to start on leveraging these technologies. The technology landscape is highly fragmented, and it is not always easy to understand it in terms of clear business benefits. There is a huge shortage of technology skills that can help companies to leverage this technology. The government’s initiative is designed to ensure that Singapore companies are able to remain competitive in spite of chronic skills shortages. It wants Singapore to continue being a leading business hub in Asia. To do this, its companies need to be at the cutting edge of technology use,” Milroy said

“Singapore has proven yet again that it has robust contingency plans in place to contain and overcome even the severest of existential crisis like the COVID pandemic,” said Abhijit Banerjee, a partner at Decacorn Capital, a cross-border venture funding initiative. “With the focus now back on the economy and given that COVID has made technology even more pervasive with hypercharged digital adoption, crunching adoption cycles from years to just months, it was expected that this government would channelise massive funds for rapid digital transformation augmented by high quality tech talent to make it happen.”

Manjunath Bhat, a senior research director at Gartner, also is encouraged by Singapore’s plans. “I can see the potential for large businesses to build digital platforms and accelerate their digital transformation initiatives. … I see business potential for both cloud service providers and managed cloud service providers as the government is keen to explore the idea of rapid prototyping and testing using cloud-based solutions. … Initiatives such as the Open innovation platform and the global innovation alliance can act as catalysts to drive cloud adoption in many organizations.”

The Singapore government’s new technology investments

To support innovation and collaboration on the new scale, the Singapore government announced investment in three key platforms, as well as several other initiatives.

Cooperative Venture Launchpad. The launchpad programme aims to provide cofunding for corporations to build new ventures through prequalified venture studios. An example is BCG Digital Ventures, which collaborated with Olam, a Singapore food and agricultural multinational, to build Jiva, a farmer services platform meant to increase crop yield, help farmers access credit, and connect farmers directly to buyers.

Open Innovation Platform. OIP helps businesses and public agencies find vendors to address problems for their segments, as well as help fund prototyping and deployment. Heng cited the example of the Building and Construction Authority, which was matched with three providers (TraceSafe, TagBox, and Nervotec) to develop solutions for safe reopening of worksites. “The firms developed real-time systems that helped construction site owners conduct contact tracing and health monitoring of their workers,” he said. Planned improvements to the OIP are a cloud-based digital bench for accelerated virtual prototyping and testing.

Global Innovation Alliance. The GIA is meant to promote cross-border collaboration between Singapore and major innovation hubs elsewhere in the world. Citing past data, Heng said that “since its inception in 2017, over 650 students and about 780 Singapore businesses have taken part in innovation launchpads overseas; 40% of these were in Southeast Asia”.

The GIA network currently has 15 city links, including four Southeast Asian cities—Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, and Manila—and now the government wants to expand it to more than 25 cities around the globe over the next five years. The GIA will gain the Co-Innovation Programme, which will support up to 70% of qualifying costs for cross-border innovation and partnership projects, Heng said.

Emerging Technology Programme. To help mature enterprises transform digitally, the Singapore government will co-fund their adoption of digital solutions and new technologies. One means to do so is the new Emerging Technology Programme, which will “co-fund the costs of trials and adoption of frontier technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, and trust technologies”, Heng said. “This will support commercialisation of innovations and diffusion of technology downstream.

CTO-as-a-service initiative and Digital Leaders Programme. Not all organisations have the adequate tech leadership in-house to their digital transformation. To help firms to identify and adopt digital solutions, the government announced the CTO-as-a-Service initiative to provide access to professional IT consultancies.

Additionally, the new Digital Leaders Programme will aid “promising” firms in hiring a core digital team and in developing and implementing digital transformation roadmaps,” Heng said.

“The CTO-as-a-service and the Digital Leaders Programme are a great initiative to address the current need of the [small enterprise] and startup ecosystem,” said Sidhi Dhir, executive director of TiE Singapore, a nonprofit programme for entrepreneurs.

Singapore Green Plan 2030. Heng also mentioned running “a national movement to build a sustainable Singapore for all generations”, using the Singapore Green Plan “to secure a green, liveable, and sustainable home for generations of Singaporeans to come”. This greening of Singapore will be enabled by technology. “We harnessed technology to overcome our water and land constraints, and will do the same for climate change,” he said. The government will set aside S$60 million for a new Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund and S$30 million over the next five years for Electric Vehicles-related initiatives. Furthermore, to encourage green finance, the government will issue green bonds on select public infrastructure projects.