The 2019 S T Lee Public Policy lecture, organised by the Centre for Science and Policy, was delivered by Jacqueline Poh, Deputy Secretary, Strategy Group, Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore. In ‘Prospero’s Practicum’ Poh provides an authoritative account of the Singaporean experience of technological development and management, and the key role of policy in defining how the technologies of the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ interact with and impact citizens’ lives. She describes local forms of creating and using of new technologies; the circulation of ideas, people, and technologies in local cross-sectoral networks and internationally; and a culture of strategic preparation for the future at the whole-of-government level.
The Singaporean government is boldly pro-innovation, as recognized by multiple accolades on the international stage. Yet it seeks to balance this promotion of innovation with ‘responsible governance to ensure that the implementation of technologies remains ethical, sustainable and human-centric.’ To achieve this equilibrium, policymakers have developed an approach that Poh précises in five concepts: foresight, sandbox, platform, regulate, access. Each concept brings together multiple stakeholders—government, businesses, and society—yet with clear policy leadership. At the level of access, all students attend compulsory coding and computational thinking classes from primary school. At the level of (light touch) regulation, the recently unveiled Model AI Governance Framework crystallises the work of policy makers, regulators, and the private sector, providing greater certainty to industry players and promoting the adoption of AI. For Poh, collaboration is key, but governments must take the lead in navigating ‘the rapids and use technology in a skilful and wise manner that culminates in good outcomes for all stakeholders, particularly our citizens.’ As governments around the world grapple with defining their role in the development and governance of new technologies, this clarity of responsibility taking stands out.
What drives the Singaporean approach to technology? The lecture begins by describing vulnerability as the foundational condition into which Singapore was born and one that continues to shape the attitude of the civil service today. Small, natural-resource poor, faced with security disadvantages, Poh writes that ‘every crisis to us is in some way existential.’ This sense of fragile reality has nurtured an energetic dedication to foresight and innovation, and a commitment to developing both self-sufficiency and openness in equal, generous measure. Poh acknowledges the political, demographic and scalar particularities of Singapore, and offers her lecture to trigger policy imagination, not to suggest a standardised innovation model or internationally replicable policy prescription. The world today can feel increasingly fragile. Her lecture invites us to ask what we can learn from a small, resilient and proactive island, harnessing a sense of collective vulnerability to set transformative policy at the interface of technology, business, nature and society.
The S T Lee Public Policy lectures were established in 2003 thanks to a benefaction from Seng Tee Lee, Singaporean business executive, philanthropist and Honarary Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Each lecture is organised by the Centre for Science and Policy and considers aspects of scientific, medical or technological research and developments that are likely to have significant implications for public policy over the next decade.