Interview with Mr Tan Kiat How, CEO of the InfoComm Media Development Authority, Singapore
Q. Singapore has long been looked to as a leading light in the communications sector, both for regulating and promoting the industry. Yet it has taken a while to bring its regulation into the converged world – why is that? and what prompted the change?
A. We have been paying close attention to the convergence of the infocomm and media (ICM) sectors for quite some time, and the growing challenges and opportunities that comes with it. The impetus for the merger came last year, with the launch of the Infocomm Media 2025 – a ten-year plan to chart the course of Singapore’s Infocomm media sector. The government felt that it was timely to bring the Infocomm Development Authority and the Media Development Authority together to form the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). The IMDA is a converged regulator and developer that is tasked to spearhead Singapore’s drive to be a world leading Digital Economy, powered by a dynamic ICM ecosystem. It is still early days for IMDA and we are also constantly learning from our counterparts in other parts of the world.
Q. Since its ‘birth’ in October 2016, the IMDA has moved swiftly in a number of areas. Most recently it has helped with (financial) subsidies and other support for sectors of the communications economy. How are these choices made – what is the planning process for an economy such as Singapore in these areas?
A. Singapore is a small and open economy, and we have to continually embrace change in order to keep pace with global developments. Over the years, we have taken steps to restructure our economy to ensure our companies and workforce remain competitive and relevant to the rest of the world. Most recently, the Committee on the Future Economy published its report on the strategies that Singapore will take to transform our economy. One of the key recommendations was to strengthen digital capabilities amongst our industry sectors. IMDA is taking the lead in the implementation of this strategy.
We identified four digital technology areas that may be game changers for our economy.
- The first area is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data. These technologies have the potential to disrupt almost every industry sector from manufacturing to financial services. Yet, there are immense growth opportunities if we can harness these technologies to raise worker productivity and create new business value. Just last month, we established a national programme called AI.SG with funding of up to S$150 million. AI.SG aims to encourage partnerships between research institutes and companies to tackle major challenges that affect society and businesses using AI.
- The second area is cybersecurity. The recent spates of cybersecurity incidents around the world has hammered home the importance of cybersecurity. The ability to minimise the threat surface and to quickly bounce back after cyberattacks will be increasingly important as our business ecosystem and government services become more digitalised. IMDA has worked with cybersecurity companies on the Cybersecurity Associates and Technologies (CSAT) programme to train more cybersecurity professionals. The Singapore government has also established the National Cybersecurity R&D Programme since 2013, with funding of up to S$130 million over five years to develop R&D expertise and capabilities in cybersecurity.
- The third focus area is immersive media. Beyond media and entertainment, virtual and augmented reality technologies can be applied to many other industries such as manufacturing, healthcare and education to improve operational processes and enhance learning outcomes. For example, IMDA partnered Beach House Pictures, a media production company to pilot the use of virtual reality (VR) in teaching social studies to primary school children. We also teamed up with Tan Tock Seng Hospital and SideFX Studios, a local technology company to use VR and mixed reality to augment clinical training of doctors via immersive simulations.
- The fourth area is the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT devices have the potential to provide the intelligence and insights to deliver innovative Smart City solutions such as smart energy meters, smart street lightings and autonomous vehicles. We have key components of the digital communications infrastructure in place such as the ultra-high-speed fibre broadband network and pervasive nationwide Wireless@SG deployment, and will continue to enhance it to support the deployment of new innovative IoT-based solutions, such as the Smart Nation Sensor Platform.
Q. How does the role of promoter sit with the role of regulator? What is the philosophy to ensure that regulation does not stifle innovation and development?
A. We don’t see this as a contradiction. Our roles of promoter and regulator are not at odds with each other. In fact, both roles are complementary and provide IMDA with different set of levers and capabilities to more effectively deliver on our mission of ensuring Singapore remains at the forefront of technological innovation and adoption. The philosophy behind our regulatory and development roles are similar. We believe that a well-functioning and competitive market will more efficiently allocate scarce resources and better optimise the limited factors of production. Our interventions, whether through regulatory or developmental levers, are consistent with this approach and aim to address market gaps or failures.
One example is the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NBN). The regulatory and development policies worked together to enable Singapore to deploy a nationwide high-speed fibre broadband network to all homes and businesses at competitive prices. The NBN adopted an ‘effective open access’ industry structure that supported innovative service offerings by Retail Service Providers. Today, a home consumer can subscribe to 1Gbps broadband connection for less than S$40 (around US$29) per month, and a 10Gbps broadband connection for less than S$190 (around US$137) per month.
4. What do you see as the key issues facing Singapore just now?
A. A key issue is how companies and workforce in Singapore respond to technological disruptions, and leverage digital technology to remain competitive and create new business value. We believe that we ought to disrupt ourselves before we are disrupted. This is part of our DNA.
IMDA is spearheading Singapore’s drive towards a digital economy. Our vision is that every business will be a digital business, every worker will be empowered by technology and every citizen is a connected citizen. IMDA supports the digitalisation efforts of key economic sectors by playing the role of a Chief Digital Officer, or CDO. We work closely with the respective government agencies, trade associations, companies and workers to build up digital capabilities in those sectors.
An important part of this effort is how we are helping the SMEs. We launched a ‘SMEs Go Digital’ programme earlier this year to help them adopt digital technologies in their businesses and operations. We partnered the ICM industry to identify and curate a set of proven technological solutions that meet the needs of the SMEs in that particular sector, and established processes and incentive schemes to encourage adoption of such systems. For example, we are encouraging the use of automated cleaning robots for the SMEs in the Facilities Management industry to raise staff productivity and to address the challenge of finding sufficient workers to join the sector.
We also recognise that Singapore needs a dynamic and capable ICM sector to support the broader digital transformation of our economy. IMDA plays an important role in growing and championing this industry. We started a pilot programme called Accreditation@IMDA (A@IMDA) a couple of years ago to nurture young, high-growth Singapore-based ICM companies that may find it difficult to secure projects due to a limited track record. Companies that join A@IMDA have access to a network of mentors, potential buyers and investors. The results from this experiment have been encouraging so far, with the 17 A@IMDA companies generating more than S$70 million pipeline of projects from the Singapore government alone and raising more than S$28 million of growth capital.
Another focus area is to ensure the human capital within the ICM ecosystem are effectively harnessed. Through our TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative, we help ICM professionals in updating their competencies to stay relevant in the workplace, such as supporting continual learning, particularly in hot skills such as in data analytics and cybersecurity. To date, more than 12,000 professionals have benefitted from these measures.
5. The IMDA was represented at the IIC’s events in Bangkok in October, and both its predecessors, the IDA and the MDA, were long time members of the IIC. Singapore plays a major role on the global stage and the IMDA played a key role in the recent IIC Telecommunications and Digital Media Forum in Doha, Qatar. How would you describe the IMDA’s experience at the IIC, and what do your colleagues gain from it?
The IIC’s forums and conferences are excellent opportunities for regulators and industry players to network and learn from one another. The regulatory forums, in particular provide a platform for candid exchange of views on common challenges and good practices amongst fellow practitioners. My colleagues at IMDA always look forward to participating in these forums and bring back new insights every time.