Many Smart Cities, One Smart Nation – Singapore’s Smart Nation Vision

June 14, 2015

The island city-state of Singapore is an enigma in many ways. Devoid of natural resources and left to fend on its own after separating from Malaysia in 1965, it has managed not only to survive but to thrive, becoming a highly efficient and technologically advanced city-state with the highest per capita GDP in Asia (in 2012).  Although it does not produce oil, Singapore is one of the world’s major oil refining centers and houses many of the major global oil and gas corporations. The city faces stiff competition in the region and globally to remain a leading city and to continue to attract capital, talent and ideas. In recent years, Singapore’s reliance on imports of energy and water and the challenges of climate change have compelled an examination of its vulnerabilities and have led it to adopt practices aimed at ensuring resilience.

Singapore’s Smart Nation Vision is driven by the country’s desire to stay ‘ahead of the curve’ and to be among the leading cities of the world. Since the 1980s, Singapore has embraced information technology in a bid to become an ‘Intelligent Island’. This has now evolved into becoming a ‘Smart Nation’. The last three decades have seen Singapore become one of the few countries to attain and maintain a high rate of IT adoption and penetration. For example, households with internet access increased from 65% in 2003 and exceeded 80% in 2009. The country is also ranked high on several global IT and e-Readiness rankings, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Information Technology Reports (GITR) Ranking and the Waseda University International e-Government Ranking.

Brief History

Singapore began its Smart Nation journey when it laid the foundation of its information highway as early as the 1980s. In 1981, the Government of Singapore set up the National Computer Board to spearhead Singapore’s entry into the Information Age, following recommendations made by the high-level Ministerial Committee on National Computerization in 1980. In 1997, Singapore ONE (One Network for Everyone), a nationwide broadband high-speed network, was launched. The plan was to create a One-Stop, non-stop business and government platform and allow cybershopping, online banking and internet trading, attending virtual college, and borrowing from a digital library. Positioning itself to become an electronic commerce hub was an attempt by Singapore to sustain its strategic advantage. The 1990s saw the National Information Infrastructure (NII) process employing a framework to build the IT resources, capabilities and infrastructure needed by a digital economy. Called the 4Cs (‘compute’, ‘conduit’, ‘content’, and ‘communicate’), these themes focused on the core activities in each phase of the computerization effort. 25 years later, under the new Smart Nation Platform (SNP), Singapore revisited these themes, but evolved them to address the need to build capabilities in pervasive connectivity and common technical architecture to support a smart nation ecosystem. The 3Cs of ‘connect’, ‘collect’ and ‘comprehend’ reflect plans for an operating system that allows all public agencies to connect so that essential sensor and metering data can be anonymized, secured, managed and shared. After all, it is the ability of e-portals to deal with multiple transactions simultaneously and as ‘bundles of services’ in a real-time environment that attracted so much attention from cities seeking to be smart in the first place.

The Government played a proactive role in developing the necessary IT infrastructure and devising pragmatic policies to encourage IT-related multi-national corporations (MNCs) to set up operation in Singapore – compare this approach to that in the USA, where development of a national information infrastructure has been left to the private sector. A number of policies led to the success of making Singapore an ‘Intelligent Island’. These include the Singapore ONE Fast Track Program (FTP), which provided benefits and incentives for companies who were early adopters of IT; funding schemes such as the Innovation Development Scheme (IDS) and Research and Development Assistance Scheme (REDAS) tax incentives for commercial operations of online applications; investment allowances and double deductions of R&D expenses; preferential tariff rates in terms of attractive discounts on network access and telecommunication-leased circuit charges; and priority in publicity programs led. All these contributions to the growth in Singapore’s IT industry.

Government intervention continued through into the new millennium. In May 2005, a high-level Steering Committee was convened to spearhead the development of another 10-year Master Plan to grow the information communications sector so as to enhance the competitiveness of key economic sectors and build a well-connected society. In 2006, the Intelligent Nation 2015 (iN2015), a 10-year masterplan with the vision to build Singapore into An Intelligent Nation, A Global City, Powered by Infocomm, was released. Singapore’s efforts over the years have borne fruit, and there are countless examples of achievements in technology-enabled sectors and in infocomm usage statistics.

Smart Nation Vision

As connectivity becomes more pervasive and with the assurance that the Government is investing in the resilience and security of the system, the smart nation platform has been gearing up towards providing greater access to meaningful services such as the Internet of Things and feeding into measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, including the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid and the application of smart grid technologies. In 2014, Prime Minister Mr. Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore would aim to function beyond the capabilities of a smart city. This is necessary, he said, to continue to be an outstanding city and place for people to live, work and play. The 10-year Smart Nation Vision aims to build Singapore into a city that is not just technologically-savvy, but is also able to use technology to transform lives for the better. 

As Singapore ramps up its technology drive, the less technologically-savvy – like senior citizens – are not about to be left behind. Those without computers will have access to online government services in community clubs across the island. The Government is bent on preventing the creation of a digital divide.

Security measures to make sure sensitive information like medical data is not stolen, and to protect against hacker attacks are in place and constantly being assessed for resilience.  The Singapore government is aiming to make as much data available as possible as long as it does not compromise privacy, personal security and national security. Infocomm security plays an important role in creating a secure and trusted environment as it enhances the resilience of Singapore’s economy against cyber threats. This helps to boost the confidence of investors in choosing Singapore as a strategic and secure location for their investments. Since the early days of computerisation in Singapore, emphasis has been placed on ensuring the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information, as well as the security of the underlying systems and communication networks.

Legal Issues

A smart city like Singapore envisions greater access to information and communication resources with advanced technologies such as virtual currencies, the Internet of Things and the spread of smart services. On the other hand, there is a real risk of data mishandling and financial vulnerability. If not careful, cybercrime in the form of privacy breaches and identity thefts may also proliferate. Some legal issues that Singapore will need to consider in its implementation of its Smart Nation Vision are:

·        regulatory challenges of electronic money and electronic payment systems;

·        regulatory challenges of electronic and mobile payment solutions;

·        cybercrime and security;

·        legal and regulatory consequences of the Internet of Things revolution;

·        privacy and data protection in Big Data;

·        intellectual property issues in the Internet of Things and Big Data; and

·        judicial decisions about sources of digital evidence and their admissibility and use in criminal investigations, civil discovery, and criminal proceedings.


Singapore has taken great and bold strides towards creating a Smart Nation, comprising largely of the establishment of a computerized and internet-savvy society for the promotion of investment, certainty, competitiveness and efficiency. Broad policies to achieve the visions have proven sufficient for national authorities and agencies to implement and invest in ICT. Certainly, grants have also played an integral role in enabling the uptake of ICT and in smart grid pilots. However, the absence of legislation is a growing concern. The emergence of Big Data must change the way Singapore thinks about and regulates privacy and data protection. There are legal challenges that arise when data moves seamlessly from device to device, between organisations, across borders, and into and out of the hands of public agencies that have to be addressed. Can encryption provide technical fixes to legal problems? How will Singapore balance the benefits of aggregation and data-mining against the risks of abuse and misuse of personal information?

While it is clear that Singapore’s physical, economic and social environment will keep evolving , its administrators, civil servants and political leaders will need to strive to meet new challenges that arise, including dealing with climate change while ensuring economic growth, environmental sustainability and energy security. Even more can and needs to be done, particularly in educating civil servants and the public on how to better manage resources and to shift mindsets when it comes to governing a smart nation. There is also a dire need for greater public participation in decision-making in the context of the environment, as a true measure of the partnership between the state and the people. 

Melissa Low is a Research Associate in the Energy Studies Institute at the University of Singapore and is currently working towards an LLM in Climate Change Law and Policy at the University of Strathclyde via distance learning.