Nothing is amiss about the inaugural batch of nine Smart Nation Scholars. The scholarships were handed out to university students pursuing information communications technology related studies. Upon graduation, the scholars must serve a bond with the Singapore public service.
I had the opportunity to interview two of them – Mr Alan Low and Mr Marcus Ho. Alan will pursue a Bachelors’ Degree in Computing in Information Security at the National University of Singapore. His equally competent counterpart, Mr Marcus Ho, will read Law at the University of Cambridge. Alan will serve in the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA). Marcus, on the other hand, will join the regulatory branch of the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).
We chat about what life choices led them here, and more importantly, their thoughts on bridging the digital divide as future public servants. Granted, it was a heavy topic for a Friday morning. But could I be blamed? Prior to the media interview, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, delivered an unsettling speech. Simply because he was deeply honest. About future uncertainties and Singapore’s capabilities.
Yet, watching these twenty-somethings strut across stage, I could not but help pin my hopes of Singapore’s future on their vision, drive and talent. The financial-backing they will receive simply cannot compare with the huge responsibilities they must shoulder as public servants. Their service commitment implies spearheading the remaining laps of the Smart Nation campaign.
However, this unusual sympathy shifted as I began my conversation with the two young chaps. I began to develop a deep faith in their vision which will carry Singapore into the future. These weren’t just boys gushing about geeky tech stuff. Alan and Marcus exuded the calm and confidence beyond their years. Qualities much needed to succeed in demanding civil service career.
Oddly enough, the story of the two Smart Nation Scholarship recipients begin with dad’s chunky old computer. Alan fondly recalls playfully clicking on whatever he could on the screen, hoping at the same time nothing went berserk. He said, “[At that time] it was not that meaningful, but being able to explore something on my own sparked my passion in IT.”
Their current interest in tech back then was cursory. Apart from a few buzzwords like ‘hack’ and ‘virus’, there was no real awareness of just how massive the fourth industrial revolution would be. It was still all fun and games, the possibilities for excitement were endless online.
And rightly so. Nothing can change the fact that at the dawn of internet age, everyone was exploring new frontiers. Moreover, the rise of cyber threats does not inhibit the endless possibilities of tech for good. Everyone, Marcus included, is, and continues to be, in awe of technology’s progress. Hedging against cybercrime or putting together a sound legislative and regulatory framework were secondary for pioneers of the internet age. Alan analyses, “They couldn’t envision beyond the initial stage.” His rude awakening to the havoc of cybercrime was the security breach of a major tech solutions vendor in 2013.
The relative newness of cybercrime and the general level of unpreparedness is reflected in major tenets of society. Alan, for example, forms the pioneer cohort of Infocomm Security Management at Republic Polytechnic. He said at the time of his enrolment, there was only one other local polytechnic which offered a similar program. Fast forward to present time, all polytechnics in Singapore offer a course in cybersecurity.
While the education system is cognisant of training young people to be future ready, can the same be said for the rest of Alan and Marcus’ peers? Much more, other Singaporeans?
Alan believes that his peers might have a better understanding of the ins and outs of technology and are more than willing to jump on the bandwagon. He does caution that some might be lacking the necessary deep technical knowledge needed to thrive in the disruption.
As for the general Singapore population, Marcus thinks that the government is already doing so much to help. Programs by the IMDA like TechSkills Accelerator and Code@SG have been indispensable in bridging the digital divide. “If people are willing to learn, they will be ready to face the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says.
However, I was not quite satisfied. These scholars have had multiple opportunities to try and fail in tech within a safe setting. The camps, clubs, courses they attended, and coveted internships could be counted as privilege to some. Moreover, their knack for tech could after all be just a knack, and nothing else. I push further, asking the two what they think about the current challenges people face in taking up tech to align themselves with the times.
The answers they gave me were just like them – honest and earnest.
I thought Marcus’ own life choices was exemplary. Instead of landing his feet in a legal career which could rake in big bucks, he chose to join the public service by combining his devotion to reasoning and tech. He was inspired by his mentor’s words during an internship at a law firm. “At the end of the day, it’s not really about the money but it is about the people you can help and what you can do for society.”
He added further, “Jobs in the future will need people not just with specialised skill sets, but people will need to branch out, to be able to gain knowledge and skills in many sectors. For instance, I hope to be a lawyer who is not only effective in writing and crafting legal arguments per se, but I also hope to be able to bring law into the tech age. For me, I’m learning Python, C++ and Java. I think indeed there are many functions in law which can be automated, like conveyancing which can be replaced by AI, even in the areas of due diligence. My key advice for people facing disruption will be to broaden your horizon, be brave in gaining new skills and the future is yours if you have the heart to acquire new skills to prepare yourself for the 4th Industrial Revolution.”
Alan believes that IT as a sector is not bias nor exclusive. Age nor sex is discriminated. He said, “IT gives everyone an opportunity to create something. There are free tools out there to allow people to create whatever they want as long as they have the interest.”
Yet, he adds a caveat about the field of cybersecurity itself. He admits that the dryness which accompanies the field’s rigour might be off-putting for some. Cybersecurity isn’t a field for the half-hearted he warns. Should anyone be keen to take it up, they should have technical and resource support from the right agencies. Solutions vendors, schools and governments all have a part to play in building up online resilience among citizens. For those who would rather bow out, he still thinks it might be useful to learn some fundamental tech vocabulary such as ‘cryptography’ and ‘cipher’.
Surely, their passion for tech and the public cannot be mistaken. As the scholars embark on their undergraduate studies, hope glimmers for the Smart Nation. When they return to join the respective agencies, much can be expected of them.
Marcus will be part of the regulatory team at IMDA. He will flex his legal muscles in ensuring that innovation is matched with a safe and secure environment, retaining public confidence and trust in government. For Alan, his passion for cybersecurity will be used to build a resilient, safe and trustworthy cyber landscape for Singaporeans.
Along with the seven other scholars, and future batches of tech talents, Singapore can brave a new world.
If you would like to read up about the Smart Nation Scholarship, and what the Minister-in-Charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had to say about it, follow this link.