Singapore's all-out efforts in digital transformation
Global Times


A view of the Huawei stand during the Innovfest Unbound tech show held in Singapore from Thursday to Friday (Photo: Global Times)

Sitting in the central business district at 20 Pickering Street, Singapore, an unmanned pop-up store is attracting curious local consumers to experience its intelligent design and powerful technology.

The store, UNBOXED, was unveiled by Singapore's leading telecom operator Singtel on June 4. It is the first of its kind in the Southeast Asian country. 

Equipped with a roving live bot, which is powered by facial recognition technology, customers can receive personalized recommendations. They can also try out smartphones and immediately collect their purchased devices from the in-store station, get instant SIM card replacement and make bill payments.

UNBOXED has a flexible and modular design, meaning it can be moved easily to new locations as needed.

"Since its launch three weeks ago, it has received more than 3,500 customers," a Singtel employee told the Global Times on Wednesday during a tour of the store.

Unlike the unmanned smart stores flourishing in the Chinese market, mainly convenience stores selling daily goods, this Singaporean store sells high-value goods like smartphones and provides communications-related services, according to Yuen Kuan Moon, CEO of Consumer Singapore at Singtel.

"The future of retail is here and now. UNBOXED fulfils the needs of today's consumer and provides a peek into next-generation retail," Yuen said.

The unmanned store is just one example showing how Singapore is actively pushing digital transformation from government to industry players.

Aiming to go digital  

The establishment of a new digital-focused office in Singapore was announced on Wednesday, aiming to forge an innovative public-private partnership model to spur the private sector in engaging the country's digital technology growth.

This is in line with the goal set by the government, aiming to become a leading digital economy where every business is digitally empowered.

In order to stay connected to the world, it is especially important for countries like Singapore, small in size but open in economy, to promote digitalization, industry analysts told the Global Times.

"The reality is that we must be prepared for a digital age where digitalization is the norm and not just a transitory phase… Digital technology is integral to the fabric of our businesses, our jobs, and our everyday lives," said Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran in a keynote speech during the Smart Nation Summit held in Singapore on Wednesday.

Given the need for embracing emerging ICT-enabled technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain, Singapore is also investing heavily in 5G networks as a key part of digital infrastructure. The country aims to roll out 5G by 2020. 

Singapore's Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) and National Research Foundation have set aside 40 million Singapore dollars ($29.53 million) to build an open and inclusive 5G innovation ecosystem, minister Iswaran announced at the opening of the Innovfest Unbound tech show held in Singapore on Thursday.

To begin, IMDA has said it will explore areas such as maritime operations, urban mobility, smart estates, Industry 4.0, consumer applications and government applications.

Iswaran said in a group interview on Thursday that the country will select a telecommunications company to roll out the 5G network at the end of the first quarter of 2020, without providing the name of a specific equipment supplier.

Chinese tech giant Huawei is highly likely to be among the potential vendors, although the minister said that Singapore would like to keep its options open and consider a diverse selection of vendors while maintaining security standards. 

This was stated both in the group interview and at a press briefing at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific ICT Ministerial Meeting held on Wednesday.

In April, Huawei announced the launch of a mobile cloud and an AI innovation lab in Singapore; the cloud is one of Huawei's largest in overseas markets.

Chinese tech arrives

Amid the trend of "going digital" in Singapore's industry and society, more Chinese tech firms are expanding their footprints in the Southeast Asian country. The aim is to export technology based on advantages accumulated over the past few years in big data, AI and IoT.

China's digital economy reached 31.3 trillion yuan ($4.56 trillion) in 2018, accounting for 34.8 percent of the nation's GDP, according to Wang Xinzhe, chief economist at China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), Chinese financial news portal reported on Sunday.

Betting on the pivotal position of Singapore in the Southeast Asian region, more and more Chinese tech firms are making their first foray into the country to establish their technologies there.

Kevin He, chairman and CEO of Chongqing Cloud-Mail Information Technology Co and operator of the unmanned chain brand Flash-Go, said an efficient government, a transparent investment climate as well as favorable policies in Singapore have proved attractive for Chinese firms.

"Singapore is a good springboard if you want to expand to other Southeast Asian countries thanks to its model role," He told the Global Times on the sidelines of the Innovfest Unbound tech show on Thursday.

Currently operating 51 Flash-Go stores in Southwest China, with each store being profitable, He is confident that the smart retail industry will take root in Singapore.

"High labor costs, a dense population, a pursuit of efficient alternatives to queuing, as well as its large potential for further growth are all factors that can drive the business of smart unmanned stores in the country," He explained.

The company is also teaming up with local Singapore start-ups to expand in the market.

"We provide technology support and benefit from the operational experience of our local partners," said He.

Chen Wei is one of 11 members of an advisory council that works with IMDA on the responsible development and deployment of AI. 

Chen, chief operating officer of SocialCredits, a fintech company based in Southwest China's Chongqing, is betting on the digital prospect in Singapore. 

China's e-commerce giant Alibaba is also a council member.

"We are not only bringing financial technology services to Singapore, but also to other Southeast Asian countries along the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative like Malaysia and Thailand," Chen told the Global Times on the sidelines of the Innovfest Unbound tech show.

"Based on advanced technologies in AI and big data analytics, we can provide company profiling to encourage information connectivity between Chinese firms, local governments and their Singaporean counterparts when they seek bilateral cooperation," said Chen.

The first China-Singapore, cross-border big data services platform was jointly established between SocialCredits and Singaporean tech firm Handshakes and has been online since April of last year. 

The platform is one of the projects in the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity, a China-Singapore intergovernmental program.

Since the program was launched in November 2015, a total of 105 cross-border financing deals worth $10.42 billion have been reached, Xinhua News Agency reported in June, citing Han Baochang, director of the program's administration bureau based in Chongqing.

"Prior to the big data platform, bilateral enterprises could only rely on oral recommendations when they wanted to seek investment opportunities, but now the strategic platform is helping the process and serving bilateral demand better," Chen noted.

Thus far, the platform covers the data of 75 million Chinese firms and 400,000 Singaporean firms.

"Chinese tech firms have progressed very quickly on the path of emerging technologies and this has advantages for data collection, market application in various scenarios as well as huge R&D investment," said Chen, adding that it is equally important to strengthen data protection and regulation, on which Singapore may offer some experience.

Singapore's AI governance is built on the principles of balance, pragmatic and human-centric, aiming to build an ecosystem of trust to support AI development.

On Friday, the IMDA and Singapore's Personal Data Protection Commission announced the first comprehensive Trusted Data Sharing Framework, in an attempt to ensure consumers are ready to share their data with stronger safeguards and to provide clarity on regulatory compliance.