Singapore in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

How can Singapore harness the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — characteristed by rapid digitisation, automation and increasingly complex and disruptive technologies — while mitigating any negative consequences? This was the question experts sought to address at the Tembusu Forum themed “Fourth Industrial Revolution and Singapore”, held on 13 February at NUS.

Debating the topic were invited panellists Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost; Mr Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office in the Prime Minister’s Office; Mr Lim Kok Kiang, Assistant Managing Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB); and Professor Daniel Hastings, CEO and Director of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). The session was moderated by Rector of Tembusu College and Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh.  

“From the dawn of civilisation to 2003, there were about five exabytes of information being created, that’s about five billion gigabytes. And every two days now, we have five exabytes of information being created,” said Prof Ho, who also heads the Smart Nation Research Cluster in NUS. He spoke about opportunities for the customisation of jobs and medicine brought about by technology and artificial intelligence (AI), but also warned about potential challenges surrounding privacy of data and overreliance on machines. “When the machine stops, do we have the capability to do the things that the machine has been doing?” Prof Ho asked the audience.

From the dawn of civilisation to 2003, there were about five exabytes of information being created, that’s about five billion gigabytes. And every two days now, we have five exabytes of information being created.

Heralding the benefits for the global manufacturing sector, Mr Lim said that technology brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution could lower labour costs and level the playing field. “I think all this plays to Singapore’s strength; we have a skilled workforce but on the other hand, we are resource constrained,” he said.

However, he added that people would still be very much in the picture. “It is not about technology or people, but technology and people working together. Experience is something that can never be underestimated,” said Mr Lim, while emphasising the continued importance of skills upgrading to remain adaptable in a changing landscape.  

Giving the audience an insight into Singapore’s route to becoming a Smart Nation, Mr Tan shared three areas that the government hopes to build on — transforming the government, for instance through greater integration of agencies, to better serve the population; using the technology to attract talent and increase productivity for economic growth; and enhancing collaboration between the government and people.

Using a recent phone application — Bus Uncle — as an example, Mr Tan said that citizens could make use of the data available on government platforms with innovative results. “This way of working together which the digital domain provides is a new space, and is something that we want to push, that we think is the way forward,” he said.

Shifting the focus to research, Prof Hastings shared some of the work that SMART and other research groups are involved in that tie in to the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This included placing nanosensors in plants to track their processes, the increasing uses of 3D printing and the development of autonomous vehicles. He also emphasised to the young audience the need to think critically, have a balanced education in a breadth of areas and fields, and be able to communicate effectively.


Students asked a range of questions relating to the topic

Questions for the panellists came quickly from the students, covering a large span of topics from the potential impact on the global supply chain and rights to protect AI, to whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution would increase inequality and what the end point would be.

“I think the future is you guys; you have gone through experiences I have never gone through.The limit is our Singaporeans’ creativity. There are many possibilities you may be able to see that I can’t see,” Prof Ho said at the end of the forum, challenging the audience to take all the opportunities that the new revolution would give them.