40 years ago, after doing a math degree, I went on to study computer
science, on my father’s advice. He said there is a future in that, and he
was right. So for the Smart Nation Programme Office, I have put Minister
Vivian Balakrishnan in charge, reporting to me. Vivian is both a hacker
and a dabbler – He used to be an eye surgeon but since he does not get to
operate on eyes nowadays, he dabbles in building simple robots, assembling
watches, wireless devices and programming apps. His day job is to be the
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and so when he builds
apps, he uses the real time APIs generated by the Ministry. That’s called
user-testing. I used to enjoy this; it is a long time since I’ve done
anything. The last programme I wrote was a Sudoku solver in C++ several
years ago, so I’m out of date. My children are in IT, two of them – both
graduated from MIT. One of them browsed a book and said, “Here, read
this”. It said “Haskell – learn you a Haskell for great good”, and one day
that will be my retirement reading.
Great quote about Singapore citizens trusting the government to do their taxes:
"...we introduced electronic tax-filing back in 1998, since ages ago, before anyone else did it, and today, 97% of tax payers file their taxes online. Because we have kept our tax code simple, you do not need to buy Quicken, Intuit or any of such things. Also, because we have automate the collection of information and populate the table for you, you do not need to work quite so hard – it is a little harder to cheat and so 3 in 5 taxpayers do not even bother about filing taxes. They just take in on trust that our Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has done their sums right. So e-Government works in Singapore."
That said, the 3 verticals of the whole Smart Nation programme (the elderly, transport & data) seem somewhat orthogonal to much of the SV-style explosive-growth consumer apps. Yet those consumer-app areas are where many SV-style fortunes are made and where young tech entrepreneurs want to go - so there's a disconnect between the two directions.
For example, I don't see massive adoption of a new app/device by the elderly happening very easily - they largely (1) don't know English, (2) aren't used to relying on tech so heavily, and (3) won't be able or willing to pay much for it. It tends to be younger people who try new things - and in fact Singaporeans are relatively less adventurous than Americans or other Asian cultures in adopting new apps/services. Things might be different if Singapore were as big as the US, but it isn't. So I wonder how the Smart Nation thing will play out - maybe the biggest customer will be the Singapore government instead of end-users.
(Tangentially, it's personally been a bit frustrating that the VCs that draw on government money seem to prefer e-commerce/B2C apps instead of industry-specific B2B software. The government puts its money where its mouth is, but still relies on VCs to make the picks...and those guys go for hot, mainline trends. So fundraising has been difficult.)
He blogs quite a bit about it here: http://vivian.balakrishnan.sg/
I wish more (all!) countries would have similar people put into places of real popwer in governments.
If not you have something to look forward to, in the early days of our republic, we generally appreciated educated statesmen. Now we prefer our elected officials to be fun-loving guys next door who see the internet as a system of tubes.
I wasn't commenting on his political views, party, or human rights background, which I know nothing about.
[Thanks for the correction raingrove]
Nevertheless, his project "reactor.js" is impressive.
That said I'm glad he's free to pursue his passions as a free-thinking individual and not pressured to do what his ancestors do.
"No, he was truly outstanding: he was head and shoulders above the rest of the students. He was not only the first, but the gap. I think that he did computer science (after mathematics) mostly because his father didn’t want him to stay in pure mathematics. Loong was not only hardworking, conscientious and professional, but he was also very inventive. All the signs indicated that he would have been a world-class research mathematician."
"I’m sure his father never realized how exceptional Loong was. He thought Loong was very good. No, Loong was much better than that. When I tried to tell Lee Kuan Yew, “Look, your son is phenomenally good: you should encourage him to do mathematics,” then he implied that that was impossible, since as a top-flight professional mathematician Loong would leave Singapore for Princeton, Harvard or Cambridge, and that would send the wrong signal to the people in Singapore. And I have to agree that this was a very good point indeed."
"He was still young and it was better that someone else succeed me as prime minister. Then, were Loong to make the grade later, it would be clear that he made it on his own merit."
(They use English in the family, although Lee Hsien Loong can speak Chinese fairly well.)
This is Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew who built up Singapore (obviously a brilliant leader but also, with little oversight, worryingly quick to jail his critics). The People's Action Party (PAP) has been in power since Singapore's formation and opposition party leaders have found themselves in jail or sued into bankruptcy. Benevolent dictators and dynasties work great until they don't.
It will be interesting to see how Singapore fares a few leaders down the line. Hopefully pretty well and more politically tolerant; as it's a nice place with great, talented people!
People are also on edge about immigration and the peaceful multicultural facade hides a darker side of racism in Singapore.
I think you mean 'facade' where you wrote 'fasard'? I don't want to assume, though -- it might be a word I don't recognize, or transliteration -- honestly asking.
As for communication, most other countries have a single dominating language. In Singapore, Mandarin should be the dominate language, but the government has intervened to give each language an equal footing. It just doesn't work.
Are you suggesting that the Indians and the Malays in Singapore should've had to learn Mandarin instead of English?
It does, actually.
> As for communication, most other countries have a single dominating language. In Singapore, Mandarin should be the dominate language, but the government has intervened to give each language an equal footing. It just doesn't work.
And even if Mandarin "should" be the dominant language, at what point should this have happened? While SG was still a crown colony? After the Japanese Occupation, when SG was a part of Malaysia? After being unceremoniously booted out of Malaysia, when racial tensions were harsh and volatile within Singapore itself?
Genuinely curious to understand your perspective.
Of course, I might be assuming.
But @hackerboos: just a friendly heads-up. We're not downvoting you because you 'gave an opinion'. We're downvoting you because you didn't justify your assertion.
Why bend over backwards for 15% of the population? You can justify Malay at a push.
"We decided to opt for English as a common language and it was the only decision which could have held Singapore together. If we had Chinese as a common language, national language, we would have split this country wide apart, and we would be foolish to have Malay or Tamil." Lee Kuan Yew
I actually agree with the above. But Lee should have sought to replace minority languages with English.
This is certainly a valid perspective, hackerboos. But did you know why it didn't happen?
1) External factors A: Singapore gained independence at a time when its neighbours were all hostile. Malaysia wasn't exactly friendly (though not overtly aggressive), but Indonesia was overtly aggressive. LKY described Singapore as a 'Chinese ship in Malay waters'.
2) Internal factors: It is important to remember that at the point of independence, after announcing the separation from Malaysia, LKY was brought by special branch under guard to the Istana. He was forbidden from returning to his residences for fear of Malay retaliation. It's easy to forget that, at the time, Malay Nationalism was strong amongst the Malays. The risk of race riots were real.
Combining 1) and 2) together, you can see that cancelling Malay would have jeopardised Singapore's security - both from within and with its surrounding neighbours. Also, the status of the Malay language is still a contentious issue in Malaysia today. (This is complex, and has something to do with the concept of 'Ketuanan Melayu' in the Malay archipelago)
3) External factors B: Singapore thought it would be an advantage to have its citizens be multi-lingual, in line with its status as an entrepot. Therefore it would be in the best possible position for trade: with China, with which it has maintained good ties, with India, with which it celebrates its 50th year of diplomatic relations this year, and with its neighbours (Malaysia is still the largest trading partner, as of 2014).
Personally, I am able to communicate in English, Chinese and Malay, which gives me an advantage when doing business in SEA. Most startups operating across multiple markets in SEA would agree.
My best guess (and this is but a guess, I don't have sources for this) is that when the government sold the idea of the 'Mother Tongue' policy, they decided to include Tamil (the native language of many of the immigrants) to make it fair.
-- A Singaporean.
Indeed, and the problem with dictatorships is that sooner or later your country will be run by a person you really don't want in charge, and it will be impossible to remove them.
I'm fascinated to see how this plays out; getting a single generational transfer of dictatorship to work is quite an achievement.
The strongest criticism you can give is that some of the democratic institutions aren't as strong as they can be, but all nations have a journey of evolution.
Perhaps this is what's best in a high-tech society.
He's mentioned in the past that he briefly considered a career in academia (Mathematics). That didn't happen, of course. (source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2003/sp20030603.htm)
For those unfamiliar with the term, this is a huge achievement.
Angela Merkel (Kasner) also won a mathematics price during her physics doctorate studies, before she elected to work in agitprop and most likely as master stasi spy under the codenames ANITA and Black Widow.
Which brings me to the theory that being a spy will help you more getting to a prime minister job (Putin, Merkel), than being an excellent mathematician.
In democracy, it's popularity contest. It may be influenced by politicians' technical skills; though, much more often it's influenced by their ideologies.
(If you think that popularity is the same as merit, then look at which current songs are the most popular.)
And a large group of people have tendency to be biased towards short-term goals rather than long-term progress.
On the other hand, democracy is some kind of middle ground. Yes, it's a popularity contest what you say, politician can lie or be short sighted (we have examples of this with France suing Google over its ranking algorithm, or with the US policies in term of imprisonment, just to name a few), but on the overall democracy guarantees more stability than a dictatorship does.
Now, whether this is necessarily a bad thing considering the alternatives is debatable but coming to your point, yeah, something like Singapore just cannot happen in a democracy although it is not due to the short-sightedness of the 'large group of people'.
In a proper democracy the minority opinion (note, I said minority opinion, not minorities' opinion) no matter how flawed and unreasonable would still have to be considered. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, it just slows things down (in either direction !)
I don't know anywhere else that has a computer scientist as a leader, but then again, I suspect that's because most people who have a passion for mathematics or computer science end up going into that field. Virtually nobody it seems decides to leave the CS world for politics. This guy did only because of the whole dynastic element - his father told him what he'd do in life, so he was never able to pursue his skills in this field.
Sometimes I wonder if some of the political problems we often debate here on HN and elsewhere are our own fault. So few people enter politics from the tech and science industries, it should perhaps not surprise us much when technically illiterate leaders pass nonsensical laws .
It's possible that autocratic governments can possibly have both much better and much worse results for the people. Singapore has long been an example of the former, while e.g. China under Mao would be the latter. ISTM, however, that nominal democracies like USA keep finding more ways to reduce the quality of government. We probably won't ever equal the worst dictators of the past, but we might invent different ways to be awful that they had never considered.
I think a more important factor is the size of a government. There is no bureaucrat in Singapore that PM Lee couldn't reach with two phone calls. I shudder to contemplate the task faced by a USA President who wanted to do the same thing. Sometimes I think it would be better for all concerned if the USA were broken into about 300 separate territories for all government tasks, while retaining the same nation-wide citizenship.
Merit, is absolutely important. But freedom, is equally and more so.
Generally, people have a tendency to be biased towards themselves, and their kin.
This is just as true for politicians, and I think this guy is a great example. All this talk about advancing STEM education in the West, but which country is leading? The one where the leader is a top STEM graduate.
Anecdata: I've been to Singapore several times, have loads of friends there. They really are better educated than your average western adult.
The USSR had control over everything back in the day, though the hard sciences and their people had great latitude and somehow enjoyed more freedom compared to those in other domains. They were like little precious princesses.
That's because hard sciences are, well, too hard for your average Soviet dictator to understand, control, and screw up. Not hard enough, apparently, for the average Western politician in 2015.
This was born out of necessity: the hard sciences were the weapons program, first and foremost. Then, there's usually not much to argue in material world from Communist POV. Unlike the soft/social sciences where there's much bigger potential for subversive.
That said, they never had more "latitude" than their Western colleagues. There were waves of crackdowns on supporters of relativist physics, on computer science, on genetics. Korolev, the champion behind the Soviet space programme, died from kidney condition resulting from his prison camp labor.
Afaik she approximated the Schrödinger equation to compute the rate of decay of molecules with up to 6 atoms.
This  is the last physics paper of her (from 1990). After the wall fell, her interests changed quite a bit... Only political papers from then on.
It may be rigged, not sure.
Political leadership (whether in a democracy or in a dictatorship) is about persuading people to cooperate with each other, not about reading and writing, except perhaps as a means to that persuasion, and not about programming, either. But the extent to which you can rightly aim your cooperative efforts depends crucially on your understanding of the world in which they will play out, and when it comes to that, political leaders lacking basic informatics competence are as mentally crippled in the 21st century as an illiterate political leader like Charlemagne would have been in the 19th. Nobody really occupies the role of “history’s actors” that Karl Rove believed he was in. We are all constrained to be in the reality-based community, or fail as he did.
So I am not surprised that he should have some additional chops to be amongst the highest paid world political leaders.
He wants to build a data marketplace, invest in tech R&D )since 2010). OH and he also programs in Haskell.
I mean this is amazing how he have dedicated so much for this topic.
"Today, about two million trees have sprouted, and each is recorded in the NParks database."
The current prime minister was the son of a tea-seller, and not very highly educated.
Who do most think is a better prime minister? The second. I believe faith in technocrats is misplaced, and wisdom does not equal technical competence.
Anyway, you raise a fair point with a solid counterexample.
More than half are administrators (probably civil servants i think), teachers, lawyers.
So human politics is far more obviously powerful than science.
It's been a good-enough approximation for most of history, even though in practice it's completely wrong.
Politics is badly in need of a Copernican revolution which puts the physical world at the centre of politics, not the periphery.