Innovation a Great Starting Point for Mutual Learning between Singapore and Allies

14 May 2019

Brussels, 14 May 2019 - Science and technology (S&T) has become “the new pillar of the economy”, Mohamad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Defence, told Assembly members when they visited Singapore from 6 to 9 May.

During the first-ever visit to Singapore by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA), members of the Science and Technology Committee (STC) sought to understand how the country navigates the profound changes taking place in the global S&T and security landscapes. Led by Maria Martens, STC Chairperson, 20 Members of Parliament from 11 NATO Member States visited the city-state of about 5.7 million inhabitants.

Singapore could never feel it has reached an end point, Minister Maliki underlined. It would need to continuously reinvent itself to remain relevant to its friends. If Singapore did not, no one would pay attention to such a small country, he argued. Indeed, small city states like Singapore “have no intrinsic value for the international system”, said Tong Ronald, Director (Defence Policy) at the Ministry of Defence (MOD). “We will always remain a little red dot on the map.”

Singapore lacks natural resources and strategic depth and depends heavily on sea lines of communications. Regionally, the state finds itself in a veritable “supermarket for threats”, Dr Michael Raska, Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) argued. Moreover, Singapore’s society is rapidly ageing and has a low fertility rate.

Innovation through S&T was the key to overcome these challenges, most interlocutors argued. Singapore is consistently ranked at the very top of innovation indexes, in particular when it comes to the innovation talent pool.

However, the government is driving further innovation initiatives across the government and the university sector.

The most important plank for innovation is the Smart Nation initiative begun in 2017. Singapore wants to become a hyperconnected country through digitalisation and with the goal of building a vibrant ecosystem for economic growth and social development. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a key factor in creating this Smart Nation Singapore. AI has “disruptive power”, and “we are embracing this with open arms”, said Foo Me Har, Chairperson of the Estimates Committee of the Singapore Parliament. Singapore is already ranked as number one in AI research and development based on citation impact.

While civilian innovation consumes the bulk of the government’s energy and investments, the defence and security sector must safeguard against the vulnerabilities such digitalisation brings and innovate to tackle its own challenges. 

For one, a Smart Nation has to be a “secure Smart Nation”, according to Benjamin Ang, Senior Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS. With several cyber incidents over the last few years, Singapore has redoubled its cyber security and defence efforts. Teo Chin Hock, Deputy Chief Executive (Development) at the Cyber Security Agency, told delegates that Singapore’s 2016 cyber security strategy – the first for the country – rests on four pillars: resilient infrastructure, a safer cyber space, a vibrant cyber ecosystem, and international partnerships.

In the MOD and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), cyber security and defence is also a key area of investment, as they are digitalising and investing heavily in areas such as AI, data science, robotics, augmented reality, network connectivity, and precision firepower. 

Its Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) has also recognised that it must be closer to the start-up community which is working on cutting edge innovation. It has for example recently set up a DSTA office in Block 71 – a unique incubator for innovation – to demystify defence, but also have access to the brightest people in the marketplace and tap into new ideas.

Singapore has very good relations with all NATO member states, the EU, and NATO itself, Minister Maliki stressed. With NATO, Singapore has had very good high-level contacts in recent years. The country is also looking forward to welcoming the Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach, at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue. In principle, Singapore welcomes increased NATO interest in Southeast Asia, he noted. “We are heartened by the amount of interest in Singapore”, he said, “we can learn from each other”. 

The delegation also had the opportunity to tackle other issues such as maritime security, strategic communications, and counterterrorism, as they met with interlocutors from government, parliament, academia, companies, and others.

An official summary report of the visit will be published on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s website at a later stage.

Photos of the visit are available for public use and can be viewed on our Flickr account.

Read also