Singapore Prime Minister says cloud, tech stacks vital to “re-engineering” government | Digital Asia

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It sounds hard to believe, especially with Singapore’s reputation as a hub for technological innovation in Southeast Asia, but in some corners of its government, there are computers still running Windows 98 because some of the applications that are being used can only work on that operating system.

In his opening speech at the inaugural GovTech (Government Technology Agency) Stack Developer Conference, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that although the country were early adopters of technology,  they now “have many legacy IT systems built up over the years, in different government agencies.”

Relying on legacy systems is increasingly proving to be taxing, especially as policies and technologies change (and even more quickly so in the new economy). The system must constantly be kept up-to-date.

“This is an endless task, you could even say it is a Sisyphean task, you think you completed rolling the stone up the hill, it comes down again and you start again,” said Lee, making a reference to Sisyphus, a character in Greek Mythology who was made to spent an eternity rolling a boulder uphill then see it roll back down as punishment for tricking the God of Death.

The illustration is funny because that is what it feels like dealing with a bureaucratic system that is sluggish and muddled. Thankfully, new technology such as cloud and stacks can vastly improve government services, and speed up the journey to becoming a Smart Nation.

“We have to revamp our existing IT infrastructure in order to fully exploit the potential of new technology. In particular, we have to learn how to take maximum advantage of cloud technology,” said Lee, emphasising on the need to “re-engineer” the government.

Today, nearly all government IT systems are located on premises as cloud technology did not exist then. But now cloud technology has become a viable . Tapping on cloud technology will enable developers to gain access to more tool kits and better software,. They can also upgrade and scale their services more easily and quickly due as computing resources can be shared.

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In addition, operating and maintenance costs will be lowered and systems can be run 24/7, without having to provide for expensive dedicated backups.

But due care must be taken when considering whether, or how, a system should be migrated to the cloud.

“We have to decide which systems can use commercial cloud services, and which cannot. For systems that cannot go onto the commercial cloud, we have to design our own government cloud, so that at least these systems can share the government cloud infrastructure, and benefit from its efficiencies and economics of scale,” said Lee.

“And finally, for those systems that are so sensitive or critical that they must be isolated — have air gaps and guarded rooms and Faraday cages — we have to figure out how to develop and operate them, in a future when everything else is on the cloud,” he added.


Government cloud and closed-off systems are likely to be in the minority, though, as the government has already conducted preliminary studies and concluded that many of its systems can in principle exist in the commercial cloud. Lee said the migration to cloud will take place over the next few years as part of a project called CODEX (Core Operations, Development Environment, and eXchange), which is the sixth Strategic National Project (SNP) for Smart Nation.

The other five projects are the National Digital Identity (NDI), E-payments, Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP),  Smart Urban Mobility, and Moments of Life (MOL). Many of these projects are already carrying out trials, these include SNSP’s smart lamp trials and Smart Urban Mobility’s testing of autonomous buses.

Lee also touched upon the redundancy and inefficiency of having different government departments build their own online websites, stating that it not only drives up costs but also results in more blunders in the process.

Also Read: How Singapore’s GovTech is building a robust public e-services ecosystem

“Instead of every agency building their own bespoke website, at great expense, and often repeating the coding errors and bugs, we can do it more efficiently, and get better results, by reusing technologies,” he said.

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This is why the Singapore government is building the SGTS, or Singapore Government Technology Stack, a suite of common software components used in application development so agencies can collaborate and build  and tweak software and services in a centralised manner.

First, the SGTS gives developers access to a common hosting platform, similar to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, so that all the agencies can use the same set of tools and the same programming language.

Second, developers can tap into shared middleware (management software that enables communication in distributed, networked computing environment), such as centralised API gateways, and an automated solution for testing of web and mobile applications.

Finally, the SGTS offers a library of commonly-used micro-services such as payment and authentication, so application developers can simply plug and play.

SGTS is under the umbrella of the CODEX initiative, which also comprises a government data architecture for common data standards and formats that better enables seamless data sharing between agencies.

“Instead of every regulatory agency having its own licensing processes or web forms, we can set up one central system that agencies can adapt for their use. Forms can be pre-filled with information, and users do not need to repeatedly give Government data that we already have,” said Lee.

Some components of CODEX already being built, or are being trialled at a small scale. These include MyInfo Bank Pilot, a component of SGTS that allows banks to onboard new customers using government verified data , and, a portal that is powered by a central communications gateway.

Both projects leveraged GovTech’s Application Programming Interface Exchange — the centralised government-wide API exchange — allowing them to shave months off the development time.

“Together, SGTS, cloud and data will enable us to re-engineer the Government’s digital infrastructure. This will form the dev-ops and digital environment for in-house engineers and users, and will also enable greater collaboration and exchange with the private sector,” he added.

Image Credit: Nicholas Tan

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