Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-In-Charge of Smart Nation, at the launch of Singapore Maker Festival, 5 December 2014, 8.00pm, National Design Centre

Date Published: 05 Dec 2014


1    Good evening everyone.

2    Following Mitch Altman and William Hooi is an extremely difficult task. I had a prepared text, I’m going to try to deliver some of that but I thought I should respond to what has been said so far.

3    First how many of our makers are lonely people, can I get a show of hands? How many of you are lonely? Thank you.

4    Secondly, if you think about what Mitch has shared, the reason why he is so famous was this act of rebellion; that he could switch off all these sensory inputs that were being panelled to us without any choice. Mitch, that is the secret of it - it is an act of rebellion.

5    But there is a third dimension to it, and that is: that you could do something of your choice, something that you love, on your time and on your terms; and that sense of empowerment that flows through someone who is sometimes lonely, always a rebel and looking for purpose. So there is logic, there is real psychology and there is real emotion behind what you have just presented, and I want to ask all of you to thank Mitch again for being so open and so honest with all of us.

6    Now let me give you the commercial bits. First I am very glad to be here, and I am also very conscious that now I can see familiar faces and I hope, friends amongst here. I was invited by William way before anybody knew I was going to be in charge of Smart Nation, so I am here amongst friends and family. So for that, thank you William.

7    Next thing, I wanted to spend some time telling you why I think the time for makers has arrived. This is a somewhat serious message, but bear with me.

Singapore’s Industrial Transformation

8    If you go back in time, there used to be this thing called the ‘cottage industry’. Makers a couple of centuries ago were making leather patches, inscribing names, making clothes/silks; making products. It was called the cottage industry because this was before the industrial revolution and you worked literally in a cottage, and you created things on the basis of the abilities of your hands, with ideas, with design; you sold it to the few people who lived around you; so by definition it could never travel far and wide and it will be confined to your village. So just like the makers of today, the makers during the time of the cottage industry were also lonely people. They probably were not very well-fed people either because the market was small.

9    Fast forward to the industrial revolution – that was only about 200 years ago. The key thing that happened with the industrial revolution was the age of mass production. Because it no longer was just a matter of one maker making a few unique, beautiful products and selling it to a few friends and family, but it was about big factories making thousands or millions of things in order to achieve economies of scale, in order to be cheaper and more standardised than someone else and being able to reach a mass market. You mentioned people being unhappy at work; it is in fact a reflection of a psychological response to the age of mass production.

10    Because in the age of mass production, very few people get to design and very few people get to make. In fact, most people are not makers, most people are production operators. Most people are doing more of the same, eight hours a day for an entire lifetime.

11    If you transpose that to Singapore; modern Singapore has been around for 200 years. Sir Stamford Raffles came along and discovered a nice deep water harbour; a nice point, 1 degree north of the equator at the southernmost tip of Asia. It is where the northeast monsoon and the southwest monsoons met. What that means was that if you had silk from China, if you had spices from the Indonesian islands or if you had metalwork from Europe; goods would be traded and there would be an emporium and entrepot role for Singapore.

12    For 200 years, we did well as a trading port and as a hub. But after we became independent in 1965 – and in particular, once the British announced the pull-out of the British army back west of Suez – we were confronted with a very real risk of unemployment of 30%. So, Singapore had to transform itself from a trading port trading other people’s products; we had to industrialise, we had to fill up a swamp called Jurong, we had to build factories, we had to invite multi-national companies to come to Singapore and said “Please bring your technology, bring your markets, bring your expertise, bring even your management so that we can have jobs for our people”. For that we needed a hardworking, disciplined and educated workforce; and Singaporeans worked very hard. So we became a manufacturing sector.

13    Twenty years ago, we were the world’s largest maker of hard disks for computers. Today, we are not the world’s largest maker of hard disks and the reason why we are not is because hard disks have become commoditised and if you are still making hard disks today, your salary cannot be at the level that it was twenty years ago. So the point is that moving into manufacturing, and even Singapore’s role as a hub and base for multi-nationals to make other people’s products and ideas and to ship it to the rest of the world; even that idea (great as it was 40 years ago) starts to run out of steam. So fast forward to today, what is going on?

14    I would suggest to you that there are three key changes that have occurred, not just in Singapore but that have occurred worldwide. What are these three changes? I have said that we have just emerged from the age of mass production. I think we are at the transition point of moving to the age of mass customisation; mass production versus mass customisation. What do I mean by that?

The Era of Mass Customisation

15    If you all were to take out your hand-phones and show me your home screens. Let me ask, “Can you find anyone in this room with the exact same home screen?” You can’t. Yes, we may have the same device but every one of us has a unique fingerprint of the apps that we have loaded, the data that we refer to, the media that we read, the music that is on our phone, our contact lists - they are all different. It is an example of mass customisation.

16    Take something more pedestrian – blue jeans. Everyone has got blue jeans but no one has exactly the same blue jeans because, in fact if you are really into it, finding that special material; you are treating it, bleaching it, abusing it, making sure that your blue jeans are unique in the room. So that is the first thing.

17    Now, if you move into a world of mass customisation, let me ask you, “What opportunities does that make for makers?” For it means now that there is a whole brand new world for you; to customise something, to hack something, to produce something which someone somewhere else will want or will be able to use or to modify. So that is the first point, mass customisation.

Commoditisation of Hardware

18    The second big thing that has happened is the commoditisation of hardware. I got into this journey because in 1982, the Civil Service decided to issue loans to civil servants to buy computers. My father was a lecturer so he got a loan worth far more than a month’s salary to buy my first computer; an Apple II Plus. Six-thousand dollars for 48 kilobytes of RAM (random access memory), one green-screen monitor, one floppy disk drive which could read 140 kilobytes and an Epson dot-matrix printer; 6,000 dollars 32 years ago. That is a fortune if you tried to convert that to today’s dollars. But today - well don’t look at an iPhone - take a XiaoMi, a hundred and sixty-nine dollars with no contract, and if you go to Shenzhen you can get it at a fraction of that cost.

19    Hardware prices have collapsed. They are commoditised and everyone can have access to it and it is not just assembled hardware. Take for example the components of TV-B-Gone; if you went to Shenzhen and you bought all the components following Mitch’s plans. Would it cost five dollars? Less, two dollars. Next year it would be one dollar; everything that Mitch’s device can do can be had for basically close to zero. That opens up new possibilities because suddenly everyone can afford everything, so that has changed.

Affordable Sensors and Mobile Connectivity

20    The third big change is that together with the commoditisation of hardware, it also means sensors that measure water in drains, the sensors of air quality, the sensors of heat, even sensors of human beings – infrared sensors, ultra-sound sensors have become more affordable. You guys are makers, you know as well as I do; those prices have also collapsed. So sensors have become commoditised, price trending to zero.

21    What else has come down tremendously? Connectivity. Yes we can argue with the telecommunication companies about 3G, 4G, LTE and all that. But just take something as ubiquitous as Bluetooth or WiFi - my most recent acquisition was, for about five US dollars, a WiFi device which you can plug onto any Arduino (electronics platform); or you could plug that WiFi device onto Mitch’s device for five dollars.

22 The microcontroller for the device, even if you were to use a standard Arduino or even if you to just take out the ATmega328 chip - it is about two US dollars. That plus WifI and Bluetooth – we now live in a world in which the price of connectivity has also crashed down to near zero.

23    But that is not all. When the price trends to zero and everybody has a WiFi transmitter and receiver, you have also got the basics of a mesh network, and I can send a bit to you which you can send on to someone outside this room and it can go on. Basically, it is a world which is extremely decentralised. The old ‘utility’ model of a single generator of electricity, a single provider of telephony; those centralised models are breaking down and it is becoming a decentralised world.

A Smart Nation for Makers

24    So put all these three things together: mass customisation, the commodification of hardware and the proliferation of sensors and connectivity which in turn leads to a tsunami of data being available. Put these three trends together, what does that mean, especially for makers like you?

25    It means you can now exercise your imagination to the full, money is not the limiting factor; you are only limited by your imagination. It also means that it is not just the making of individual products. In fact, because all our devices have to be connected - always on, sensing and aware all the time - the real intelligence and the real breakthrough is answering “Can you analyse, can you coordinate, can you collaborate, can you create new products and services which people do not even yet know they need?”

26    The point I wanted to leave with you is that because of these major face-changers that have occurred across the world, this is the best time ever to be a maker because you have got access, you have got connectivity, you can share ideas; you can take his idea, customise it, fit it in your scenario and move with it.

27    The reason why the Prime Minister launched Smart Nation is because we recognise that we - the world and Singapore - are at an inflexion point. All these changes have profound implications on jobs, happiness, on human fulfilment and the enormous opportunities for people who are on the right side of that curve. So I am back here with you to tell you that Smart Nation will be an enormous opportunity for all of you.

28    From the Government’s side – now you guys know the Singapore Government, we are hyper-rational, logical, disciplined – those attributes are still there, but because we know that the world has changed; if you have got a product or a service that makes sense, a product or service that will make life better, more convenient, more fulfilling, happier; if you have got those things, pitch it to us.

29    We will be reference customers and we will say “Yes, this works. Take it and run and if it succeeds in Singapore it may succeed elsewhere” so there will be lots and lots of opportunities but you have to run with it.

30    Similarly, on data; we will try to make as much data available as possible as long as it does not compromise privacy, personal security and national security. But again, bringing down the barriers that divide agencies or that divides Government from its people and from the private sector - we believe that in this brave new world that we are moving into, the concept of sharing is key. Sharing an idea is unlike sharing a finite, natural product/resource which is limited; ideas can enhance, ideas derive value by sharing.

31    So continue making, continue tinkering, continue innovating, continue sharing; hit us with your best deals. You will find and I hope that we will be able to prove, that Singapore is the best place in the world to be a maker, an inventor, an artist, a poet - a person who combines arts, science, technology and culture; to quote William Hooi.

32    Thank you all very much.

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