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Making Singapore ASEAN’s data hub
February 12, 2016 Blog big data

This article was originally published by and can be viewed in full here

On 31 December, ten Asean member-states gave birth to a common market, the Asean Economic Community (AEC), a boost to Southeast Asia’s combined economic clout as the world’s seventh largest economy. AEC has an estimated economic value of US$2.5 trillion annually, powered by a fast-growing market of more than 600 million people.

If, according to Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Professor Tommy Koh, “trade is strategy”, then AEC has made the region a force for influence which would enable Asean members to punch above their weight on the world stage. Much has been written about the promise of AEC. The economic community is today regarded as having the twin-potential of offering investors both a new Pearl River Delta, China’s low-cost manufacturing belt, along with the innovation capital, professional services, and high-tech research hubs like Singapore.

While these complementary roles among AEC members make for a wonderful proposition for investors, Singapore’s aspirations to be the “New York of Southeast Asia” pits the nation-state against the capitals of neighboring states whose governments are also stepping up investments in infrastructure, connectivity, and incentives to lure multinational corporations to base their headquarters in these respective countries.

Echoing these concerns, Singapore’s Labor Chief, Chan Chun Sing penned in his first blog post: “As the global economy slows down, investments may also not come by that easily. Recently, I visited a high-end engine maintenance company. Our workers there are highly productive and skilled… But will foreign MNCs pass us over because they want to put the jobs elsewhere for non-economic considerations? It is indeed tough to compete for investments to create new and better jobs for our workers. While we cannot control all factors, we must certainly give investors the best possible reasons to want to be here. No one owes us a living.”

Fueling Singapore’s competitive edge with data

Singapore’s bid to become the world’s first Smart Nation certainly offers investors a good reason to “want to be here”.

By 2020, analyst group IDC predicts that there will be more data bits produced than there are known quantities of stars in the sky. Investors know that an organisation’s ability to harness big data in decision-making will become even more critical in a smarter age.

The same analyst group found in a 2015 study that businesses that encouraged employees to use data in their day-to-day work outperformed organisations that did not by two-to-one. Management consultancy McKinsey found that firms that complemented decision-making with data saw 5 to 6 percent higher returns.

A Smart Nation, like the plethora of smart cities across the globe, runs on data; data that has to be produced, received and analysed rapidly and seamlessly. And it is on that premise that investors will recognise that Singapore’s Smart Nation ambition serves their needs, as much as the livelihood of Singaporeans.

Early into its Smart Nation initiative, Singapore ensured that foundations were in place from which innovations across the island could scale with data. The government embarked on a HetNet (Heterogeneous Network) program to blanket the Little Red Dot with always-on Internet-connectivity; introduced regulation to protect the privacy of individuals in form of the Personal Data Protection Act; and encouraged an environment for co-creation with data to allow disruptive thinking to influence government decision-making.

However exhaustive the government’s slate of investments into the island’s infrastructure, Singapore needs to also have a citizen-workforce that shares her ambition, in order to turn this good reason for investors to “want to be here” into a compelling one.

Returns from a data-smart workforce

Many organisations in Singapore, particularly small and medium enterprises, have been struggling to make the productivity leap. Research analysts from Nomura said: “It seems to us that the failure of the restructuring drive to lift productivity growth has to do with implementation. The take-up of various schemes to help firms improve productivity has not been widespread.”

Casting our sights beyond Singapore’s shores, we see examples of organisations that have been successful in becoming more productive by embracing a data culture organisation-wide. Allow me to share just two examples.

Playlab is a leading game developer and publisher, well known for hit titles like Juice Cubes and Jungle Cubes. With more than 25 million downloads and a daily active user base of more than 2 million, the team at Playlab has a great deal of data they could analyse to enhance game play.

By promoting a self-service data analytics culture among its production team in Thailand, Playlab has made it easier for its game designers to make correct evaluations on how to adapt and balance the game design by referring to insights gained from the data visualisations. This data-driven culture has enabled time savings of 200 to 300 percent.

Eveready Industries India, Ltd is India’s largest-selling brand of dry cell batteries and flashlights (torches), with dominant market shares of about 46% and 85% respectively.

By encouraging more people in the organisation to tap on data for decision-making, more people within the team can have access to information and arrive at smarter decisions quicker. In just the first six months of embracing this culture, Eveready has already seen a considerable jump in sales with an ROI of about 526 percent.

The list of success stories from abroad goes on, and I hope that these stories will spur organisations here to step up and embrace data as a core capability. For people, communities, and organisations to thrive in Smart Nation Singapore, they will have to be comfortable with harnessing data in their everyday living.

And when self-service data analytics becomes ubiquitous, organisations in Singapore will not only be able to bridge this productivity gap, their data-smart workforce will also be a compelling proposition for investors to help our Little Red Dot realise our vision of becoming the innovation capital for AEC.