Singapore: Security in a ‘Smart Nation’

To openly declare to the rest of the world that your country is not just digitally connected and smart, but a ‘Smart Nation’, is an enviable ambition – and one that brings with it several responsibilities. Notably, it’s a matter of turning the security of individuals and goods into a state affair. So how can a nation keep this promise to be ‘smart’ at a time of constant and rapid flux, whilst avoiding accusations of authoritarianism, and of exerting too much control over people’s lives?

Security stake or over-control?

Singapore has recently revealed that it has been taking retina scans of people entering the territory in the north via Malaysia, and via the port connecting the south with Indonesia. This system, which is already present at passport control in the nation’s airports, will be supplemented by a vast network of CCTV cameras, which will be connected to the 100,000 streetlamps that light up roads in the city and beyond. It’s a system that has already been rolled out in Beijing and Shanghai, accompanied by all the same ethical questions that are raised whenever China acts in a way that affects its citizens’ individual freedoms.

The “Why” of Singapore

However, Singapore has entirely different motives for wanting to become a Smart Nation. For the country, it is primarily an economic issue: the territory is looking to become a worldwide pioneer in innovation. But is the prize of becoming ‘smart’ – one that cities the world over are chasing – worth the troubles of strict and permanent monitoring of people’s every move? It can be said that security is the number one priority. How safe one feels in a city is directly linked to how attractive it is to residents, tourists, and investors. As such, this security argument can support the economic motives for becoming a smart city. This will give every citizen impetus to improve the nation’s performance on the world stage. Being able to respond to new needs that citizens have – as well as to accompany them as they work and move around the country – are ways that a smart nation can ensure that the population flourishes.

Singapore: an envied Smart Nation

At least, this is how Singapore frames the issue on its official website. But this is only covers part of their reasoning. There are other major factors behind any push to hold the enviable title of Smart Nation. For example, the cultural and exploratory nature of such development is interesting to follow. Offering Open Data can attract creators and innovators to all fields, and thus give rise to a national culture of creativity. Let’s not forget that patrons of the arts in Europe’s days of yore had the same overarching plan in place to attract artists to cities such as Florence, Vienna and Paris.

Trust: a priority

Being a kind of ‘living laboratory’ is the promise Singapore is making; primarily to economic players such start-ups and industries that are seeking new places to thrive. The argument will have to be framed to them in terms of cyber-security and preservation of the nation’s business ecosystem, through the inherent stability of Singapore’s financial and commercial regulations.

Smart systems such as Wi-Fi on public transport, autonomous taxi dispatch systems and citizens’ digital identities are already standard in Singapore, and this Smart Nation hopes to digitalise 95% of the interactions between ordinary people and the state in the coming months. Creating an atmosphere of near complete trust in this system is a priority to ensure its success, and it would show the world that a futuristic Smart Nation is a reality in Asia today.