Calling our future CTO: Lessons from Singapore’s government tech transformation

This article was originally published on

Singapore’s Chief Information Officer Chan Cheow Hoe is probably the closest thing to what New Zealand was searching for in a Chief Technology Officer before the Clare Curran-Derek Handley debacle.

Chan Cheow Hoe isn’t your typical government bureaucrat. He breezes into the Straits Cafe, just off Singapore’s iconic Orchard Road, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt and carrying an iPhone.

Chan was lured back to Singapore in 2014 to become Singapore’s Chief Information Officer and shake up how government departments used technology.

He’s the man steering Singapore’s digital transformation in its bid to become a ‘smart nation’ – a country that deploys technology strategically to tackle major challenges facing it. A veteran of the banking sector where he ran major IT projects for Citibank, Barclays and ABN Amro, Chan was lured back to Singapore in 2014 to shake up how government departments used technology.

He was integral to establishing GovTech, Singapore’s 2,000-person Government Technology Agency, which since 2016 has been responsible for steering the country’s nationally significant technology projects.

As he addressed over 1,000 software developers and tech professionals who gathered two days earlier for the country’s first major government-organised developers’ conference, Stack 2018, Chan gave the impression of a man attempting to turn around one of the oil tankers that frequent Singapore’s bustling port.

“Government has for a long time been obsessed with doing bigger and bigger things,” he told them.

“But that is what got us into trouble in some ways. Because systems are so complex that nobody can maintain them. Over the last 20 years we have done a lot, but our legacy is catching up with us. We need to move forward in a very different way of doing technology.”

Our CTO debacle

Chan is probably the closest thing to what New Zealand was searching for in a Chief Technology Officer before entrepreneur Derek Handley was last month dumped from the job he’d returned from New York to take up but hadn’t yet started.

The government is now “rethinking the role” after digital services minister Clare Curran mishandled the appointment process leading to her removal from Cabinet. The tech industry was already frustrated by the vague job description for the CTO role and the lack of consultation on its remit.

Singapore also has an Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer, headed by Dr Lee Fook Kay. It is broadly similar to our own Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and even runs labs dedicated to research on issues such as automation and robotics, human profiling and screening, and control of chemical weapons.

But with national tech strategy in mind, the new minister, Dr Megan Woods, could learn a thing or two from Chan.

He’s part technologist, part evangelist for how digital services can transform government. He has strong ties in business but is politically savvy as well.

“I’m not here to run enterprise technology,” he told Noted. “I really want to build capabilities in government. That’s how we started.”

Singapore is regularly listed alongside New Zealand as a small advanced nation, progressive on the digital front, with a highly skilled workforce. We are comparable in size population-wise. But Singapore has leveraged its geographic position as a gateway to Asia and its business-friendly environment, to develop a tech hub that dwarfs our own industry.

Amazon, Facebook and Google all base their Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore and the top cloud storage providers have data centres there serving the region, attracted by the country’s top-notch broadband infrastructure and international fibre links.

Singapore’s strength in financial services has generated investment in tech start-ups and the country boasts a large skilled international workforce, attracted by low taxes and a great standard of living.

Most importantly perhaps, Singapore has a strong vision for how it wants to use technology to improve the lives of its 5.6 million citizens and residents.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 3.52.46 PM
Singapore has become a tech and innovation hub photo: Peter Griffin

Small is beautiful

But arriving at the Singapore Government’s Infocomm Development Authority in 2014, Chan found “zero capability” to deliver on the government’s technology ambitions. Most IT projects were outsourced to technology vendors.

“These big vendors have got fat and ugly because they are feeding off government funding,” he says.

“People who started as project managers over time became contract managers, we lost all the IT capabilities. There were a few spectacular failures, big products that cost us 50 million, 100 million bucks that failed.”

His plan was to reimagine technology as a core capability of the government, rather than just an enabler. That involved rebuilding an internal tech workforce, no easy task in the face of bureaucratic inertia and the well-established, if flawed, outsource model.

“My first year was fighting fires. The thing about government is that it is never active resistance, it is passive resistance. After that we started building. We started very small – seven people,” says Chan, who in addition to his CIO role also serves as deputy chief executive (products), of GovTech.

“By 2015, we had done some interesting stuff and people were taking notice. Something that was previously done in two years for five million bucks was now done in six months for $100,000.”

An early success involved the country’s business grants system.

“Every agency gives grants and every agency had their own system,” says Chan.

“So we convinced the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which owns grants, to have 12 to 15 agencies come together and build one.”

It was symbolic of Chan’s plan to build a technology “stack” that could be used to deliver services across government departments. Rather than the health or civil defence ministry going out to tender for an IT project and managing the contract individually, Chan’s team would see how they could leverage internal platforms and methodologies to design a product that could be reused across government.

GovTech still uses external companies and is an enthusiastic user of open source software, such as Kubernetes, the system for deploying and scaling up software applications. But it is government engineers who now have their hand firmly on the tiller when it comes to product design and implementation. GovTech is helping the government transition to commercial cloud computer services.

The new approach won the support of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who was looking to ramp up Singapore’s Smart Nation strategy, which included developing more streamlined digital services and moving to a cashless society.

“I learnt something when I was at Citi a long time ago,” says Chan.

“Find a friend, make your friend really successful and then blow the crap out of it.”

Support from the top

GovTech was officially formed as its own unit in 2016.

“The PM made a very important decision,” says Chan. “He put GovTech under the Prime Minister’s Office. To govern it, he created a committee of five ministers. It is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister [Teo Chee Hean] himself. So we now have a lot more clout. I see the PM more often than many of the ministers, probably once a month.”

GovTech began to grow rapidly as Singapore identified five strategic projects to advance its Smart Nation strategy. They included the push to make e-payments quick and easy, the deployment of sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to better understand and manage the city-state and improving public transport through using artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.

Moments of Life, similar to the New Zealand Government’s ‘life events’ strategy, seeks to give Singaporeans access via an app and websites to government services as they face the birth of a child, starting a business or the death of a relative.

Central to them all is the National Digital Identity, which is being expanded as the SingPass mobile app with biometric authentication to let citizens verify their identity in online transactions and share information with government departments and companies.

Chan’s mantra for all of these projects is “small is beautiful”.

“When we do big systems we are taking on a lot of risk,” he explains. He prefers his technical team, which now numbers over 300 engineers and software developers, to first build a minimum viable product and then grow incrementally.

“Build services that can be reused over and over again. Build services that allow us to scale up quickly and lower the cost of implementation permanently. It is very effective, low-risk and at the same time, a learning process.”

Hive mind

But as the tech-related projects piled up, Chan faced a challenge in securing the tech talent to meet the demand.

“Singapore lost a lot of talent to Silicon Valley,” he explains.

“To get them back is very difficult. I became the human resources director myself, I started going around talking to a lot of really good Singaporeans who were working in the Valley, London, all kinds of places. I got a few of them to come back out of pure persuasion.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 3.52.54 PM
Singapore’s Sandcrawler

Highly-paid Silicon Valley engineers didn’t see the attraction of working for government. So Chan set about developing Hive, a stand-alone headquarters for GovTech drawing on the best aspects of start-up and tech sector culture.

“We were trying to hire good people and we knew the government bureaucracy would drive them crazy. We built Hive to insulate them from all this nonsense.”

Enter the Sandcrawler. The Singapore headquarters of LucasFilms’ Industrial Light and Magic is named after the Star Wars transport vehicle that inspired its design. It is the coolest place to work in the city, the Asian equivalent of Apple’s new spaceship-like HQ in Cupertino.

Chan wanted to base his team of “GovTechies” there.

“They said you are not a creative industry, you are government. I had to do a pitch to the [building] management,” he remembers.

“Finally they gave us a floor.”

Now GovTech spans three floors of the Sandcrawler. It has also embraced the “agile” approach to project management, a methodology associated with software development. That too was a response to government stodginess, says Chan.

“If I am being agile and innovative and I have this guy who says no, you must write me a 250 page paper to justify this…”

Attempting to work with government IT systems, the engineers were initially frustrated.

“It was driving them crazy,” says Chan. “That’s not how agile is practised. We started looking to build our own platform, our own devops [development operations], our own gateway.”

They moved fast without the formality usually reserved for government.

“For the early projects, we were in restaurants and we used to draw architecture on a napkin.”

The culture, decent staff remuneration and career development, has been successful in luring talent.

Parimal Aswani, a Singaporean who had been chief technology officer at Dreamworks Animation’s Bangalore Studio came back to serve as director of GovTech’s digital services. Apple engineer Quek Yang Boon, who had designed the sensors in the digital crown of the Apple Watch, returned to Singapore to lead a team of engineers developing GovTech’s sensors and Internet of Things devices.

“We have people who make sensors, people in communications, people who are looking at data, people who are running the infrastructure and applications. They form a connected web of capabilities,” says Chan.

Paying its way

Key to GovTech’s modus operandi is also its funding model, which again borrows from the start-up world. Rather than going through the lengthy process of applying for project funding, each capability centre within GovTech – applications, cybersecurity, infrastructure, sensors and IoT and data science and AI, each has its own pot of money for “white space” development.

“They can try things out, build proof of concepts and figure out what’s successful and not,” says Chan, crediting the Ministry of Finance with accommodating a more flexible funding structure.

“And we fail fast.”

GovTech, rather than being a cost centre for government, also generates its own revenue: S$269.5 million (NZ$302.6 million) in its first six months of operation according to its maiden financial report. It charges each government department for services it delivers to it.

“We have a billing structure, every person, including myself, has a charge out rate. We have fully loaded costs for every individual. When we do a project for an agency, we bill it,” says Chan.

“We’ve moved from a totally service company to now, where more than 50 per cent of our revenue is from products.”

GovTech’s platform processes a million application programme interface (API) transactions a day, powering numerous apps and online services.

“Now we have the stack, small vendors can build on top of it. I don’t care if a company says, I just want to write one API for you. Sure, go ahead.”

Arguably, GovTech’s approach has worked because of Singaporeans’ high level of trust in the Government, which has roots in the country’s de facto one-party rule and what many consider the benevolent dictatorship of Lee Kuan Yew, who governed Singapore for three decades during which time the economy was transformed.

“People are not cynical,” says Chan.

“[But] there’s a soft part to it. We spend a lot of time engaging the citizens. It can’t be taken for granted. We also have very strong digital inclusion programmes to bring the less tech savvy people on board.”

His challenge now is staying small but beautiful as GovTech grows.

Dismantling the monolith
“For the longest time, the government has always built monolithic platforms. They are not sharable. It also creates a level of fragmentation. It happens in Australia and New Zealand too,” he says.

He has close ties to senior officials in New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs and considers us to be “one of the more progressive places” for government digital services, along with the Scandinavian countries.

Though loathe to give any other country advice about how to run government tech, Chan is clearly proud of GovTech and regularly invites colleagues in New Zealand and other countries to Singapore, mainly to “bitch and moan” about their common problems, he admits.

“All of my friends were betting how long I would stay – six months, eight months, one year?” he says.

“I’ll write a book one day. It’s a crazy journey, it’s fun, that’s why I’m still here.”

Chan Cheow Hoe’s three-point guide to getting tech done in government

1: Leadership: “It has to come from the top. Like it or not, everybody has an agenda. If you don’t fulfil the agenda, you are barking up the wrong tree.”

2: Show success: “It is great talking about it. If you don’t show success, nobody cares. People believe it if what you preach can actually come true.”

3: Culture: “Are the leaders able to embody the kind of culture that will create this environment? I’m in jeans half the time. It’s fun.”

Peter Griffin visited Singapore as a guest of GovTech.