Tech tales of an intelligent island
In 1970s Singapore, the idea of computers in the workplace was a radical one. Only a handful of people knew about them, and fewer still had seen one first-hand.
Today, Singapore is a highly connected nation with a thriving tech industry; yet not many know about the unsung heroes who pioneered this transformation.
Now, you can read about them in Intelligent Island: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Tech Journey, a new book that seeks to unwrap the thinking and philosophy that have shaped Singapore’s tech landscape.
Intelligent Island profiles many of Singapore’s policy-makers, entrepreneurs, inventors and IT professionals who, in the early days of Singapore’s tech revolution, navigated uncharted territory to bring the industry to where it is today.
The 256-page book, commissioned by the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF), was launched by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, at The Pod at the National Library on 13 June 2017.
In attendance were many of the personalities profiled in the book, including the legendary Mr Philip Yeo, Chairman of SPRING Singapore.
The ‘write’ team
“The book is not just about our milestones and achievements. We wanted to put across the thinking behind the back stories, the untold ones,” said Mr P Ramakrishna, deputy CEO of CIO Academy Asia and one of the book’s co-curators.
The idea of documenting Singapore’s tech journey had been incubating since his time at the then-Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), said Mr Ramakrishna.
But the project only took off in August 2015, after he pitched it to Mr Saw Ken Wye, CEO of CrimsonLogic and currently chairman of the SiTF Council, over a beer.
With support from SiTF, the project’s core group was formed: a nine-person writing team which included Mr Ramakrishna and former Straits Times journalist Ms Grace Chng, another of the book’s co-curators.
Several tech industry veterans, such as Mr Bill Liu, managing partner at Stream Global, contributed to the book’s writing as well.
“It was important to get the right people for the team, so I was fortunate to have Grace who was a journalist and has been through the entire tech journey,” said Mr Ramakrishnan.
“Similarly, I had Bill who is a veteran of the industry — he was like our conscience because for whatever we did, he helped us verify the facts.”
Visionaries, rebels and entrepreneurs
In the 1970s, IT in Singapore was still in its infancy, and the future of the industry was unclear, said Mr Liu.
Back then, there were no formal institutes or courses to train IT professionals. Hence, tech companies and vendors had to provide their own training in order to serve their customers well and remain a step ahead of competitors, Mr Liu said. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he added.
Mr Liu mentioned two movers and shakers of Singapore’s early IT industry who are featured in the book, and from whom he had the privilege of receiving mentorship: Mr Johnny Moo, who founded Computer System Advisers (CSA) to provide IT training and services; and the late Mr Robert Iau, who established the Institute of Systems Science (ISS), Singapore’s first national institute for continuing education in IT.
“These men were very good communicators, and when you worked with them, there was never a dull moment,” said Mr Liu.
Other stories in Intelligent Island include those of the rebels and entrepreneurs, such as Mr Tan Min-Liang, the co-founder of Razer who left his days as a lawyer behind and turned his interest in computer gaming into a cult brand.
The next chapter
Building a digital hub, however, requires more than just cold hard technology.
“It’s not just about the tech, but also about how the startup community develops and evolves through a process of learning, unlearning and relearning,” said SGInnovate head Dr Alex Lin, who also spoke at the launch.
“The strength of a wolf is in the pack, and the strength of the pack is in the wolf,” Mr Lin added.
And indeed, the pack is growing: according to figures from SGInnovate, quoted in the book, the number of tech startups in Singapore has almost doubled from 24,000 in 2005 to 42,000 in 2013.
Other stories touch on some of the defining moments in Singapore’s infocomm and media journey, said Ms Shirley Wong, managing partner at TNF Ventures and a member of the book’s editorial committee.
One such moment is the formation of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) in 2016. In an interview with GovTech chief executive Ms Jacqueline Poh, the book brings out the agency’s vision of transforming Singapore into a Smart Nation by leveraging new technologies to deliver more effective public services.
“There are many golden nuggets inside the book,” said Ms Wong.
“This is a must-read for any tech professional today because I think you can really glean lessons from the rich experiences and knowledge of our pioneers.”