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Inside Singapore’s public sector IT strategy

Adopting a platform approach with products that can scale across the board and building a strong engineering bench are some of the key aspects in Singapore’s public sector IT strategy

As the largest employer in the country, the Singapore government has to meet the technology needs of more than 150,000 public officers while delivering high-quality digital government services for citizens and residents.

And so, the only way for the public sector to scale and stay relevant without adding more headcount is to focus on building products and platforms, and tap into the ecosystem of cloud technology suppliers, said Chan Cheow Hoe, the government’s chief digital technology officer.

Stressing the importance of reusability, Chan, who is also deputy chief executive of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), said products such as the Singpass digital identity system, for example, are used in every GovTech product, system and platform.

He was speaking at the agency’s biennial Stack conference, a gathering of developers from both public and private sectors that have helped to build many of GovTech’s products.

But it is not always a case of adding more products into the fold. For example, rather than build separate grant systems to administer different government grants, GovTech has built a grant platform with customisable rule engines that can be used by different agencies. “It allows us to scale very quickly and lower costs, and time-to-market gets significantly decreased,” said Chan, adding that platforms have also paved the way for more consistency across the government.

In striving for scalability, GovTech has been a big proponent of cloud computing. It started enhancing its Government on Commercial Cloud (GCC) service last year, and expects to have at least 70% of eligible government systems on commercial cloud services by 2023.

Chan said public cloud services also provide a window into the technology ecosystem, offering a multitude of services even though the move to cloud can be fraught with risks.

As your security requirements go up, the value and benefits of the cloud depreciates over time and that’s why are working very closely with our partners to try to have our cake and eat it too, to achieve a level of security without necessarily locking everything up
Chan Cheow Hoe, GovTech

“The risks are not that it is more risky or less risky than current systems,” said Chan. “Knowing the risks well, and explicitly accepting those risks, is going to be very important for us going forward. The deeper you know about the capabilities of the cloud, the deeper you’re able to drill in, and the better you are in terms of managing the risks and resiliency.”

Otherwise, he said, the chances are that organisations can expect to fail very badly and take a long time to recover should something fail in the cloud.

Chan said that’s also why GovTech has built a strong cloud engineering team which has enabled it to build its cloud computing platform together with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google Cloud.

Being in government, which is used to building monolithic and highly customised systems, there is an urge to customise cloud applications, but Chan called for developers to “go as native as you can when you use the cloud”.

“The cloud has thousands of services, and that’s what ecosystems are all about,” said Chan. “The chances of success go up the more native you go, but it also has the risk of lock-in. The balance between going native, and achieving a level of resiliency and portability, is really very difficult to manage.”

Chan also warned of the challenges in implementing hybrid and multi-cloud, which is about getting multiple cloud services to work with each other, whether they are private or public cloud services.

“Don’t believe what the salespeople tell you when they say hybrid cloud is very simple,” said Chan. “It’s not, and it’s something that I think will take time,” he added, noting that using multiple clouds, however, has enabled GovTech to achieve a level of resiliency.

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At the conference, Chan also offered a nuanced view of sovereign cloud services, which some cloud providers are looking to offer in markets like the European Union.

“First of all, cloud still has to adapt to the law of physics,” said Chan. “If you lock everything up and disconnect from the internet, you get very good security, but unfortunately, it ceases to be a cloud when you lose the ecosystem.

“Then, the law of scale kicks in – if you lock everything up and try to migrate services from the ecosystem into the sovereign cloud, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.

“So, as your security requirements go up, the value and benefits of the cloud depreciates over time, and that’s why we are working very closely with our partners to try to have our cake and eat it, too, to achieve a level of security without necessarily locking everything up.”

Chan also weighed in on what it takes to succeed with software-as-a-service (SaaS) deployments, urging organisations to configure rather than customise SaaS applications, and build strong product and engineering capabilities to integrate SaaS products with other systems.

Since 2018, GovTech has been building up its Singapore Government Tech Stack, a set of platform tools that streamlines and simplifies development processes and enables code reuse across the government to build secure, high-quality applications.

With a consistent user experience, Chan said the technology stack has enabled government developers to improve their productivity, comply with security standards and leverage their creativity to solve problems without having to deal with the underlying infrastructure.

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