Orchard Road, a stretch of land formerly home to nutmeg plantations, spice gardens and pepper farms in Singapore's now bustling commercial centre at first glance looks like any other precinct in a global metropolis.

But soon, the city's busiest areas could be swarmed by sensors - on every lamppost, on every tree, in every public pool and drain pipe. Every citizen's transaction will be in ePayments. Driverless cars could zip around ports with shipping containers. And a forward-thinking government is ready to make way for the cloud. Welcome to Singapore, a city-state well on the way to become the world's first "smart nation".

Singapore's plans are ambitious, explains Kok Ping Soon, new chief executive of the government's technology office, GovTech, and the man responsible for a five year plan launched this year to streamline infrastructure and reduce bureaucracy with cutting edge technology.

"Our vision is vast," he says. "We are starting to do many national projects in order to build the smart nation. We want to see what we can do to improve the lives of Singaporeans and see what we can do to create jobs."


By modernising its public sector services, GovTech hopes to give Singaporeans easy access to everything they need and is unafraid of testing new waters.

One key area for the body is its Smart Nation Sensor Platform.

120,000 "dumb lamposts" are being made smart with facial recognition sensors promising 24/7 monitoring for citizen safety. Motion sensors in swimming pools are deployed to detect if someone is likely to drown. The national water agency can take preemptive measures to prevent drainpipe overfill in monsoon season through water-level detection.

The mass access of citizens' data has raised questions about the potential breaches of privacy, but Ping Soon is keen to assure Singaporeans that the government is taking privacy data privacy seriously.

"That is a sentiment that has been shared. I always that we ensure the confidentiality of data privacy. Most of this information… we capture it and it's only used on an anonymous basis," says Ping Soon.

Experimental technologies have come onto the radar of Singapore too. Applications for blockchain, a decentralised ledger, are already being trialed to test the authenticity of educational certificates, while autonomous vehicles are being tested in fixed locations and for public transport services like shuttle buses.

Meanwhile the extension of artificial intelligence to airports is being considered. A future where the world's travellers can step off a plane at the Jewel Changi Airport - scheduled to open next year - and not have to scan passports in a hassle-free, facial recognition future could be just a flight away.

Perhaps Singapore's most unorthodox plan is a technological experiment to create a nation of tree huggers. Singapore's national park board NParks manages approximately two million trees, and under GovTech's direction, at least 500,000 have been mapped onto a digital platform, trees.sg.

Radar has been used to capture model images of the greenery in the city to better inform Singapore's urban planners.

Singapore could be flooded with sensors that are embedded in lampposts and trees. Photo / 123RF
Singapore could be flooded with sensors that are embedded in lampposts and trees. Photo / 123RF

By accessing the database, Singaporeans can find out when a particular tree is flowering, which street it's located on and even which tree is trending.

Take October's "tree of the month". The Tabebuia rosea, otherwise known as the Pink Tecoma, the Trumpet Tree or Pink Poui, has been highlighted because of its "large, trumpet-shaped flowers", which form an "orchestra" when in bloom.

According to Ping Soon, the idea is more than just a gimmick. The map of trees is fundamentally about giving Singaporeans a chance to engage with nature - and each other.

"Imagine if we had sensors in all [the trees]. The idea is that it's not just about planning and making the city liveable. It's a great tool for community engagement."

Singapore's leap forward is a feat in itself for a country of its size and stature. And with Brexit looming, the UK could do worse than to look abroad to Singapore for lessons.

Last month, at the city-state's Orchard Hotel Singapore, a new initiative called the Networked Trade Platform was launched, promising to streamline the complex databases that tangle trade processes.

The transfer of documents between shipping agents, customs declarations and the booking of cargo and freight services are just some of the trade logistics consolidated onto the new platform.

"It allows the frictionless movement of goods and services through our ports. By digitising the entire process, the whole customs clearance of goods and services [can be] done much faster," says Ping Soon.

It's a logical move for a nation that boasts one of the world's busiest ports. But with the UK's Brexit negotiations stuck in limbo on trade, any solution which might ensure trade clearance is done before a ship touches shore, or that speed up the loading and unloading process of goods, are worth a look.

"All companies are supposed to have a plan B right? Even the government needs to have a plan B," he says.

Trials to make identity more transparent are underway too. GovTech's National Digital Identity Programme aims to standardise identity in such a way that Singapore citizens can travel and make cross-border payments seamlessly.

A service called MyInfo, operated through an online account management system called SingPass, speeds up certain processes by pre-filling forms with information. SingPass itself uses biometric data to authenticate users.

Over 100 government services currently use MyInfo which is also being rolled out to Singapore's private sector.

"For example, a card issued in Singapore can be used in other countries and a card issued in China can be used in Singapore to make transactions much more easier," says Kwok Quek Sin, senior director of GovTech's national identity scheme.

But in his assessment of Singapore's advancements, Ping Soon is cautious to suggest the UK should follow suit.

He admits that five years will pass quickly and that change is unlikely to happen fast enough as the project requires a complete rethink of how the government approaches technology. There needs to be an ongoing education process too, which Ping Soon says is needed to advance digital literacy.

Ping Soon entertains the suggestion that he feels a few years behind in the UK versus Singapore, and has made the trip to convince Singaporeans in London to return.

"One thing that is characteristic about the Singapore government is that we are paranoid. We are always concerned that we will be irrelevant," he says.

As Singapore rushes towards a high-tech future, that sounds like an unlikely prospect.