Singapore Customs CIO speaks about the Smart Nation and NTP

Yeo Beng Huay, Chief Information Officer at Singapore Customs since 2009, talks to CIO Asia about the centrality of IT in customs operations and how her role keeps evolving

Yeo Beng Huay - CIO at Singapore Customs
Singapore Customs

Singapore Customs has a simple but efficient motto: “We make trade easy, fair and secure.”

However, the role of a customs authority is far from simple. It is not only the organisation in charge of collecting taxes and controlling the flow of goods within a country’s borders, it also responsible for compliance with trade regulations.

In the case of Singapore, its customs agency leads trade facilitation and revenue enforcement and, like in most countries, it depends from the Ministry of Finance.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with CIO Asia, Yeo Beng Huay, CIO at Singapore Customs since August 2009, gave an insightful overview of how the authority operates and its innovative strategies which are being used as part of the Smart Nation initiative.

How does IT help customs operations?

Yeo is resolute about highlighting the importance of trade and logistics as pillars of Singapore’s economy.

Singapore Customs plays a vital role in strengthening the country’s position as a global trade centre trusted by foreign trading partners and businesses operating in the country.

“An efficient and visible supply chain, powered by strong, connected infrastructure is important to strengthen our status as a trade hub, and help make Singapore trade flow easy, safe and secure,” she said.

In this mission to make the city state a place where trade is smooth and seamless, IT plays a central role. And like the job of the CIO itself, it has also developed over the last few decades.  

“IT is integral to customs operation,” explained Yeo. “For the past 20 plus years, IT in customs has evolved from backroom engineering to serving beyond regulatory needs. We started off with a handful of resources, and relied heavily on the technical capabilities of our system integrators to manage our system. Today, we have more deep-skilled engineers to work closely with the system integrators, and troubleshoot problems together.”

Singapore Customs embarked into its ICT journey in the 1980s and its digital strategy was soon ahead of most countries.

In 1989, the organisation launched TradeNet, the world’s first nationwide electronic data interchange system for paperless clearance of trade documentation.

As Yeo explains, her department is connected with the relevant government agencies and key industry partners to ensure the speedy processing of trade permits, collection of taxes and duties, and the clearance of cargoes at the air, land and sea checkpoints.

"Within minutes, permits can be approved by TradeNet, routed to our Customs backend for risk profiling and requirements sent to the checkpoints to facilitate clearance," she said.

However, not everything is as easy as seamless as it appears. The decentralised nature of the industry presents numerous challenges that can negatively affect the authority’s goals.

“No matter how well integrated and efficient our regulatory systems are, we are just one node of the many supply chain stakeholders,” Yeo told CIO Asia. “The industry is highly fragmented with multiple silos, driven by individual business needs. This has generated immense manual paperwork, resulting in lower productivity and higher costs.”

The Networked Trade Platform

It’s because of these obstacles that the Singapore government is taking the lead to develop the Networked Trade Platform (NTP), which will serve as the trade ecosystem that enables the secure exchange and reuse of digital data between business-to-business (B2B) as well as business-to-government (B2G) across the value chain.

But development of the NTP didn’t happen overnight. Yeo said that the idea for Singapore to have an integrated trade and logistics platform was first mooted in 2002, when the ICT and Logistics Working Groups of the Services Sub-Committee of the Economic Review Committee came with the proposal.

The first version of the integrated trade and logistics platform, TradeXchange, was implemented in October 2007 as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project.

The customs authority faced a number of issues implementing TradeXchange – from the business challenge of bringing various stakeholders on board, to the technical challenges to interoperate with multiple different systems and standards.

“We learnt from these lessons and mistakes made in the past, and adopted a different approach for the NTP,” said Yeo. “One key example is the government taking the lead in driving the digital transformation of the trade and logistics sectors through the NTP.”

“Being a neutral party, the government is in the best position to lead the integration across the value chain. We partner the industry and multiple agencies to streamline the business processes and regulatory needs, and co-design solutions on the NTP to address their pain points,” she added.

How is Singapore driving the Smart Nation and Digital Government agenda?

In June 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean unveiled the Digital Government Blueprint (DGB): a statement of “the government’s ambition to better leverage data and harness new technologies, and to drive broader efforts to build a digital economy and digital society, in support of Smart Nation.”

To help her agency achieve its mission through the strategic use of IT, Yeo thinks it is important to keep up with the emerging technologies and global developments, understand the challenges and look ahead for opportunities for her stakeholders; ensuring that her and her team are well equipped with the relevant skills, knowledge and capabilities.

“CIOs have a key role to help realise the [government’s] digital ambition and uplift the digital capabilities of public service officers, and to facilitate more data-driven policies,” said Yeo.

“As mentioned by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at the conference organised by the Government Technology Agency of Singapore on 2 October, “IT can no longer be an afterthought or add-on that is grafted onto the organisation. It must be intrinsically part of what the organisations do, even if their main mission is something different but has to use IT to succeed”.

Yeo spoke about cases where Singapore Customs is making use of disruptive technologies as part of its digital strategy:

“We are exploring the use of machine learning to draw new insights; chatbots to improve our customer service; and automated tools to eliminate repetitive administrative work,” she said. “We are also reviewing our internal applications, to move some of the applications to take advantage of the cloud technology for resiliency and scalability, while keeping the cost optimal. Traditionally, all applications used by the government are housed on government premises.”

For 2019, Yeo and her team at Singapore Customs have lined up a series of new digital services to be rolled out in the coming years.

“Besides more data tools to help businesses to self-manage their digital data and progressive releases of government services, we will be expanding the NTP network to better support our international connectivity and implement exchanges with our overseas counterparts,” she said.

“In addition, we will be co-designing a Developer Zone with the industry, to encourage individuals or entrepreneurs to build innovative applications from the data tools provided by the NTP, for businesses on-boarded to the NTP,” Yeo added.

What are the challenges that a CIO faces today?

“We are constantly challenged with persistent cybersecurity threats, limited resources, and the race against time to stay relevant in the fast-changing world”, said Yeo on her ever-changing role as CIO.

She also added: “From automation in the 1980s, to integration in the 1990s, and business intelligence and the advent of mobile services in the 2000s, to the latest government digitisation drive, the focus is different each time”

But far from despairing, Yeo sees a myriad of opportunities in the way that digital transformation is rapidly changing the way people and organisations connect and transact with one another and traditional businesses are disrupted.

“IT has to change to better help agencies, businesses and citizens, deliver more digital services that are customer-focused and secure, and with speed and cost-efficiency,” she thinks.

"This is why the Singapore government is developing the Singapore Government Tech Stack to provide a suite of tools and services hosted on a common platform to help agencies develop their digital services faster and with less effort.”

Above all, the satisfaction and personal development that come hand in hand with the role are particularly important for the CIO:

“It’s a lifelong learning journey for me, and I sometimes feel like I am back in school, learning new jargon and picking up new skills to stay relevant.”