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Singapore is part of the digital Silk Road, a test bed for the world: Vivian Balakrishnan

Zafar Anjum | April 28, 2015
Singapore is not Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv, but we are part of the digital Silk Road and we could become the test bed for the world, said Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan at InnovFest Unbound


Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and Minister-in-Charge of Smart Nation speaking at the InnovFest Unbound on Tuesday

All of Singapore's ministers may not be the eminence grise of politics but they are also not your typical jesting orators--at least that is the general perception. One minister, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, however, broke off from the stereotype and injected a dose of humour on stage during a conference on tech innovation.

The occasion was the inauguration of 'Innovfest Unbound' on Tuesday, a two-day conference on Innovation and entrepreneurship organized by the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS) at Suntec City Convention Centre, Singapore.

Dr. Balakrishnan, a surgeon by training and the Guest of Honour at the conference, is the country's Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently also appointed him as Minister-in-Charge of Smart Nation.

Not many nation states gain independence by being kicked out of a federation but we did, Dr. Balakrishnan said, speaking half in jest and half in earnest, referring to Singapore's birth in 1965 as a nation state after Malaysia kicked the young nation out of its federation of former states of what formed the British Malaya.

It was indeed a painful birth for Singapore and is still fresh in the memory of this young nation--a fact highlighted during the recent passing away of its founding father, Lee Kwan Yew.

When we became free, our independence documents came stitched together with two water agreements with Malaysia, he said, apparently addressing Daniel Seal, CEO of AcreWhite, who was part of the first panel discussion titled, Global Innovation: Singapore and the World. Suddenly, we had no hinterland, no agriculture and no water of our own to drink, he added.

Singapore was dependent on Malaysia for water for a long time (Singapore has been importing water from Johor, Malaysia, under two bilateral agreements: the first agreement expired in August 2011 and second agreement will expire in 2061) until the little red dot developed its own water desalination technology, which could turn saline water into drinking water, a technology, which was also low cost and affordable. Today, we fulfill more than 30 percent of our current water needs by this desalination technology, Dr. Balakrishan proudly declared.

"We were not supposed to be here," he said, referring to Singapore's status today as an innovation-driven rich nation, making its presence felt as an exemplary state.

Innovation as survival

Since we had nothing to start with, we had to make ourselves relevant to the world, he said. Innovation became our survival strategy, he said.

He narrated an incident to highlight how Singapore got where it is today, how did it achieve success of this stupendous scale. A few years ago, he was on a cruise with the late Lee Kwan Yew, passing though the various islands of Singapore and when the ship reached the mouth of the Singapore river, offering an awe-inspiring view of the cityscape, with skyscrapers rising tall on the banks of the river, he asked Mr. Lee how he felt about what he saw in front of him. And he expected a very profound reply from Mr. Lee, the father of modern Singapore and a globally revered statesman, a rare philosopher-king of our times.


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