His eyes on the future

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Dr Janil Puthucheary shares with Petir his enthusiasm about exciting changes brought on by technology. Although there are relentless changes from technology, he points out we can harness them to create future pathways.

It's the future that interests him most - and rightly so. As Minister of State of the Communications and Information Ministry, Dr Janil Puthucheary is working on the Smart Nation initiative, exploring ways how technology can solve social and economic problems. In a similar capacity in the Ministry of Education, he is committed to improving the education of the early childhood and special needs groups, as well as looking at IT issues related to education in a Smart Nation.

His team explores areas where they can fund research, bring people together and cut through difficult areas of regulation and process. Data and technology can improve housing, transport, pollution management and security, he said. And while the country has traditionally fared well at planning for the future, the Smart Nation Programme Office is pushing ahead to think of the next steps.

A Smart Nation is an Integrated Nation Dr Janil is committed to promoting interagency integration to achieve a Smart Nation and harnessing current and future technology to accomplish it. He said: "Technology is changing so rapidly. You don't want to lock yourself in and neither do you want to lose out. We have to evaluate what is feasible and possible."

Eyes sparkling with delight, he observed: "These are very exciting times. There is a lot of excitement about our ability to deliver this vision under the guidance of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan who is in charge of the Smart Nation initiative.

"There are a number of opportunities to integrate some of the technological innovations and we want to bring their benefits to schools, especially into early childhood and special needs schools."

As chairman of the People's Association youth movement, he is also involved in the development of young citizens.

He pointed out: "Working with youths is something I really enjoy. They are so full of energy, enthusiasm and are full of innovative and creative ideas.

"I often engage them to find out what makes people volunteer to do community service so that I can energise and motivate them to get more involved and to attract new volunteers."

He also chairs OnePeople.sg, which is a national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony through dialogues, conferences, debates and research.

Dr Janil noted: "Multi-racialism is a definitive characteristic of our nation and it continues to be important. We have made remarkable progress in the past 50 years.

We should aspire for it to be deeper, more resilient, more tolerant. Everyone must play a part."

Make room for changes

While he relishes the excitement of his present job, he misses practising medicine. He said: "That was something I spent many years training for and I did enjoy it. I worked with a great team and I miss my colleagues. But there's room for lots of things to happen in one's life."

Even his photography hobby has not been unscathed by technology. An avid shutterbug, his fascination with photography started in his early teens and he bought his first SLR camera with money saved from his allowance and the hongbaos he received on his birthdays and Christmas. He would develop the pictures himself in his school's dark room.

But with the onslaught of digital technology, he has had to discard his beloved SLR.

These days, he uses a digital camera and if he does not have it with him, he snaps what catches his eye with his cellphone.

In addition to family snapshots, Dr Janil likes to shoot urban landscapes.

"I am still learning and trying different techniques. When I see a good photograph, I wonder how it had been done and try it myself but I don't do enough shooting these days. Now, I spend more time talking about photography than taking pictures," he added with a hearty laugh.

Turning serious, he said: "Digital technology is changing and at the same time driving change at an astounding pace. We cannot pretend that as a small, open country, we can shield ourselves from these forces. The only way ahead is to prepare for the threats and opportunities.

"This is what being a Smart Nation is about; we have a national plan. We will develop, deploy and exploit digital technology.

We will secure the future of our jobs, and drive the transformation of our quality of life. We will maintain the cohesiveness of our society, and our relevance to the rest of the world.

"To succeed, everyone needs to come together: citizens, companies, government." That's the future that Dr Puthucheary sees.

Singapore's economy is evolving fast, with emerging technology disrupting everything from taxis to tax collection, and we should prepare for more of such upheavals, said Dr Janil Puthucheary.

He added: "We have a group looking at disruptive technologies and how they may impact the nature of work in Singapore in terms of the economy, and what opportunities are presented to us so that Singapore can position itself to take full advantage of these changes.

"There are a number of key things here. One is our ability to educate and re-educate ourselves, and train ourselves and have a deep pool of talent, drive and enthusiasm."

While a lot of reinvention is needed, he also noted that "Singapore has gone through a number of waves of disruptions before, whether it was the pullout of British troops in the 1970s, whether it was changing technology in terms of oil, water and gas, whether it was the MNCs and high-end manufacturing.

"Singapore had survived these waves of disruption by working together, acquiring new skills and being resilient.

"In that sense, there is no difference. What's different is the scale as it is actually now affecting the entire world at the same time, and the pace of the changes."

Dr Janil also identified three ways in which the Government can help in dealing with disruptive technologies. The first involves investing in education and training. The second is to ensure that legislation and regulation keep pace with new business processes. Thirdly, the Government can lead the way and be an early adopter of technology, especially technology from local businesses, to give these companies an opportunity to establish a track record.

He said: "We know that a lot of stuff is coming, whether it's autonomous vehicles, big data or artificial intelligence. We want to create the future."

Managing parental expectations

Dr Janil Puthucheary admits that like most parents, he too has high expectations for his children, three boys aged 8, 11 and 12.

He said: "But I try not overdo it. We must give them space and opportunity to find their own way. We can guide children to make their first choice for a career for instance, but it's okay to make a second choice later, like me," referring to his career switch from medicine to politics.

He had left Malaysia at the age of 12 to attend boarding school in the United Kingdom, and went on to study medicine because he liked science, especially biological science.

He said: "I enjoyed it in school and was quite good at it. Medicine offered me an opportunity to do something with science and to do some good for society.

"Looking back, it was a very simplistic reason. There were many other ways to work with science. I could have been a researcher or an engineer, and make a difference in people's lives."

His mother and younger brother are also doctors and his wife is a senior doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He had met her in medical school.

He said that with three sons, it can be rather boisterous at home. During family time, he plays chess and the board game Risk with them. When outdoors, they are into football and a little Frisbee at the Botanic Gardens or East Coast Park.

"My eldest now joins me when I go for my jogs," he said.

True to his belief of not pushing children too hard, he runs only 2 km when his son accompanies him. When he jogs by himself, he does 5 km and sometimes all the way to 10 km.

This article was first published in the Sept 2016 issue of Petir Magazine

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Published by and at the directions of People's Action Party
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