Disruptive technology and the new media environment

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By: Howard Lee

From the last National Day Rally to the Budget this year, the term “disruptive technology” has been hammered so much into us through daily news doses that there would be hardly any Singaporean you meet who would not tell you how important it is.

From drones that serve food and robots that collect our trays at food courts, to apps that bend the rules of the taxi industry, we are constantly reminded that technology will hearken a new wave of commerce that will provide exciting opportunities, but also run the risk of wiping out old jobs, even entire industries.

However, the focus on the technological aspects belies an underlying problem with the way Singapore is approaching these new possibilities/threats. We look at it from the perspective of technological enhancement, but not social-cultural development.

We keep wanting to peddle our automatic popiah/chapati/prata-making machines to the rest of the world – interesting and excitingly delicious as these sound – without thinking that they are already passé by the time they reach market.

In other words, when we think of disruptive technology, we are thinking of plugging the gaps, not creating new dimensions. We want to create the next app for Facebook, not create the next Facebook. Sure, we are the fastest to adopt and propagate, but hardly ever the originator.

This lag in our approach is not just relevant to technology, but to our mindset as well – which is really the crux of why we are so far behind the innovation curve. Instead of embracing the new wave of third-party car-hailing companies and their apps, we choose to apply old ways of the industry to what is perceived as the “new threat”. What should have been fair competition has even developed into regulation that disadvantages the new entrant, and nowhere is this more apparent than the lop-sided and unjust requirement for child seats in private hire cars, which has been flagged as manifestly unfair by some.

The truth is that we have never gotten used to disruptive technology, even when it was staring us in the face decades ago.

Much of the innovation we see today is the result of the emergence of the Web as a platform that reduced the barriers of entry and democratised the availability of information, allowing everyday citizens like you and me access to technology and potentially break new grounds in innovation.

The government’s move towards media protectionism aside, the media industry in Singapore has never thrived, despite us being one of the most connected countries in the world. While we have emerging and commercially viable news entities, the practice of the established media players would be to buy them over and align them with the status quo, instead of creating new players to challenge the new upstarts and beat them at their own game.

Government regulation, on the other hand, seems intent on further entrenching the divide, but not always in favour of “better standards”. An open straw-poll by a national broadsheet for the 2013 Punggol East by-election, and clearly identified by law makers as a potential flout of election rules, received a stern warning almost six months after the act, but a consolidation of opinions by an emerging news website for the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election, not even giving any implication of winning percentages, received the same the day after it was published.

Meanwhile, false advertising by established social media influencers was left to the industry to sort itself out (as it should be), attracting the attention of the authorities two months later, while an interview with an opinion maker deemed to be carrying “false statements” was jumped upon in days and dragged through the courts.

Wither the logic, parity and “light touch” approach so often espoused?

Upon reflection, the government is not really ready for disruptive technology. If it does, it would appreciate that the users of these technologies follow their own codes and practices, where the growth of new players, ideas and approaches is deemed critical for survival. Innovation uses technology as a tool, but is not determined by it.

As such, the issue here is no longer technology – for that, Singapore is more than equipped to deal with changes. The issue here is mindset and culture, and the congestion here is, unfortunately, happening at the highest echelons of our industrial and political systems. Even more crucial is that this blockage is happening in the media sphere, where the “heart-ware” of the hardware of technology resides.


This is Howard Lee’s last piece as opinion editor of The Independent, as he leaves us to embark on post-graduate research. The TISG team wishes him all the best and hopes he continues to contribute.