Thrilled to meet Steve Wozniak – and to discuss why Singapore needs to quickly build a critical mass of engineers, artists and angel investors.

We spoke at the Midas Touch Asia 2013 Enterprise Award ceremony on 26 August.

Edited excerpts of my speech – on Singapore’s prospects for making an impact on the ICT revolution.

In 1982, my father bought my first computer – it was an Apple II Plus. Many of you here are too young to have used that venerable piece of technology.

I was a medical undergraduate, and my father had to take a loan to buy it. The cost then was a lot more than what one would pay for its equivalent today. I recollect the thrill of unpacking it, assembling it, and taking off the lid. I was telling Steve just now, I also remember putting in a Z–80 in order to run the CP/M operating system.

I was a very poor gamer. In fact, I was forced to learn programming in order to hack the games. I learnt Integer BASIC and I just discovered that Steve was the one who wrote Integer BASIC. He told me just now how he wrote it by hand and then transcribed it into the binary code which actually ran on the computer.

The purpose of sharing all this with you is for us to reflect that in over 30 years, our lives have been completely transformed. We pay progressively lower prices for ever more powerful technology. I experienced for myself the computer revolution in the medical and surgical fields.

Today computers around us can operate at levels of precision, far beyond the ability of my eyes and hands. For instance, for those of you who gone for refractive surgery – I know Steve himself has gone for this, computer-controlled lasers operate at the level of one-quarter of one-thousandth of a millimetre. No human surgeon can achieve that level of precision unaided, but computers have transformed what we can do with our hands and our eyes.

Of course, beyond the medical field, computers have also revolutionised the finance and technical fields. It has been a source of great opportunity. But let me give you a political angle to this. It has also been a source of great inequality.

Stop for a moment to think about it. The advent of new technology can lead to different outcomes for people in different circumstances. For example, who gets to borrow the money to access the new technology? Who gets educated on how to use the technology? And who are the people who will devise new uses for technology, which the original creators never dreamt of?

So the point is – although politicians may aim for equality of opportunities, the ability to exploit these opportunities can very often be very unequally distributed. It depends on where you are born; whether you live in a society which has access to technology; whether you have the initial funding to buy or to rent the technology; and whether the education system equips you with the necessary skills to do all these wonderful things. So this has been both a great opportunity and also a cause for inequality.

Another reason I wanted to be here is because I was very intrigued by Steve Wozniak’s view – I think in December 2011 or 2012 – when he said that a company like Apple could never emerge from Singapore. I didn’t have enough time to discuss this in detail with him.

But I wanted to share a couple of points. The first thing I wanted to tell Steve is that in Singapore, you can say anything you like. Steve Wozniak, in particular, is a friend of Singapore – your advice is sincere, and you are actually trying to help us. So contrary to popular belief, we are not going to structure your thoughts or your conversations. Thank you for being brutally frank.

Now, having said that, I also want to say that I do not totally agree with Steve. And let me explain why. First, Singapore only began on this journey 30 years ago. Steve and the people like him embarked on this journey a generation before us. We are late-comers to the party.

The second point is that I believe we need a critical mass of three groups of people if we are to make a significant contribution to this space. We need engineers, artists, and angels (- angel investors).

Let me explain. I visited Google in Mountain View a couple of times. Each time I went there, I asked to meet Singaporeans. And I remembered meeting 20 to 30 Singaporeans. And they told me: they are really happy working at Google, and I asked why. And they said: “because this is a company that values engineers. And as engineers, we can change the world”. It is not about getting fabulously rich. But it is that empowering sense that “we can change the world”. They were thrilled to have that opportunity to work in teams producing new products and services that could change the world. So we certainly need engineers.

The second group is artists. I use artists in the most liberal sense of word. Just now when I was having a chat with Steve, and he explained the key advantage of the other Steve. Steve Jobs was not as technically gifted as Steve Wozniak. Steve Wozniak would design the chips, the motherboard and did the programming. Maybe because Steve Jobs did not have that same gritty, down-in-the-chips knowledge – his mind was focused on design, packaging, branding; on making technology sexy and available to non-engineers.

The point I wanted to share with you is it is not enough to just have the engineers who can change the world – you need people who can humanise technology; make people desire that technology; and to want to identify with it and to want to use it. And that is why the whole concept of design is crucial. I think design is really about creating a language that speaks to the human heart and soul. And we need people like that as well.

The third group of people we need are Angels – Angel investors. Frankly, especially in Asia and in Singapore, we are not short of money. But what we need is smart money. People who are willing to invest in companies but who also know enough about technology and design. To give good, honest brutal advice, the same way that Steve Wozniak has given good honest brutal advice to Singapore. People who can put their money where their mouth is, exercise their minds, and to truly nurture and build up entrepreneurs. The way I look at it, we have not yet fully taken off in Singapore. We can, and I hope we will build up that critical mass of engineers, artists and angels.

For now, our objective in Singapore is to remain one of the world’s most open cities. Because ideas can only be generated in human minds. Only human minds imagine the future. And we need to make sure we get more than our fair share of the dreamers and visionaries of the world. If not to live here permanently, then at least to spend a significant amount of time – exchanging ideas, and building up our idea pool.

The second point is for Singapore to remain one of the most connected nodes of the world. It is not an accident that we have one of the most dense fibre networks in Singapore. I am not just referring to the fibre that goes into every home. But I am referring to the fact that we are a focal node of the fibres that traverse the globe. That is not very sexy – just fibre optics. But it represents our strategy to be a focal node of an inter-connected world. Because we believe that being an exchange, a focal point for ideas, data and information, will make us part of a larger network and give us access to the critical mass of engineers, artists and angel investors.

My final point is that we cannot be everything to everybody. The truth is, it is practically impossible for us to be a clone of Silicon Valley. The history, the skills, the climate, the academics, and the engineering expertise in Silicon Valley is not something we can transplant anywhere in the world. Anyone who says that “I’m creating a silicon valley” is probably overreaching.

But I believe, we should be comfortable with ourselves, by being a secure, beautiful and wonderful place to live, travel, and settle in. A place where you are happy to bring your wife to. A place where your kids can grow up to be educated, and not have to worry about guns and drugs. A place where your parents can get good healthcare. A place where you can meet secure, reliable and honest bankers. A place where you can meet other people with ideas. The point I am trying to make is that an open, secure, comfortable, family-oriented, and welcoming place, is also a core part of our strategy.

Let me conclude by congratulating all the winners. I have known people like George Quek and Derek Goh for many years. They are also part of the proof that Singaporeans can make it, with imagination and with determination. Because Singapore is so small, all of them had had to go beyond the boundaries of Singapore.

There are other examples like Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology and what he has done for the sound card. You think about the USB Thumb Drive invented by Henn Tan and his engineers at Trek2000 in Singapore. The point I am trying to leave with you is that we do have our own local heroes. But what we need to do now is to urgently build up the critical mass of local heroes who will be entrepreneurs of the world using Singapore as their home base.

I hope I have given you enough food for thought. And I hope to persuade Steve Wozniak in my own way, “don’t count us out yet”. We heard you and we will dearly love to prove you wrong sometime in the future.

Thank you all very much.