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An Architect of Singapore IT Development – W Bro (Prof) Alex Siow

By W Bro Ronald Ng

28 June, 2021



Fig 1. W Bro Alex Siow PDGPurs


Yes, that’s the term I would like to use to describe W Bro (Prof) Alex Siow PDGPurs, and Past Master of Horsburgh Lodge No. 7533 E.C.


Alex was born on 24 June 1954, and was educated at Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College. He then went on to study civil engineering on a Public Services Commission Scholarship, gaining a BEng degree at Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences, Germany, and later, a MEng degree from Birmingham University, UK. He was initiated into Horsburgh Lodge No. 7533 on 12 Feb 2004, and was installed into its Chair on 8 Jan 2009, and a few years later, honored by the District with Past District Grand Pursuivant. He was introduced into Freemasonry by W Bro Bob Mittelsdorf when they were on a business trip together in 2003. From that short biography, one could see he was trained as a civil engineer, so how did he manage to transform from being a civil engineer to being what I call an Architect of Singapore IT development?



Fig 1 Lt. Col. Alex Siow receiving his 2PDF formation sign.


In the army, Lt. Col. Alex Siow, Commanding Officer of a Guards Battalion learnt how to manage men. The one principle held dear by him was the concept of “servant leader.” The next step in that transformation was the Eureka moment when as a civil engineer, he has to install a mainframe computer in an HDB building. Because the building wasn’t planned to have that huge machine installed, the only way to get that machine into the building was to break the wall. That “breaking of the wall” was the Eureka moment. The mental barrier, the mental wall, has to be broken, when the government asked him to be the first Chief Information Officer (CIO) in Singapore, and he has to change from being a civil engineer to that of being the CIO. With the will, nothing cannot be done. (Siow, A. 2021)



Fig 3. Moving Main Frame Computer into HDB


How Singapore became an independent country on 9 Aug 1965 is well known. Singapore has no natural resource, and the leaders very early on, realized its only resource is human resource. With that being the only resource, education is therefore vital in the development of that resource. Computers were at first thought to be only for the improvement of productivity. In 1981, Dr. Tony Tan rolled out the National Computerization Plan and led to the development of the National Computer Board (NCB). (National Computer Board 1981)


The first ten years of the National Computerization Plan was successful in raising productivity and efficiency, and the Housing Development Board was visionary in seeing the need to have a Chief Information Officer (CIO), if computerization is more than just increasing the productivity of the civil service or business. This is in line with the National IT Plan called IT2000 launched in 1991. That first CIO ever appointed in Singapore was none other than Mr. Alex Siow. What does it mean to be a CIO? That term was first coined by William Synnott, then head of Management Information Systems at the Bank of Boston. (Synnott, W.R., and Gruber, W. H. 1981). Synnott defined the role the CIO has to play in these words, “The manager of information systems in the 1980s has to be Superhuman – retaining his technolgy cape, but doffing the technical suit for a business suit and becoming one of the chief executives of the firm. The job of chief information officer (CI) – equals in rank to chief executive and chief financial officer – does not exist today, but the CIO will identify, collect and manage information as a resource, set corporate information policy and affect all office and distributed systems”. (Synnott 1981). From that, grew the job description for the CIO:

1. Manage information resources as vital corporate asset

2. Bring systems into competitive marketplace

3. Manage and coordinate increasingly decentralized information resources

4. Manage end-user computing so that it serves corporation’s needs

5. Be a catalyst for corporate change.


Having donned that hat as the first CIO in HDB, and HDB was the first organisation to have officially appointed a person as the CIO, therefore effectively, W Bro Alex Siow was the first person in Singapore to hold that position. He implemented the following (Vision 2000; Siow, A. 2021):

1. HDB IT strategy

2. Vision IT Education Strategy

3. HDB Office Automation Strategy

4. Workflow Comuting with Lotus Notes

5. IT Portfolio Management through Annual Information Systems Planning

6. Centralised Corporate Databases, Master Data Management and Implementaion of Data Warehouse

7. Data Centric and Customer-centric Application Development


IT was no longer viewed as only a tool for productivity and efficiency. It became a startegic tool to improve business processes in order to serve the customers better, and it also beame an enabler and driver of business process changes.


Fig 4. With Bill Gates


In 2000, as a result of the success seen at HDB, the Infocomm Development Authority launched the Infocomm21 Masterplan (Infocomm21), and in quick succession Intelligent Nation 2015 was launched in 2005 (IN2015), which is an update of Singapore 10 years Infocomm Masterplan. following that , in 2015, the Masterplan Infocomm Media 2025 (ICM2025) was launched.


With that, all ministries and statutory boards started appointing CIOs, and the private sector soon followed. The buzzword was business process re-engineering, facilitated by IT.


With the lauching of the first Masterplan for ICT in 1997, Singapore needed to produce more IT personnel.


On 24 November, 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that by bringing the current piecemeal uses of technology into a cohesive, nationwide whole “ will make our economy more productive, our lives better, and our society more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations.” The result of all that planning, followed by intelligent execution of those plans, see the following results in Singapore:

1. 2016, Singapore ranked no. 1 in Global Networked Readiness Index. (World Economic Forum Report 2016)

2. 2018, Singapore ranked no. 2 by Waseda University on International e-Government Ranking (Waseda 2018).

3. 2019, Singapore ranked no. 1 in the Global Competitiveness Indes by the World Economic Forum (World Economic Forum 2019)

4. 2020, Singapore ranked no. 2 in the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking by the International Institute for Management Development (IIMD 2020)


Referring back to William Synnott, he talked about the Information Architecture that the CIO has to deal with, it is therefore apt to name W Bro Alex Siow as an Architect in the development of IT structure in Singapore.


Reference:


ICM2025, https://www.mci.gov.sg/portfolios/infocomm-media/infocomm-media-2025 (Last access 26.06.21)


IIMB 2020, https://digitalswitzerland.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/digital_2020.pdf (Last access 26.06.21)


Infocomm21, https://www.imda.gov.sg/news-and-events/Media-Room/archived/ida/Speeches/2000/20061219103237 (Last access 26.06.21)


IN2015, https://www.imda.gov.sg/-/media/imda/files/inner/archive/news-and-events/news_and_events_level2/20070619101222/mr190607in2015.pdf (access 26.06.21)


National Computer Board 1981 https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/f499072d-330f-4763-a105-dd9940f1890b (Last access 26.06.2021)

Siow, A. "Leading with IT", J. Wiley & Sons, Jan 2021.


Synnott, W.R., Information Management Exposition and Conference, 1981, keynote speech.


Synnott, W.R. and Gruber W.H. (1981) Information Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s. New York: Wiley-Interscience.


Vision 2000, https://www.enterprisesg.gov.sg/-/media/esg/files/quality-and-standards/business-excellence/SQASC_HDB_2018_summary_report.pdf (last accessed 26.06.2021)


Waseda 2018. https://idg-waseda.jp/pdf/The_2018_Waseda-IAC_Digital_Government_Rankings_Report.pdf (Last access 26.06.21)


World Economic Forum Report 2016. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GITR2016/WEF_GITR_Chapter1.1_2016.pdf (Last access 26.06.21)


World Economic Forum 2019. https://www.weforum.org/reports/how-to-end-a-decade-of-lost-productivity-growth (Last access 26.06.21)



Acknowledgement

Many of the information regarding the development of IT in Singapore is taken from the talk W Bro Alex Siow gave on 14 June, 2021, in the series of online talks on Liberal Arts and Sciences, organised by Bro Suresh Babu.