EP 267 – Lee Wan Sie – Director at IMDA Singapore – This Is Why We Created the List

by | Apr 1, 2023

On this special edition of the Asia Tech Podcast, we were very fortunate to be able to spend some time with Lee Wan Sie, a Director at IMDA Singapore. IMDA leads Singapore's digitalization journey by developing a vibrant digital economy and an inclusive digital society.

Some of the topics that Wan Sie covered:

“Celebrate the Achievements of Women and Girls in Tech” and make your nominations now!

Some other titles we considered for this episode:

  1. I  Want to Make Sure that What I Do Makes a Difference
  2. Thinking Beyond Singapore’s Physical Limitations
  3. It’s Really About Building Trust
Read the best-effort transcript

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:02
Okay, we are on. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Today we are joined by Lee Wan Sie a Director at IMDA in Singapore. Wan Sie, thank you so much for doing this today. How are you by the way?

Lee Wan Sie 0:19
Hi, Michael, thanks for having me today. I’m really, really happy to be here. I’m good. How are you?

Michael Waitze 0:26
I am super duper really, really excited today. It’s really great to have you here. Before look at Rachel, before we get into the central part of this conversation, I want to get some of your background for some context. And then I want to get a little bit of what the imda is as well.

Lee Wan Sie 0:43
So I’ve been living and working in Singapore on life. So born and bred, and also most of my career and spent in the public service in the public sector working in different agencies that predate ind, because also in the technology, there’s also a lot of development and transformation that we have to make as well. Right? Yeah. So I’ve tried different things I’ve worked in, in the government delivery of public services and public services, digital services to the public, you use the word public many times. Yeah. That’s also because

Michael Waitze 1:17
Can I jump in? Because I think this is really important. And it was something that I was going to ask you as soon as you were done. When you started, you didn’t say I work in the government, you said you work in public service, I think is so important. That that was the way you let Can I really understand why. You know, somebody who’s as well educated as you are, says, I want to dedicate my life to doing public service. And in a way, I want to find my own way inside the public service sector to try to find it. But what from the beginning, you know, even as a little girl, right, you have to look at the path of my life, do I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an airline pilot, whatever it is. And I’m serious, though, because I think it’s really important to note this, you said, I want to go into the public sector, because it’s important to me. And it’s important to Singapore, I’m trying to figure out why.

Lee Wan Sie 2:06
I mean, to be perfectly honest, when I was go, I didn’t, I didn’t start by saying I want to join the public service, right? In some ways, I kind of stumbled into it. But that that mindset of doing something to help society that will help. Singapore has always been there. In the beginning, I wanted to teach under the teacher, but I decided to try this thing got technology. And still try the problem is, so that was how I started. But that idea of, I want to make sure that what I do make a difference to Singapore, to our society to our economy has always been there found it difficult to work, or have an enterprise where you know, your your, your main objective is to, you know, the bottom line is, is driving profits, for example, right, or for the organization. So here, in my case, I find the word very meaningful. That’s why I think throughout my career, I wouldn’t say that, but I’ve tried different things, because that gave me the opportunity to stay in public service, because otherwise I’ll get bored, right? If I do the same job for 20 years. So I’ve done for example, in service delivery, right from the government, how do we help businesses be able to very quickly apply for the relevant business licenses, right, and make it simple making one stop? And really, that didn’t translate to eventually helping? Calm in Singapore? You know that indirectly, right? Because you allow businesses to pay much, much more quickly. I’ve tried doing work in planning, right, developing long term strategy for Singapore’s ICT sector, what kind of infrastructure in place when transformation and where to begin amongst different sectors, and so on. So those are these are the early my career. And where I’m at now, is really looking at how can I help make technology safer, right for society? Singapore, right. So I’m working on, you know, AI governance, helping organizations implement more responsible AI, because I think it’s important that they do it properly, right. That’s one but also, it’s also really about building trust with the consumers, because when when they cannot trust the technology that they want doing, they will not use it. And if they do not use it, they cannot benefit from it.

Michael Waitze 4:31
There’s been a there’s been a massive conversation, particularly in the past few days about open AI and the stuff that Sam open is building there through the chat GPT and tal Lee, and even an open letter to them saying, hey, maybe you should just slow down a little bit. I don’t want to get into the politics of that because I’m not really interested in it. But it’s something that society as a whole is really thinking about. This safety thing is actually super important. Can you dig a little bit deeper into that if that’s okay, like why that’s so important and from Your perspective why it matters so much?

Lee Wan Sie 5:02
Firstly, because of the kinds of capabilities and the AI can introduce right is actually being used in many, many aspects of our lives, right? You go to a bank, and you want to apply for a home loan, for example, at the backend in a that could be making recommendations to the bank manager on whether you’re suitable, right for the loan, for example. Student. So there I have many students, they they used to activity to sort of help them improve right on some of the output that they’re generating, whether it’s about a seizure making in school, or some kind of notes for the PowerPoint presentation. So the getting help, right, so so it’s touching us in another way. Even my mom, right? I mean, she’s 80 Plus, yes, oh, she’s on Facebook all the time. And she gets all these sort of, like, recommended articles, or articles or videos to watch or news feed right from Facebook, that is also AI giving a recommendation on what should be looking at. So it’s everywhere. And in essence, I think we, we want to make sure that given how pervasive is going to be or is already is that it is safe. So the example I gave on the on the, on the mortgage, or the or the credit, the loan that that you can get from a bank, you want to make sure that the system doesn’t recommend that you do not get a loan because of the data that you have that letter incorrect, right? Because a lot of AI is trained on past data, and some of the problems in this data, whether it’s bias or whether it’s inaccuracies can be introduced, right into the model. And that’s one of the reasons why you know, the work that we do is then reminding organizations, they have to make sure as they do all this work, that they take into account, issues around bias, issue, accuracy, robustness, and so on. Right. And being able to understand more than explain how it works, that’s also important. Yeah,

Michael Waitze 7:05
it’s super important. And I want to make one analogy. And then I want to back up for a second when we built when we build automated trading models at Goldman Sachs, we did have to take out we did have to make sure that all the data was clean, right? Because if we were basing our trading decisions on data that was incorrect, we were then going to make the wrong trading decisions. And it’s the same thing in real life. My perfect example of this is a couple of days ago, just out of curiosity, I typed in to chat GPT, who is Michael Waitze. Some of it was right. But some of it was really wrong. Like I wouldn’t have like if someone was using that to create my bio, I would have had to stop them. Anyway. So you’re right, the safety is really important. I want to I want to switch gears a little bit. I want to understand how Singapore itself has been so successful. And we talked about the imda. Right, so the MDA stands for the Afghan Media Development Authority. I think it’s a really important part of what’s happening there. I like this idea that you brought up the delivery of business services to people, Accra is a perfect example of this. Singapore is the place where businesses regionally say, You know what I’m just going to incorporate in Singapore, not just because it’s easier there, but because the rest of the world seems to understand the legal system and everything that it’s based on it. I think all of these departments that the Singapore government has created, has added to that sort of business stability. But what you don’t know and this is what I was gonna say is before we started recording, but I’m going to say it now, Singapore, and I am the exact same age, both born in 1965. So when I went to Singapore, for the first time in 1990, I was the same age. I didn’t know that then. But the way I’ve watched it grow up. I’m super curious. For your perspective, right? It’s not like an official opinion. But I’m super curious, from your perspective. How has the entity of Singapore the country of Singapore have been so successful at not just taking a long term view? But getting that long term view? Right, if that makes sense? Right, moving from an electronic manufacturing base into a banking base into a service base and now into a technology base? There haven’t been a lot of errors along the way. How has that happened? So well, do you think just from your perspective?

Lee Wan Sie 9:21
Wow. That’s a big question. Yeah, it is, from my perspective. I don’t think it’s been easy. I think if you if we looked at how we started back in 65, I think it’s a group of very talented, capable people who came together and said, This is what they want to do. And I think in at that time, it’s also they believe that it’s important, and they believe that it’s really about doing what they can to help Singapore survive because we were young. We had lots of problems then, you know, when we first independent housing, the economy and so On, right. So it was important that they figure it out. And they tried many different things. Right. And I mean, things are progress. And in a way, I think, because we are small, it allows us to sort of adapt and adjust very quickly is both a good thing, right? Because, you know, we could do, for example, weak foot fiber up donation, that’s something that I needed, right? Everybody has access to fiber in their homes, right. And that’s something that we did long time ago. And during COVID, we had no problems with internet, even though everyone was working from home, they could watch the movies, you do not need to throttle anything, and so on, right? So. So because of our size, we could do these things more easy, right? But as customers, we have limitations. And I think if you ask me, What is something that’s important to Singapore is always thinking beyond our size, right beyond our physical limitations, looking ahead to the world, as our marketplace as our source of talent or source of capabilities. And I think that’s something that really helped us grow. Because right from the onset, we decided it’s not, it’s not something that we can we can’t be alone in this world, right? Yeah, looking globally, is important. Yeah. So I hope that sort of answer your just,

Michael Waitze 11:16
it doesn’t I love it. And I love this idea of thinking beyond our physical limitations, I’ve actually made make that the title of this episode, because I think it’s really instructive for the way that the country thinks about itself. I want to share an epiphany moment with you. And I want to maybe see if you had some of the same ideas that I did. When I was in college, I was really poor, right. And I was typing on my papers on a on a, on a typewriter. And if I got a word wrong, I had to use whiteout and stuff like that. And I remember somebody was walking around with a Macintosh literally carrying it around. And I thought, What is that thing. And as soon as I started testing it, and started writing my papers on that thing, I mean, I would think I was really hustling this guy to be able to borrow it to read my papers, most of which I did between midnight and five o’clock tomorrow morning, embarrassingly. But that was kind of my epiphany moment that computers were going to change the way I was going to live my life. And I basically did that forever. And I’m wondering if you did that as well, if you had a moment where you thought, tech is going to change things, and I need to be involved.

Lee Wan Sie 12:13
I, I think I was very lucky. And I’ll probably talk a little bit about that later, as well. I was lucky that when I was very young, my parents, you know, bought us a little apple, I think it was able to eat or something, some kind of computer, which I cannot remember. And we could sort of play with it and figure it out. And then be very comfortable with technology, even though I was really young, and probably had no idea about what I want to do in my life and what technology meant. But that sort of got me started a little bit. And I think where tech is going to be an important part of my life that came about when I went to university, I studied computational science and physics. I wanted to teach that. So I studied physics, but at the same time, I wanted to see what is this thing, you know, this new this new idea about? Computers? And how does it help us do better science, for example? Right. So that was one of the reasons why I went to that. And that’s why I think it sort of got me started. And I mentioned earlier that I want to talk a little bit about me as a, as a young girl, and maybe just read a little bit to some of the work that we’re doing here. And Andy, because I think all these epiphanies that you’re going to have right about why tech is important about growing your interest in technology has to start from somewhere. And I think one of the things we want to do here, and I’m this really encouraging young women to think about technology is something that they can do that it’s a it’s a career path for them, that they should not be limited by, let’s say, by by the idea, right? That that is only for boys, nerds geeks, who can code very well, yeah. So that that is a perception in some areas in Singapore, maybe less so. But still, it’s something that we have to change. And we spend a lot of effort in this program that I’m looking and I’m very interested in passionate about women in tech, and really driving a lot of initiatives together with our ecosystem partners, like the single computer society, as well as many of the companies here in Singapore to support and help women growing tech. Yeah. Do you

Michael Waitze 14:20
feel like the perception of females in Tech has changed during your lifetime, in the sense that maybe when you were a young woman, you would not have necessarily been encouraged to join the tech scene. But now you’re in a position where you can build infrastructure that not just encourages women to do this, but makes it easier for them to do it as well and doesn’t stigmatize it in reverse as this is not something you should be doing or can be doing. But this is something that everybody should be doing. Does that make sense? And can you talk to me a little bit more about how you work, how the IMBA works with its partners, via women in tech, whether it’s the Singapore Computer Society, or other parts of to industry as well, to ensure that these opportunities are not just available for women, but that are just easy for them to do. Does that make sense? Can you just run me through that, please?

Lee Wan Sie 15:10
So of course, I love to do that. Has perception changed? Right? For women in tech? We hope that it gets better. Right? Definitely, things have changed from when I was much younger to now, I’m, I’m lucky that because I work in government, in public sector, the balance between men and women is quite even. So I didn’t really have to feel that, that problem that personally. But when I talk to my friends and other colleagues or business, acquaintances, they do get that sense that they have, maybe in some cases, when they walk into a room doing something, they are like the only female in the room of men, for example. So I think that’s, that’s something that we want to address. And as you mentioned, we partner with Computer Society, we partner with many industry organizations, a few things that we do, I started with girls who are talking about girls, right? So one is we try to encourage young women girls to see tech as a possibility as a career, right? Get them interested. So we do a lot of girls tech events, partnering with companies to do like, what is the day in the light like, right? If you are looking into tech organizations, also to get them interested and excited, right? We also look at how do we support corporates when they develop or when they think about programs in house within organizations to help the women in organizations that women employees, right. So we started this program called the corporate pledge, we have more than 60 companies come on board, almost 17 Back to see how we can create a conducive corporate environment for women. So this could be internal in house policies around HR, this could be mentorship, this could be even how they think about the facilities within the organization to support women, right. So that’s corporate, there’s a corporate pledge, because that’s something that we think it has to be ground up. It’s something that can’t be top down, organizations have to think about it. And what we want to do is help them figure out what are the three most important things for them to do this year. And then the three most important things in the next year, for example,

Michael Waitze 17:33
I want to make a really strong case for understanding the importance of role models, right? We can we can push it aside as if it’s something that’s not that important, right? Like, why is it important for somebody to see someone that looks like they are doing something that they hadn’t considered yet. And yet, I think about my own life, and even when I was a little boy, right, my parents encouraged me to be a lawyer. And there were plenty of lawyers. I’m not a lawyer. And I didn’t do that. But there were plenty of lawyers for me to look up to and see, there are all these other people that look just like I do that have similar names, similar backgrounds that are doing that thing. And it didn’t feel weird for me to go do that. And I think it’s super important to note that, again, this idea of walking into a room and being the only like, if you walk into a room and all the other people are blue, and you’re green, you’re just thinking, this is not a room that’s comfortable for me, even if they want me in there, right? Because I just want a few other green people there so I can feel comfortable. Can you talk a little bit about why this mentorship is really important? And also why starting with girls and I use the term girls explicitly, because when you’re six or seven or eight years old, it’s important to see people to whom you can aspire. Can you talk about that a little bit, please?

Lee Wan Sie 18:37
Yeah, thanks. Miko is extremely important role ones are extremely, extremely important. We want girls to be able to see that, oh, there are women who are doing all these wonderful different things. In a tech in the tech industry, you can be engineer, right, you can be working in marketing, for example, you don’t actually have to be technical, right to work in the tech sector. Or you can be in customer service, for example. So there are many different types of roles. So then it’s important for them to see that, hey, you know, that’s something that I can aspire to, as you mentioned, right? That’s someone that who’s doing something really fun and exciting that I can try and learn about and learn from. And that’s one of the reasons why we started the Singapore 100 Women in Tech list, right? Because in the past, we were like, you know, when we try to organize, let’s say, a conference, or even having all these events where we go to schools, and we are trying to find women to come and speak right to go speak on conferences on panels. It’s really difficult because I have my network and maybe somebody else has the network. But we think that also a lot more of these women out there that we may not know of hear about. Right? Right. And that’s why we started the list. Because we want to showcase that in Singapore. There are many women with different careers. Who can who have achieved And then exceptional things that we want to show what they have done. And then they become role models, not just the younger, they talked about, but also young women who are starting their career and they wanted to see, hey, where can I go from here? And these women provide the inspiration for them.

Michael Waitze 20:17
Do you find it fascinating at any level? That Mira Marathi? Who is the CTO of open AI? First of all, it gets very little exposure. And maybe that’s her thing, right? Maybe she doesn’t want to have that exposure. But then Sam Altman is the face of this thing, which is okay, right, because he comes from Y Combinator and stuff like that. But that there’s this insanely incredible woman behind there doing all this stuff. I think it’s a great, she’s a great role model for people, even if she’s not out there promoting herself. But is there a way to use that as well to encourage people to actually go into deep tech engineering?

Lee Wan Sie 20:52
Yeah, I think, definitely, I’ve read some interviews that she’s done. So yeah, she’s, she’s very interesting, excellent perspectives. But sometimes I think these very famous people overseas, while they are exciting to look towards, right, and say, Hey, boy, young guy, I want to get the data, I want to be raw, right. But at the same time, I think we also want to make sure that it’s something that they feel they can attain. And this I, in a way, we have local role models as well in Singapore, right? Because then someone closer to home dedicated to see on stage next week, if they’re interested to go meet that person. Right. And, and that much more accessible and close to home. That’s why I think I mentioned the single 100 Women in Tech list. I think that’s that’s something that’s important for us to do together. We have opening nominations now. We’ll close to April, and we really like to invite people to just recommend women for us to just consider for this list.

Michael Waitze 21:51
Yeah. And who are the partnerships around the 100 women in tech, this is a very important initiative, right? So that there are people because in this region, there are incredible women, but there’s been no infrastructure for them to be able to not promote themselves, but just promote the idea that we’re doing all these great things. And this is a perfect way to do that. Right? It’s by saying, hey, look, here’s a list of 100 people that have done amazing things. There are way more people than that there are 1000s of people doing this. But here’s the best 100 that we found this year alone. Right? So tell me more about this initiative as well. And what you think its impact is going to be?

Lee Wan Sie 22:26
Yeah, so who are we working with? Yes, 400 woman, right. So we are working with the Singapore Computer Society. So they are they are our CO partners, to directors, they’re helping to brand, the whole program. That’s important. And you know, you can go to the sale Computer Society website, and you can find 100 women. In fact, there are like 200 over now, because we ran it for two years. So they’re hosting all the content, they’re helping to also create opportunities for this woman to do more as well. So anybody who is interested to say find someone who wants to mentor who wants who’s interested in mentoring, who’s interested in being a boy who is interested in speaking to someone computer societies, websites is the first point of call, I think it’s something that you can do. And then extending that to other programs like so they we started with a woman on boards initiative that was just launched. So recently, that creates opportunities, again, for more women to figure out how to they have to sit on boards, especially when they reach a certain point in their career, they want to give back more to the industry. And we provide the training, we provide the opportunities and so so I think the impact can come from all these different initiatives. But it’s really coming from the system coming together, right to then say, we want to work together on this. That’s why the nominations are important. That’s why partnership programs like the board programs, important. mentorship programs are important. And that’s how we collectively try and do better. Right? Women in Singapore. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 23:55
So what does success look like to you? You mentioned earlier that in the government sector, in the public service sector, it feels kind of even right that that you never felt out of place there in industry, it feels very different to me. Right? Particularly for someone who comes out of a finance background, I remember sitting on the trading floor and just thinking there are plenty of guys here, but not enough gals, what does success look like to you not just through not just for the women in tech, which is a really important initiative and also the women on boards, right? Because again, from a mentorship and a role model perspective, if I look up and I don’t see anybody that looks familiar to me, it’s gonna be hard for me to feel like that is possible. But if I look out three years, five years, what does success look like to you?

Lee Wan Sie 24:38
I think we will be tempted to say hey, success means it must be must have at least 50 plus percent women tech professionals and so on. But that’s not the numbers are not words about for me, right. Most important for me, success means any woman who wants to have any opportunity in tech. Get it? Yeah, right. They should not feel constrained because of their gender. Right, so that to me, it’s will be success. So a young girl who says, I want to do compliance, let’s say in university should not feel like she can have access to that right woman engineer who wants to work in a data center should not feel like she’s constrained because she cannot speak the male lingo, right? Because that’s what all her colleagues do. But she can do just as well as everybody else in the data center. So I think, to me, that’s really making sure that everyone wants the opportunity, because not everybody wants a career in tech. So let’s not force people to do that, right. But if you do want a career in tech, you should not feel like you’re, you’re not able to achieve everything that you can just because of your gender.

Michael Waitze 25:41
Yeah, I think that is actually the perfect way to end unless I’ve missed something that you want to add on love ending on that note that nobody, you’re right. I just didn’t want to say this, right, that the numbers per se are not important. They’re indicative of certain things. But the numbers per se are not important. This is this feeling of that I can definitely do. That’s an opportunity for me, I can walk in that door and feel like I’m not going to get admonished for being there. That’s the important part. And I think the fact that you’ve pointed that out, it’s actually really important. Is there anything else that you want to cover that I’ve missed?

Lee Wan Sie 26:14
Quite a lot about different things about you know, how singable has so far. Why is AI important? Why is responsible are important? And then most of all, why, you know, supporting women in practice and board and I think that’s a wonderful conversation. So Alex, thank you, Michael, for giving me the opportunity to share some of my ideas and thoughts. Yeah,

Michael Waitze 26:33
It is my pleasure. Lee Wan Sie, a Director at IMDA in Singapore, thank you so much for doing that today.

Lee Wan Sie 26:40
Thank you, Michael. Okay, good. Bye bye.

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