NCS is a member of the Singtel Group and is a leading ICT service provider with a presence in over 20 countries. The company delivers end-to-end ICT solutions to help its clients realize business value through digital transformation and the innovative use of technology. In this interview, Wee Boon Chia discusses the potential of the ASEAN region, the ICT landscape in Singapore, as well as the technology and innovations that NCS offers its clients.
Singapore is the chair of ASEAN this year. What is the potential of the ASEAN bloc and how important is digitalization and e-commerce to it realizing its economic potential?
ASEAN is part of a much bigger region which is the in Asia-Pacific. As long as there are trading blocs, there will be free flow of goods and services, finance and talent. ASEAN has been in existence for more than 50 years. It not only exists as a trading bloc, it also provides huge economic potential for other countries to trade in and do business in Asia and ASEAN.
In our business, we are very focused on digitalization. So, what does digitalization mean for economies within Southeast Asia?
The primary motivation for digitalization for the most developed countries has been centered around operational efficiencies. It has been centered around increasing revenues and engaging customers in a digital way. These business imperatives are no different in Southeast Asia.
E-commerce is now all over of the region. For example, if you take agricultural plantation and pair it with digitalization and IoT, agriculturalists and business managers are now able to increase yields of rice and crops across Southeast Asia. It’s not just about operational efficiencies because comparatively, there are some places in Southeast Asia where labor is still cheap. If you are able to give good, very credible, compelling reasons how technologies help to increase revenues, to engage customers better and to improve operational efficiency, digitalization would take off in every sector.
What is your analysis of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) report, the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), and how important is this value transformation that Singapore is currently going through to maintain its competitiveness?
As a business manager, I look at the CFE not so much as a recipe, but more as a blueprint. The government can define the bounds and the areas of opportunities. Then industries must take initiative to survive. The CFE provides 23 ITMS in six different clusters. Directionally, we all need to digitalize. It is therefore up to the industries to respond, not just the government. If industries are able to respond while increasing the level of productivity, the level of operational efficiency, and at the same time, increasing revenues, jobs will be preserved and new jobs will be created. There'll be a huge transformation that's going to happen in the economies across the bloc and new talents will be brought in. The current workforce will be trained and, in some cases, re-trained. The impact will be quite huge.
What is your current assessment of the Smart-Nation initiative? And what role is NCS playing as a technology partner through its software and intellectual property?
As far as NCS is concerned, the smart nation and the digital government initiatives are not new to us. We think it's not possible for us to stay ahead of the game unless we can start to have a set of talents well ahead of time, and the creation of value through the creation of own intellectual property.
We set up a product R&D organization last year. We combined forces with universities and national research foundations at A*STAR. We’ve now got a decent portfolio of services and products. There are going to be more coming downstream.
What's more important is that our focus will be centered around human centric innovations. To that end, we picked design thinking and design as central to everything that we do. We've trained thousands of design thinkers in NCS. We have made it a point that to differentiate and to create value, we have to find ways and means to be different. Subsequent to this, we then have to export our capabilities, software and products.
Our response to the smart nation is twofold: first, the transformation of the talents that we have; second, the creation of our own intellectual property with a very strong desire to go overseas. That's the only way to not only exploit the opportunities that smart nation provides, but also to look beyond that by having an ambition to export our services and products.
How does your customized intellectual property (IP) service set you apart from other system integrators?
The answer is not a single feature or one facet. It's a multi-feature, multi-faceted answer. I believe it’s our mix of technologies combining design thinking with our partner products and own IP. With all of this, we are differentiated.
On top of that, in many cases, we find that customers are a lot more comfortable if we have got domain expertise – either in public safety, in transport, in urban infrastructure, in health care, etc. By domain expertise, I mean the ability to not only understand customers but also make suggestions, be consultative in the approach, and have a better understanding of what products, cost, services and what business models could solve their problems.
We are not in the technology business for the sake of technology. We're in the business of solving customer's business problems. The deployment of technologies is one way we solve our customer's problems. It's a combination of partnerships. We combine with the biggest in the world and we continue to expand the list of partners across the world.
How would you analyze the technology and innovation ecosystem of Singapore?
The startup scene in Singapore has been vibrant. There are a lot more startups today than 10-15 years ago. There are a lot more people who are willing to try – people that come up with new ideas and also those who are now more willing to put money to back these start-ups.
One clear example is a startup that we bought about half a year ago. We bought a three-year-old video analytics start-up. It's doing good work in video analytics and is well recognized. We're enhancing what we have acquired with new capabilities and potentially new products. If you ask me, in short, the tech startup level of innovation is definitely positive. It’s going in the right direction. I am quite optimistic about what we can produce.
NCS is present in 22 countries and 40 cities, together with your parent company, Singtel. Could you tell us a little bit more about your internationalization process?
Internationalization is a critical component of our growth strategy. Internationalization is all about growth. Growth is not just about a company growing but it's also about growth on a personal level. Individuals who come join NCS must see that same amount of optimism in the company growing and therefore, they, themselves, can grow.
Do you see the group staying mostly within the Asia-Pacific region; is that where you want to consolidate?
We are taking one step at a time. We are present in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, etc. Let's consolidate in a few places where we can do a good job. Southeast Asia presents a huge opportunity. China is another one. Will we ever one day go into the Western economies? I hope so but we’re still in the very early days of our global internationalization efforts.
If you want to go international, a few things must be done right. First is the ability to have a consistent portfolio of services so that you appear similar across countries. Two is our delivery. Our delivery capabilities must be consistently high in quality. It must be consistently high in the talents that we hire to deliver this high level of world-class standards that customers expect of us.
The third area is our ability to reach our customers. Our go-to market and our partnerships in their countries are absolutely critical. When we talk about digital services across all countries, we must be able to essentially sing the same song from the same hymn sheet. We must appear as one consistent company across the world to our customers.
That leads me to one last facet which we didn't talk about and that is branding. Obviously, it's always a real challenge trying to create a global brand as a brand isn't created overnight. It takes time. I want an NCS brand that is founded on quality.