In Focus: Jessica Tan, Microsoft Singapore

A firm believer in technology as an enabler, Jessica Tan, Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore, shares her views on the Smart Nation vision, digital disruption and what keeps her motivated.

By Clara Tan and Vipanchi Dinavahi


Share with us briefly the Smart Nation vision and its purpose.


We need to look at Smart Nation in the landscape of what is happening around us. What is happening is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, otherwise known as the Digital Transformation. That is being powered by a few things.


One is the speed and pace of technology and where it has come to in today’s world. Yes, technology happened in the Third Revolution, but things are getting faster and more sophisticated.


An example is the Internet of Things (IoT). Data and information are being made available and collected in various fashions. In many ways the data is collected in a massive and pervasive way and at the same time devices are getting cheaper, faster and smaller.


Smart Nation is about leveraging technology, but let’s not forget that the intent is because of its people. We want to ensure that at a people level, the quality of activity becomes more meaningful, easier, efficient and, more importantly, effective.




On the business front, it also gives us the ability to tap into new opportunities as well as address some constraints we are facing as a country. So what becomes most important in Smart Nation if you look at both infrastructure and the application of it, is the ability to tap into data for insights, intelligence and, most importantly, for action.


The opportunity that comes from that becomes one of the new ways of doing things or new businesses. From a cost or sustainability standpoint, we hope to be able to do more with fewer people, given our manpower constraints.


Ultimately, it’s not just about Smart Nation for the sake of it. It’s to ensure that we can be more effective. In Singapore’s case, it’s also a question of how we differentiate ourselves in terms of being a hub where people will decide to either innovate, create new ideas or put their business beds in Singapore and use us as a base. So that’s the landscape for that.


"My biggest worry about Smart Nation and Digital Transformation is the Digital Divide. If we don’t have those skills, people will miss out on opportunities."


What role is Microsoft playing to enable the Smart Nation Programme becoming a reality?


As we accelerate our efforts to become the world’s first Smart Nation, one thing that we need to keep in mind is that our people should always remain at the core of everything that we do.


At Microsoft, we are aligned with our country’s leadership in taking a people first approach to harnessing the power of technology and innovation, to build a people-centred Smart Nation that can drive real impact for a better Singapore, and bring about sustainable economic growth, social cohesion and better living over time.


For technology to realise its promise in helping people overcome critical societal challenges, innovation needs to be effective in enabling organisations and individuals to realise their full potential.


One area that we are very involved in is helping to accelerate the development and innovation in the IT industry, and we do this by strengthening competencies of local entrepreneurs and developers, as well as encouraging entrepreneurism through partnerships.


Our Microsoft BizSpark programme supports local startups by providing them with access to cloud technology and services, business and technical support and market visibility to help them grow their businesses.


While the technical infrastructure is being laid speedily across the island, it is also of utmost importance to ensure that the future generation is equipped with the right skills to capture the opportunities in our future. Apart from providing solutions to our customers, a big part of Smart Nation is about equipping today’s youths with the skills of the future, in order to foster a new generation of young innovators with the ability to create and build new solutions using technology.


Some of our initiatives include the Code for Change programme, which aims to equip students and learners with computational thinking skills, increase STEM knowledge and skillsets. There is also the Microsoft Imagine Cup, which is a student technology competition that provides opportunities for student technologists, developers and aspiring entrepreneurs from all academic backgrounds to collaborate, develop technology applications, create business plans and gain a keen understanding of what they need to bring their concept to market.


These programmes support the nation’s push towards laying the talent foundation, in order to accelerate the move towards becoming a Smart Nation.


The reason why we focus so much on skills and enablement is because the opportunities are there but unless you provide that hook or visibility to that opportunity, that connection doesn’t happen.


My biggest worry about Smart Nation and Digital Transformation is the Digital Divide. If we don’t have those skills, people will miss out on opportunities.


Technology today can be seen as a disruptor as well as an enabler. What are your views on the impact of disruption by the tech industry in the future?


As the rate of innovation and change gets quicker and quicker, it is imperative that our people keep learning and upgrading our skills, as well as our mindsets, in order to keep up with the rate of change to capture the opportunities in our future.


I see technology as more of an enabler than a disruptor. Through my years in the technology industry and at Microsoft, I have seen how technology has enabled people to do and achieve things that weren’t possible for them before.


For example, through our partnership with SPD, a disability organisation, I’ve had the opportunity to see how technology is able to help people with disabilities lead more fulfilling lives.


An inspiring example is that of Michael Quek, an electrician who loved salsa dancing until he suffered a devastating stroke and lost everything that was familiar to him, including his job. However, through the use of assistive technology like sticky keys and training from SPD, he has since found a job designing posters and backdrops at an event company, and now leads a fulfilling life.


I’ve also seen how technology can be leveraged effectively to create solutions that can solve society’s problems. In last year’s LTA Transport and You(th) Hackathon, we saw how a group of polytechnic students created an app that can assist wheelchair bound people to navigate their way independently through our Singapore streets by providing wheelchair-friendly routes through their new application. Examples like this reinforce my conviction that technology is an enabler, and can be used in powerful ways to help people do more and achieve more, if we can harness its potential the right way.


What tech trends will shape Singapore for the next 50 years?


Fifty years seems like a pretty long time. It’s tough to predict what will shape Singapore in the next 10–20 years even, especially with the rate of technological advancement getting quicker and quicker in this day and age.


For the coming years, we foresee that the shift to the cloud will continue to shape the industry. The shift to the cloud opens up a whole new world of possibilities where we can use the power of data analytics and machine learning available on cloud platforms to make sense of the huge amount of data and yield actionable insights to help us identify opportunities to improve our businesses.


By learning from data and building software that automatically learns from data, we can leverage this capability to design applications that have new functions and flexibility, paving the way for the development of more advanced, intelligent computer systems.


As we transit into an era of networked intelligence, cybersecurity will be of critical importance. This will not just be the responsibility of the authorities — businesses and individuals will have to take ownership for their own online safety to counter potential threats, information and data losses that can have widespread repercussions.




The Smart Nation project aims to rely on a lot of data. This raises the question of privacy. What are your views?


Privacy is a critical consideration on the journey towards a Smart Nation. People don’t use technology that they don’t trust, and data privacy is an important consideration in building that trust.


How data is being handled is also important. In 2015, we set up a Cybercrime Satellite Centre in Singapore, as an extension of the Microsoft Cybercrime Centre in Redmond, USA, to serve as a regional hub for Microsoft to undertake cybercrime and cybersecurity initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. We do this through public-private partnerships and cross-industry collaborations.


With these measures in place, we are helping to build greater trust in technology, paving the way for the building of information infrastructure that inspires confidence with businesses and individuals.


As a leader, how do you inspire your colleagues to keep up the innovation momentum?


From a leadership standpoint, I continue to strive, provide clarity of goals — both near and long-term — simplicity and help our people understand where we are going as a company, so that we can provide the right direction as they balance their work.


I will not say we achieve it all the time. But we ask how do we get there better? It is complex and I will say that it is tough because the industry is moving so fast. The challenge is also developing people and helping them grow with the business. I feel that our people are willing to strive if we show them how to get there as well.



On the other end, how do you stay driven and inspired in the everchanging, competitive environment, considering you play the roles of a mother, a Member of Parliament and a business leader?


I enjoy what I do. Enjoyment must come with a sense of purpose. Once you have that clarity for yourself, that fuels you in terms of energy.


The fuel I have been running on is the co-support and partnership with others. People fuel me. You have to know what you are good at, have your own value and bring it to the equation. It’s an ecosystem. I’m good at bringing things together but I enjoy working with others, be it experts, interns or campus hires because of the different perspectives they bring to the table. The point I make is, it’s a partnership. It’s what you bring in as well. Some days you give, some days you take, but the equation is there.


The world is additive and you don’t lose anything. When you work together, it’s a joint success.


Lastly, what words of advice do you have for tech entrepreneurs?


I would not have said this five years ago, but you need to be comfortable with technology, keep up with it and be open to learning.


Secondly, if you want to accelerate, it’s important to know how to collaborate. To survive and thrive in today’s world, you’ve got to recognise you cannot do it alone. You can do the same things the same way but you’ll only get faster but not necessarily better at it. You must allow yourself to ask what’s the best way to hit there and allow yourself to break boundaries, but not rules.


Lastly, your values and principles are important. In a world where there are possibilities with technology, I would say that technology can do great things, but if used wrongly can bring great harm. Be genuine when you collaborate. And do not forget to acknowledge those people who have made you successful.


"If you want to accelerate, it’s important to know how to collaborate. To survive and thrive in today’s world, you’ve got to recognise you cannot do it alone."