Sitting down with Li Hongyi, Singapore Prime Minister’s grandson

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Li Hongyi and discuss Singapore’s approach to government and technology. I’ve been fascinated by Singapore since reading From Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father, and how he took a poor and corrupt country and built it into one of the richest countries in the world — where the average per capita income is nearly twice that of America’s.

Some takeaways:

1. Singapore is extremely efficient with government spending — about twice as efficient as America is.
Their government expenditures make up 17% of total GDP — and not only do they have universal healthcare, but also the government manages the retirement savings of all its citizens (and invests that money). The US’s government expenditures are 38% of total GDP. A Rube Goldberg machine is an example of how an arbitrarily simple task can be arbitrary complex. This is how most governments work.

2. I asked: What worries you about the culture in Silicon Valley?
He responded that despite all of the wealth and abundance in Silicon Valley, people tend to accept wealth disparity and move to higher levels of esoteric consumption (taking on more interesting hobbies, eating at nice restaurants, traveling to more exotic places). Buying experiences is not better than buying things. People here look at the homeless and accept that that’s the way things are going to be. This is not the case in Singapore — people in Singapore expect a lot out of their government and will complain about even the smallest things — and the government is quick to respond.See the response to a citizen’s complaint about a grocery store not carrying a yogurt drink for his children (1):


3. Someone asked: “One way to see countries is as companies — what are the main pillars of government strategy?” Several takeaways:

  1. Li Hongyi runs the Data Science and AI division of the government — he responded that AI itself isn’t the main source of value, rather, it is automating all the things leading up to that. 

    For example, the police was having a hard time tracking down peoples’ addresses when they would call.  The police requested AI algorithms to help solve their problems, but all they really needed was a faster way to query. Hongyi used Amazon ElasticSearch to bring the query time from 2 min to 0.5 sec, and their issues were resolved. 

  2. AI as a national strategy resource does not exist. Their competitive strategy is to attract smart people. What do smart people care about? Having a good quality of life.
    1. Two potential competitive strategies:
      1. Develop an edge – e.g. how Japan cherry picks industries; China focuses on IoT, manufacturing, electric, and autonomous vehicles
      2. Just get the most successful people in our country (e.g. Singapore)

View full set of notes at Google Docs link.