"We're Learning How To Roll With The Punches And Be More Agile"

Mr Aaron Maniam shares how his past career experiences help him in his role at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).
Aaron Maniam and his team are equipped with the necessary skills to work with different agencies.

At the MCI, Deputy Secretary Aaron Maniam’s team works with different government agencies in Singapore and beyond on digitalisation efforts.

These include initiatives to create economic and social value, such as SME Go Digital – where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are given financial support and access to capabilities to go digital in some form. In another programme, experts with the skills to be Chief Technology Officers are attached to businesses to “mentor” them in their journey to go digital. Other programmes include the provision of computers and internet accessibility for families in need.

Video by: Eric Lin

Aaron describes his team’s top priority as “maximising the dividend and minimising the divide from the adoption of technology”.

This means ensuring that everyone – from businesses to people who are older, disabled or are disadvantaged in some way – has access to digital technology, and the skills and knowledge to benefit from using it.

There is also the regulatory aspect: to address the negative aspects of the information economy, like disinformation, and ensure that market competitiveness, data security and individual privacy are protected while allowing businesses to use technology to innovate and grow.

His team also looks at the international aspect of digital technology. For instance, this could be in the sharing of best practices and knowledge, signing agreements about the use of data, and updating free trade agreements with digital chapters.

“We are thinking about how digitalisation can be part of our overall foreign policy,” he said.

Lessons From His Career

Aaron’s career has included roles in the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF) – all areas where he can now draw connections to his current responsibilities.

For example, his posting at the MFA introduced him to how complex government work is, how everything is interdependent, and the importance of international networks.

At MTI, he worked with the manufacturing and services sector, and on major tourism projects such as the Singapore Grand Prix, an update to the Integrated Resorts after 10 years of operation, and the Mandai development, first with Temasek Holdings and later with Mandai Safari Park Holdings.

The role taught him the importance of strong stakeholder management. “The government's role is not to do everything by itself. It is to be a steward, a convener bringing parties together in constructive and wholesome conversations.”

In such conversations, it’s important to know that everyone has their own assumptions and biases, and a certain worldview of things that will be “somewhat correct, but also incomplete” – a lesson from his time as the founding Head of the CSF.

Embracing New Possibilities

Since he joined the MCI in January 2020, work has been intense as the ministry deals directly with digitalisation and communications, and the agency has had to be relatively agile, especially in responding to the challenges of COVID-19.

“Our comms teams have had to organise press conferences on really short notice, we've had to set up programmes for digital access – also at short notice. In all those, we're learning how to roll with the punches and be more agile in how we respond,” he said.

It also helps that where possible, MCI’s senior leadership is open to trying out new ideas, without always requiring reams of research and justification.

On experimenting with social voice app Clubhouse, Aaron said: “When Clubhouse first became a thing, within a couple of weeks, former MCI Minister Iswaran suggested trying out a Clubhouse dialogue. He just said: ‘Look, let's experiment, let's just try. We will learn from it and can adjust later.’”

Aaron added: “Interfacing so directly with the technology has made us much more inclined to think about how we can evolve wherever possible.”

(Read about the skills Aaron thinks public officers of the future will need.)

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