Singapore: MDA-IDA merger reflects consolidation & innovation push

Singapore’s infocomm and media authorities are set to merge, in a development that is a reflection of consolidation of the city-state’s funding schemes, with the intent of positioning Singapore to respond to the emerging opportunities present in the convergent telecommunications, media & technology (TMT) space.

The Info-communications Development Authority (IDA) and the Media Development Authority (MDA) will see see the merger and consolidation of the assets of these two firms, to form the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Government Technology Organisation (GTO). The current MDA CEO Gabriel Lim will head IMDA, while current IDA managing director Jacqueline Poh will head the GTO.

To be formally established from 2H 2016, the Ministry of Communication & Information (MCI) states the new IMDA will “develop and regulate the converging infocomm and media sectors in a holistic manner”, as part of implementing the Infocomm Media 2025 plan.

According to a media release, the new GTO will “lead digital transformation efforts in the public sector” and facilitate a ‘citizen-centric user experience’ for Singapore-based residents dealing with public digital services.

Commenting on the development, Koh Boon Hwee, chairman of the Infocomm Media Masterplan Steering Committee elaborated: “Advances in technology have blurred the distinction between broadcasting and telecommunications.

He added,”The reorganisation of IDA and MDA is therefore, not only timely, but a positive development. The infocomm media sector offers many opportunities to improve productivity growth, create high-skilled jobs, support an ageing population and foster a cohesive society in the midst of globalisation.”

Targeted at creating a dynamic sector with a significant volume of opportunities for growth. In the words of the MCI, it emphasises a “talent, research, innovation and enterprise”. Additionally, the new IMDA will also “deepen regulatory capabilities for a converged infocomm media sector”, as well as  safeguarding the interests of consumers and fostering pro-enterprise regulations.

MCI stated in a release “With more pervasive use of data, the Government will continue to promote and regulate data protection in Singapore through the Personal Data Protection Commission, which will be part of the new IMDA. This will ensure that public confidence in the private sector’s use of personal data is safeguarded, even as companies increasingly leverage the data they collect as a source of competitive advantage.”

This comes in the aftermath of the government announcing plans to consolidate its funding structures, with a significant financial investment in research & development activities. While the consolidation of government agencies and separation of responsibilities is no surprising, it reflects a consideration of modern telecommunications,media & technology (TMT) industry realities.

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In 2013, a content piece by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, authored by Melanie Chua, noted: “Media convergence has transformed the way media content is distributed and consumed. Industry players that continue to operate on traditional media platforms, such as print newspaper, increasingly have to compete on the Internet.”

Chua added, “As Singapore’s media policies and regulatory frameworks were designed mainly for traditional media platforms and industry structures, they were no longer able to cope with a rapidly converging media environment.”

At the time, the move was seen as a way to restrict the publication of online news content, with the development perceived as a step backwards in the city-state.

According to Niam Chiang Meng, chairman of MDA: “The establishment of IMDA is a timely move which will allow us to better respond to the opportunities and challenges that media convergence brings. It will pave the way for a more harmonised regulatory framework, and integrated approach to industry development.”

How this development impacts entrepreneurial ventures and the startup ecosystem can only be guessed. In 2014, Stephen Sass of Cornell University noted in an opinion piece: “The significance of China’s vast spending on R&D cannot be overstated, particularly at a time when the United States has made short-sighted cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies that finance research.”

But Sass also offered the observation that most historical paradigm-shifting innovations had emerged in countries that maintained a socioeconomic environment correlating with “relatively high levels of political and intellectual liberty”, with individual able to act in a setting of skeptical attitudes and critical questioning.

Secondly, Sass noted that institutional environments were another critical component of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Sass wrote: “While government support for R&D is essential, innovation is typically the product of a bottom-up approach. A classic example is the letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, arguing that nuclear fission could be the basis of a powerful bomb, which led to the Manhattan Project.”

However, the media environment of the city-state – traditionally censored by the MDA – can be rather restrictive and suggests contra-indicative gauges of intellectual freedom. Whether this organisations’ traditional mission – and the attitude of its staff by implication – will impact the attitudes of the IMDA and GTO are yet to be determined.

In a 2009 content piece, Index on Censorship noted that Singapore’s law minister, K Shanmugam, dismissed the city’s low ranking, stateing: “Our approach on press reporting is simple: The press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to condemn that.”

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