Singapore is the smartest city in Southeast Asia; but how are the others getting on?

According to the United Nations forecasts, Asia has to expect another 1 billion people to move into the cities in the coming 20 years. The largest extent of urbanisation can be expected in China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. The East Asian countries – China, South Korea, Japan – consciously control urbanisation and prepare their cities for the growth. In South Asia India launched the “100 Smart Cities” developmental program in 2014. In Southeast Asia, however, the news is generally about Singapore. But how far have the others got? What are the 50 cities in Southeast Asia with at least half a million inhabitants capable of?

Urbanisation trend in Southeast Asia

According to the statistics of the United Nations,[1] today every second person lives in a rural environment. The forecasts suggest that in 30 years’ time only one in every three persons will claim to be rural. Urbanisation will change the countries in Southeast Asia, too.

(1) The increasing significance of cities: It can be shown that 60% of the GDP is produced by 600 cities. According to the calculation of McKinsey[2], these figures will have remained unchanged by 2025; however, the club membership of the 600 elite cities will change considerably. One in every three cities in the developed global world, mainly America, will drop out and replaced by cities in the developing world, mainly Asia. In Southeast Asia Manila, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok and Singapore will take the lead. (The interactive map is available on this link:

(2) Lack of infocommunication infrastructure: The economic growth of the cities is only possible together with the development of infrastructure. The main purpose of smart cities (see the term explanation below) is to create a liveable environment for their inhabitants and enterprises. Therefore, the traditional infrastructure needs to be improved. In Jakarta, for instance, clean drinking water and sewage disposal are an issue. According to the data of the World Bank[3], only 5% of households are connected to the sewerage system. In Manila permanent traffic jams pollute the air and enhance the stress related to getting to work.

However, new infocommunication infrastructure is necessary, too, which fulfils the tech demands of both the smart city and the citizens. According to the estimation of the Asian Development Bank[4] the region needs investment to ICT infrastructure to the amount of USD 1.9 billion until 2025. In Southeast Asia large differences can be observed in technological preparedness. While in Brunei the internet penetration rates 86%, in Myanmar it is only 26%. In this region huge growth can be expected; 8% growth corresponds to an extra 62 million users in the number of mobile subscribers.

Internet and mobile connection ASEAN 2017


(3) Increasing social inequality. The urbanisation has increased inequality threefold in the Philippines and to one and a half times in Indonesia. ADB expects this trend to continue in the future, which means that the gap between the people moving cities is going to widen more and more and it is going to affect the national indicators.[5]

What makes a city smart?

According to the scientific literature, “smart cities” have at least 15 different concepts. This term was first applied in the 1990s and it referred to the use of IT solutions. In the course of time several layers of meaning have accumulated on the term of “smart city”. Head of the National Information Agency in Seoul Mr Jong Sung Hwang[6] supposes that “smartness” has four generations. First generation cities have developed smart solutions by using the Internet and ICT technology. The second generation already relied on the actual data supplied by the sensors, including electronic cards, sensors built in traffic, gauges and so on. The third generation already concentrated on analysis and human-centred solutions. The fourth generation builds on the solutions offered by artificial intelligence such as face recognition, autonomous vehicles, etc.

These days the experts agree that smart solutions mainly aim to make a city liveable for the citizens. In the developing countries it means that cities have to be prepared for some form of industrialisation, whereas in the developed countries smart cities serve the exit from the industrialising phase and the transition. In this context, environmental sustainability, civil participation and the fight against inequality dominate the agenda.

In Southeast Asia the cities are really multi-coloured; therefore, it would be difficult to think in identical smart city concepts. Indian Smart City Developmental Project Director Sameer Sharma[7] suggests that each country should determine themselves what cities they want to see. India invited the experts of LSE to draft the Indian type smart city concept. However, the actual developments to be implemented have been specified by the citizens. More than 15 million people participated in the consultation, based upon which cities could apply for the resources. At present 20 cities are being developed and another 80 will be selected based upon the experience.

In Southeast Asia the ASEAN initiated the collaboration called Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC)[8]. According to this, the organisation assists the 25 most rapidly increasing cities in more energy-efficient operation, environmental sustainability, traffic development and so on. However, most countries and cities are going their own ways. When formulating the ‘smart city’ concept, many rely on the definition of the European Parliament.[9] In this context, a smart city improves 6 fields by using technology: governance, humans, lifestyle, mobility, economy and the environment. These fields exist in symbiosis with each other, no interventions not affecting any other fields are possible.

Are the cities of Southesast Asia smart?

Plenty of rankings, indexes and competitions attempt to reward urban innovation. These, however, always consider different aspects of a city; therefore, they can hardly answer our question. If we accept that Smart Cities primarily aim to create a liveable environment, we should study two rankings in detail, including the cities in Southeast Asia, too.

In 2012 the National University of Singapore Center for Liveable Cities prepared a ranking[10] on global cities, studying the economy, the socio-cultural environment and the natural environment. Based upon this, Singapore (3/64) is the smartest city/nation in the region, while Jakarta (64/64) is the least liveable place.

Source: Edited by me on the basis of the Global Liveable Cities Index

The University of Navarra IESE Business School prepares the “Cities in Motion” Index every year,[11] which follows the liveability and smartness of cities in 10 dimensions (governance, economy, human capital, traffic, social cohesion, international effect, environment, technology, public management, urban planning).


While it is Singapore everywhere that takes the lead, it can be seen that other cities in the region, primarily the two metrocities Jakarta and Manila lag behind in the ranking. What can the others learn from Singapore? Singapore is talented since it has both resources for the development and good governance. In Singapore there is one single governmental level; the organs of various authorities are coordinated by a ministry. In Singapore things can be done and realised. The leadership is visionary and manages well, even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long learns to encode. Very often, the city is criticised because only the governance is smart here and everything is controlled top-down. This, however, is impossible as the governance does not compete with their citizens for the realisation of the ideas but cooperates with them for the sustainability and comfort of the city. It is true, however, that according to the survey conducted by the Economist in 2015[12] the average citizen is not familiar with smart city developments or considers them irrelevant. The Singapore Government also has a lot of catching up to do in the field of communication.

In Asian culture most social relations, whether it is personal or governmental, are built on trust, privacy and confidentiality. Singapore understands that the age of hyper-transparency is an age when the price of information has fallen to zero and the production and forwarding of information costs really inexpensive. The Government may not work isolated any longer but has to share their data and information with the citizens.

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit. Start Up my City – Smart and Sustainable Cities in Asia 2016

Singapore shares a large amount of data with the citizens and balances well between the challenges of personality rights, data protection and data security.

However, Singapore, as a city state, has a cushy time in development. Next, let us take two examples: one of a consciously developed city state and one of a metropolis in transition.

Singapore, the smart nation

This city state has been using technology in urban development consciously since the 1980s. The first Prime Minister of the country, Mr Lee Kuan Yew introduced the concept ’democratisation of technology’, according to which each citizen should have an access to the latest technology. Infrastructure has also been provided for this: by today, broadband internet is installed in every home and the city is full of high tech sensors. For instance, the channel sensors tweet when and in which city district flooding can be expected.

The Government spends a lot of money on education, too. Sciences and programming are basic learning materials in elementary schools and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long also completed studies in coding. Singapore believes in public-private partnership and invests in the ideas of firms and citizens in order to promote urban development. Singapore does not provide simple money for the realisation of the ideas but offers smart money, which comes together with a social net, mentoring and market access.

In 2014 Singapore introduced the “Smart Nation” Strategy. This is a strategy framework including technology, education, financing, and it aims to develop the business ecosystem in Singapore (innovative enterprises, job creation, attracting talented people, sustainable lifestyle and environment). It aims at four areas where technology can have the largest influence on “the way they live, work and play”:[13]

  • Traffic
  • Home and environment
  • Business productivity
  • Health and active ageing
  • Public services

Source: Singapore Smart Nation Portal

Singapore is often criticised for not being a smart city but being only a nation with smart governance. The Minister for Smart Nation Strategy (also Foreign Minister) Vivian Balakrishnan says that bottom-up initiatives can only function optimally if an imaginable government establishes the environment. “We are able to amend legal provisions, provide training and funds. But the government and the politicians certainly have no more or better ideas than the citizens. If you have an idea, we pay the pilot, and if it works, we buy it and scale it. It is a mistake to think that the government is competing with the citizens for the ideas and sources here.”[14] One of the secrets to Singapore’s success is that the relationship between the government and the citizens/firms is OK. The government inspires, incubates and provides the conditions for the bottom-up initiatives.

Jakarta, a catching-up smart city

Jakarta is the most rapidly increasing metropolis in Southeast Asia. With more than 10 million citizens, it produces a half of the country’s GDP. Unlike Singapore, this city has been developing organically; therefore, all the infrastructure required for Smart City solutions is missing. Nevertheless, the Leadership of Jakarta takes considerable actions for the transformation of the city. In 2015 the Smart City Initiative was introduced.[15] Smart solutions seek the answer to everyday problems such as traffic jams (on an average day people spend minimum 2 hours on the roads since there is no track-based public transport in Jakarta), frequent and sudden floods, social inequality, circumstantial public administrative procedures. Smart City Jakarta defines 6 areas where IoT solutions can yield the most benefits.

Source: Jakarta Smart City Portal

The portal of Jakarta Smart City was awarded the Sustainable City Main Prize of the World e-Governments Organization of Cities and Local Governments (WeGO) in 2017.[16] The portal operates as some kind of a reality customer service, coordinating the work of the back-office urban organs. The citizens may report any irregularities in the city: crimes, illegal waste, flooding, beggars, etc.[17]

Jakarta has not been planned consciously; therefore, it lags behind in terms of sensors. However, the real data is required for the development of smart solutions. Therefore, a monitor system (CCTV) has been installed recently, which supplies information and assists the police in preventing crimes and terrorism.

Jakarta is an excellent example of how the old cities are catching up. The fulfilment of the basic infrastructure demands is also a huge challenge (roads, public transport, broadband internet, water supply, viability); however, the leadership of the city is working on the right lines to facilitate everyday life.

Author: Réka Tózsa

[1] United Nations. World Urbanisation Prospects. 2014.

[2] Richard Dobbs, Sven Smit, Jaana Remes, James Manyika, Charles Roxburgh, Alejandra Restrepo

McKinsey Global Institute. Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities. 2011.03.01.

[3] World Bank. Poor Sanitation Impedes Indonesia’s Growth Potential. Press Release. 28.10.2013

[4] Asian Development Bank. ASEAN Investment Report 2015. Infrastructure Investment and Connectivity. 2015. p.99.

[5] Inequality in Asia and the Pacific. Trends, drivers, and implications. Edited by Ravi Kanbur, Changyong Rhee, and Juzhong Zhuang. 2014. Asian Development Bank and Routledge. P. 301.

[6] Le Monde Smart City Innovation Award konferencia. Which vision and models for the 21st century Asia? Singapore. 2017.06.02. Előadás: Jong Sung Hwang, National Information Society Agency, Seoul

[7] Le Monde Smart City Innovation Award konferencia. Which vision and models for the 21st century Asia? Singapore. 2017.06.02. Előadás: Sameer Sharma, Smart Cities Mission Director, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, New Delhi

[8] YOON, Anum. City living: ASEAN is urbanizing rapidly, but is it sustainable? In: Weforum. 2017.04.04.

[9] European Parliament. Mapping Smart Cities in the Europe Think Tank. 2014.

[10] TAN, Khee Giap; WOO, Wing Thye; TAN, Kong Yam; LOW, Linda. Ranking the Liveability of the World’s Major Cities. The Global Liveable Cities Index (GLCI). World Scientific Publishing. Singapore. 2012.08.01.

[11] University of Navarra. IESE Business School. Cities in Motion Index 2017.

[12] Economist Intelligence Unit. Start Up my City – Smart and Sustainable Cities in Asia 2016.

[13] Smart Nation Singapore website.

[14] Le Monde Smart City Innovation Award konferencia. Which vision and models for the 21st century Asia? Singapore. 02.06.2017. Presentation: Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of Foreign Affairs, responsible for Smart Nation Initiative.

[15] Smart City Portal Jakarta.

[16] Smart City Portal Jakarta.

[17] YUIN, Sue. Jakarta for Future. In: IoT Business Platform. 01.05.2017.

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