Minister by day, techie by night

SERIOUS HOBBYIST: Dr Balakrishnan loves to build and fix his own gadgets. He often goes to hardware suppliers in Bishan and Woodlands to buy microcontroller boards and hardware kits.


    Apr 24, 2014

    Minister by day, techie by night

    BY DAY, he has to deal with the haze, floods and other acts of God, but, by night, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is a self-confessed techie who fixes his own gadgets.

    As a boy, he began by hacking computer games.

    "As far as games were concerned, I wasn't very good at them," he said with a laugh.

    "I learnt to program in order to hack the games," said Dr Balakrishnan, 53.

    One of his very first hacks was a game called Odyssey. The text-based role-playing game, which came out in the 1980s, had players moving their characters with the keyboard.

    Dissatisfied with the hassle of pressing up-down-left-right keys, he wanted to control the character with a joystick. So he re-programmed the interface to do just that.

    "There was no Internet yet, so you had to learn programming through books at the library," he said.

    "I am what you might call a serious hobbyist."

    But computers had fascinated him since he laid hands on his first, the Apple II Plus.

    He said his father, a lecturer, took a loan to buy it for $6,000 in 1982.

    Dr Balakrishnan remembers taking apart the Apple II Plus to add hardware, so that the computer could run a word-processing application called WordStar.

    "It was the killer app of the time. The ability to edit, change, cut and paste was mind-blowing back then."

    His tech skills proved useful in professional life. He developed programs to simplify the documenting of eye tests, when he was an ophthalmologist in the 1990s.

    After work these days, he often goes to hardware suppliers in Bishan and Woodlands to buy microcontroller boards and hardware kits to make his own gadgets.

    Over several late nights recently, he put together a device to control his automatic gate at home (see below).

    "It's one of the few usable things I have made," he said. "With my job, there's hardly time to make a completed product."

    Dr Balakrishnan, who has three sons and a daughter, often spends what free time he has assembling tech toys, such as Lego Mindstorms kits, with his youngest son, Luke, seven.

    He hopes to give him a head start in hands-on building, one of the ABC skills he considers "essential for Singapore's next generation". These skills are:

    A is for a sense of aesthetics, he said. "Our next generation needs an appreciation of what is beautiful, what hits you at an emotional level."

    B is for building - a sense of originality and learning how to make things from scratch.

    C stands for communication. "After you have built and designed a product, you need to learn how to tell a good story. We cannot be a nation of traders, we have to learn to build new things, beautiful things that will have a market which does not yet exist. Competing to be cheaper and faster is not enough," he said.

    Mass manufacturing in China has made easy-to-program microcomputers cheap to access.

    "Prices have crashed, money is no longer a limiting factor."

    For example, a credit card-sized computer, called the Raspberry Pi, costs about $38, and even primary school kids can learn how to program it with some guidance.

    Kids can also learn programming skills from online communities and YouTube videos, he said. At a Cashew Constituency Edusave Awards Presentation Ceremony in January, he brought in techies who taught kids and parents how to make simple robots.

    He is also considering a Makers' Fair around mid-year to expose his constituency to made-in-Singapore technologies.

    "If I can learn to program, many out there can probably do it too. If we give our children the right tools, it will blow our minds as to what they can do."