PARLIAMENT

Need to close digital divide widened by Covid-19: NMP

More needs to be done to help the "digital outcasts", whose problems are worsened by the deep digital divide amid the Covid-19 outbreak, said Nominated MP Anthea Ong in Parliament yesterday.

Urging the Government to include their voices in the design of digital policy, she said: "To achieve a SGUnited Smart Nation, closing this gnawing digital divide must be an urgent priority."

She described digital outcasts as those with no Internet connectivity, the requisite devices or digital literacy - all of which are even more necessary today as people are forced to go online for work and study, or to stay connected.

Such vulnerable groups include low-income households, persons with disabilities and senior citizens, she said in an adjournment motion that allows an MP to speak on a subject for 20 minutes towards the end of the sitting.

Ms Ong proposed that Internet access be provided as a public utility, in particular for low-income households. For example, Wireless@SG, the Government initiative that offers free Wi-Fi in public areas, could be extended to cover all rental flats.

Instead of limiting the number of devices per household for subsidised computer schemes, more devices should be provided to address the needs of each household member. She suggested, for instance, that each pupil in Primary 5 and above has his own laptop.

Now, the NEU PC Plus programme for students from low-income families allows for two subsidised computers for families with three or more schoolgoing children.

Also, beneficiaries of various financial aid schemes should automatically qualify for the NEU PC Plus scheme to further streamline the application process, she added.

Fellow NMP Lim Sun Sun, taking the remaining 4½ minutes of the motion, wants more intensive digital literacy programmes to be introduced in schools.

 
 
 
 

To ensure universal access to computing devices, she suggested building computing provision as part of school registration, ComCare benefits or the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, with subsidy levels staggered according to household size or income.

In response, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said "digital inclusion has been at the heart of the Government's national digitalisation effort". The Digital Readiness Blueprint, launched in 2018, envisions a nation with universal digital access where "every Singaporean, young or old, disabled or able, rich or poor, is empowered with access and skills to thrive in the digital future", he said.

While that message has been consistent, he acknowledged that adoption of digital technologies has been uneven in the country.

He said there is an opportunity now to give digitalisation "a renewed impetus and push".

He added: "We will do our utmost to ensure that every Singaporean is digitally ready. We will work with community and corporate partners, and canvass widely for ideas."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2020, with the headline 'Need to close digital divide widened by Covid-19: NMP'. Print Edition | Subscribe