Covid-19 outbreak has boosted awareness of need for digitalisation: Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran during an interview on Money FM 89.3 on March 31, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - More businesses are seeing the value of increased digitalisation in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said on Tuesday (March 31).

While the Government has long encouraged firms to use more digital technology in their processes, the coronavirus has brought into stark relief its relevance and usefulness at a time when companies have had to activate their business continuity plans, he said in an interview on Money FM 89.3.

"Right now, businesses see the value proposition - whether it is working remotely, whether it is transacting with business partners around the world - and also for employees understanding why digital technologies are very relevant and useful," he said.

"On all those fronts, what you see is people have now come on board in a more decisive way."

Digital technology has also helped the Government manage the crisis, said Mr Iswaran, citing how the WhatsApp service has provided Singaporeans with "reliable information in a timely manner (that) also enables them then to navigate all the other information that they're receiving on a daily basis".

The service now pushes out messages to more than one million users a day in the four official languages, a significant milestone for the Government, he said.

"We think that these and many other digital sources of information and ways of communicating with our broader population (are a) key part of not just battling the crisis, but also in terms of preparing ourselves for the next phase of digital evolution in Singapore's economy," he said.

A myth that needs dispelling, Mr Iswaran said, is that digitalisation applies only to some, when such technologies cut across every sector.

He noted that even very traditional businesses in Kampong Glam and Little India are using digital technologies, whether for payments or to interact with their logistics providers.

Both companies and workers should also see digitalisation as a journey, and not something where one needs to "jump into the deep end in one fell swoop".

"What you can do is work on it in terms of taking incremental steps, but having an overall strategy that takes you to the end point in terms of the kind of capabilities you need," he said.

Asked about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which took effect last October, he said Covid-19 has vindicated what the Government said when it introduced the anti-fake news legislation - that people today get information through a variety of digital sources, that information that comes through digital sources can be very viral, and that fake information can cause very adverse consequences.

Pofma "has actually proven to be very effective in the course of Covid-19, although it is very, very unfortunate that people still persist in pervading falsehoods even in these very trying times, and it causes fear and panic in our population," said Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister-in-charge of Cyber Security.

"So we have to move swiftly and decisively to deal with such fake news or falsehoods, and that's where the Pofma legislation has been very valuable."

That the Government had moved very quickly to quash early instances of fake news - such as in January when it debunked reports of the closure of Woodlands MRT station due to a suspected Covid-19 case - has "had a salutary effect", he added.

"Even in private messaging services, where sometimes such news is very quick to circulate, what I find now is the instinct is for people to ask the question, 'Is this fake? Is this real?'" he said.

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"Which I think is a very good instinct, because what it means is people realise that they need to question the source, the authenticity of the information and its reliability."

Newspapers and the media remain an important source of accurate information, Mr Iswaran added.

"The media plays a very important role (and) the mainstream media remains one of the key sources of information that people rely on," he said.

When Singapore enters election season, the Government will ensure that people get reliable and truthful information so that citizens can exercise their vote in a well-informed way, said Mr Iswaran.

"The experience in other countries has shown that in particular in the hustings period, that's when there is more froth, especially in social media, in the digital realm, and a lot more misinformation starts to spread," he said.

"So the key is ensuring that people, our citizens, are well-informed, they understand the facts clearly, and we're able to debunk the falsehoods quickly."

The full interview with Mr Iswaran will be available at noon on The Straits Times' Facebook page.

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