Parliament: More needs to be done to close the digital divide deepened by Covid-19, say two NMPs

Covid-19 has highlighted the value and urgency of digital solutions as most people are forced to work and study remotely. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - 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 on Tuesday (May 26).

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 access to 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, study or to stay connected amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such vulnerable groups include low-income households, persons with disabilities and seniors, 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 in Singapore, she said.

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 every pupil in Primary 5 and above have their own laptop.

Currently, the NEU PC Plus programme, which benefits students from low-income households, allows for two subsidised computers for families with three or more school-going 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 up 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 also suggested building computing provision as part of school registration, ComCare benefits or the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, with subsidy levels staggered according to household income or size of the household.

Replying, 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 across the economy and society.

Noting how Covid-19 has highlighted the value and urgency of digital solutions as most people are forced to work and study remotely, 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."

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