President's Challenge 2021 to focus on digital inclusion of the vulnerable

Tech can be huge, tremendous enabler but also divide if it is not accessible, says Halimah

President Halimah Yacob observing visually-impaired sensory panellist Muhammad Zahier at work inside a diffusion booth with his sighted colleague Esther Tan during a visit to Firmenich's Global Perfumery Creative Centre at Science Park 1 yesterday.
President Halimah Yacob observing visually-impaired sensory panellist Muhammad Zahier at work inside a diffusion booth with his sighted colleague Esther Tan during a visit to Firmenich's Global Perfumery Creative Centre at Science Park 1 yesterday. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Ensuring digital inclusion of vulnerable groups in society will be the theme for next year's President's Challenge, an annual fund-raiser for the less fortunate.

President Halimah Yacob announced the theme "Building a Digitally Inclusive Society" yesterday.

"Technology can be a huge, tremendous enabler but technology can also divide if it is not accessible," she said.

"What we want to do is to tell the social service agencies to really look at ways of giving access to our vulnerable communities, to the digital tools, to skills, to connectivity, because that is the only way we can help them to remain economically and socially active."

Examples include using technology to engage with seniors who are isolated during the pandemic, or using data analytics to provide better service support for beneficiaries.

Funding from the President's Challenge 2021 will be disbursed in two tranches instead of one. The first disbursement of 30 per cent will be in March next year, and the remainder in March 2022.

This way, organisations and their programmes can get funding earlier, as many of them have been struggling amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Applications for funding are open from Monday to Sept 25.

Madam Halimah was speaking to the media after a visit to Swiss-founded perfumery company Firmenich at Science Park 1 in Kent Ridge, which produces scents for haircare, skincare and fabric.

The firm had pledged its commitment to diversity and support for people with disabilities in the workplace by signing the President's Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge that was launched in March.

Firmenich chief executive officer Gilbert Ghostine said: "We are honoured to sign the (pledge) as part of our commitment to creating the most inspirational workplace, where all our colleagues can thrive, regardless of differences across physical and cultural boundaries, lifestyles and experiences."

Firmenich currently employs 11 sensory panellists here, six of whom have visual impairment and use digital assistive devices in the course of their work, testing products. It has 277 employees here.

Madam Halimah met some of the sensory panellists, who showed her how they would describe and evaluate the scent of a product.

One of them, Mr Muhammad Zahier, lost most of his sight at age 19 due to a congenital condition.

He has been working with the firm for two years - an experience he said he never thought he would have had after losing his sight. He added that he enjoyed the role and support from his colleagues.

Mr Rajan Arul, the firm's vice-president of the perfumery Asia business unit, said it recently adopted technology, such as using tablets and an in-house app, to increase performance and productivity. Descriptions of the scents are no longer handwritten, for instance, and are now input digitally to provide more details, and accurate and efficient data.

Madam Halimah said: "I am encouraged by Firmenich's efforts to develop devices and technologies to help (visually impaired individuals) to be more confident, engaged and independent in their work."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2020, with the headline President's Challenge 2021 to focus on digital inclusion of the vulnerable. Subscribe