President's Challenge 2021 to support digital inclusion of vulnerable groups

President Halimah Yacob greeting visually impaired sensory panellists Muhammad Zahier (right) and Bernard Chew at Firmenich’s Global Perfumery Creative Centre on Aug 19, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Ensuring digital inclusion for 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" on Wednesday (Aug 19).

"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 Covid-19 pandemic, or using data analytics to provide better service support for beneficiaries.

Applications for funding under the President's Challenge 2021 or the President's Challenge Empowering for Life Fund will be open from Aug 24 to Sept 25.

In a change from previous years, funds will be disbursed to successful applicants in two tranches. This way, organisations and their programmes can get funding earlier, as many of them have been struggling amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thirty per cent of the monies will be released in March 2021, while 70 per cent will be given out in March 2022.

In previous years, there would be only one disbursement given out the year after.

Madam Halimah was speaking to the media after a visit to perfumery company Firmenich at Science Park 1 in Kent Ridge.

The Swiss-founded company has a Global Perfumery Creative Centre here, which houses application labs and consumer insights teams for its haircare, skincare and fabric enhancer products.

Mr Muhammad Zahier, a visually impaired sensory panellist at Firmenich, working with colleague Esther Tan. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Earlier this year, the firm reaffirmed its commitment to diversity and support for people with disabilities in the workplace by signing the President's Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge, which 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 in its operations here, six of whom have visual impairment and use digital assistive devices in the course of their work, testing products. It has a total of 277 employees in Singapore.

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 Firmenich for two years, and said that this job was an experience he never thought he would have after losing his sight. He added that he enjoyed the role and the support from his colleagues.

"If I could, I would like to have a career in this field," he said.

President Halimah Yacob smelling the scent of a piece of fabric as fragrance development director Lai Mei Sum gives an explanation during a visit to Firmenich's Global Perfumery Creative Centre. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

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 glad that Firmenich has tapped the sensorial expertise of visually impaired individuals in developing its products.

"I am also encouraged by Firmenich's efforts to develop devices and technologies to help these individuals to be more confident, engaged and independent in their work."

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