Solutions needed in a post-Covid-19 world to bridge the digital divide: Indranee Rajah

The shift to home-based learning underscored gaps, as a number of students did not have devices at home. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Networks of social help will require new digital solutions in a post-Covid-19 Singapore, said Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah.

In an online dialogue on Saturday (May 16), she and Nominated Member of Parliament Mohamed Irshad fielded questions on the post-coronavirus future from 30 undergraduates from local universities.

The 90-minute dialogue, Re-Imagining Singapore: Post Covid-19, was organised by the Tiong Bahru Youth network.

"I think one major gap that this crisis has revealed is that a lot of our help networks were premised on being able to see people physically," said Ms Indranee, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"They come to the meet-the-people sessions to see the MPs, or they go physically to the Social Service Offices, the Family Service Centres and the various social service agencies, or people go to the homes of the vulnerable and needy.

"In a pandemic where physical proximity is not necessarily something you can do, we have to find other ways of being able to do this. And the key one is technology."

Mr Irshad, who is Asean head of corporate affairs for global IT firm Tata Consultancy Services, observed that many social service agencies were not equipped with the necessary security or technology solutions to work from home.

Many beneficiaries, such as seniors, also struggle with going digital, he added.

"These are challenges that we face but we will find a solution and I think our social service agencies are adapting."

One student asked how families who are not financially well-off are coping with the digital divide.

Ms Indranee said the shift to home-based learning underscored gaps, as a number of students did not have devices at home.

She estimated that the Ministry of Education has loaned out 20,000 devices, such as laptops or tablets, and more than 1,000 Internet access devices such as dongles.

"The hardware was easier to solve," she said. "Then it was a question of also making sure that we help the parents of some of those families, who do not quite know how to use the software."

Mr Irshad said that there was a need for a purpose-built solution for online learning.

"Many students are using Zoom and other readily available platforms to learn from class. But moving on, we have to really see how we can lower the cost of going digital and make it even more accessible and streamlined for the students.

"I think we'll see a lot of start-ups coming in the edu-tech industry to really enable digital learning and take it to the next level."

Asked about the spike in domestic violence during the pandemic, Ms Indranee noted that even before Covid-19, social workers observed that such violence manifests most often when people are at home and in forced proximity for long periods, such as public holidays and weekends.

"Here, we've had this unprecedented two months of enforced proximity."

She said that in the short term, what must be done is to ensure that there are open channels for victims to report abuse.

For example, children who are considered at high risk of abuse have been brought back to school under special dispensation.

In other cases, teachers, counsellors and social workers keep in touch with the children, whether through e-mail, WhatsApp or other platforms.

But this is only in the short term, she said, stressing that the longer-term solution is to get to the root of the problem.

"Very often abusers, when they were young, were either at the receiving end of abuse, or saw parents or other people whom they considered to be role models doing it, and then this followed them as behaviour into adult life.

"And many times, it takes a lot of counselling and help to get them away from that."

She said that victims should feel encouraged to reach out for help - and if necessary, file a police report - and that there must be a peer culture in which those who notice abuse can quickly link victims up with systems of help.

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