Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Using tech to tackle consular incidents

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is enhancing its MFA@SG smartphone application to include a safety check feature.

This new feature will allow Singaporean travellers who register with the ministry to update it on whether they are safe during crisis situations, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Defence Maliki Osman yesterday.

MFA is also expanding its IT platforms to allow e-registration and safety checks using chatbots, which are computer programs designed to simulate human conversation. It will soon be easier to find information on MFA's websites through a virtual assistant, he said.

Responding to Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) during the debate on his ministry's budget, he cited these features as examples of how MFA is getting creative to respond to consular incidents quickly and effectively.

Dr Maliki urged Singaporeans to e-register with MFA when travelling - either through its website or the MFA@SG app.

There remains a huge disparity between Singaporeans who travel and those who e-register with MFA, he said. Last year, there were 400,000 e-registrations, compared with the 7.5 million outbound trips via air and sea - the latter figure excludes the more than 16 million overland trips to Malaysia annually.

He added that about eight out of 10 calls that MFA receives during emergency situations are from the next-of-kin of Singaporeans who did not e-register.

Those who e-register will receive information on how to contact the nearest overseas mission, and MFA can quickly contact them during emergencies.

Dr Maliki recounted the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, when a truck barrelled through crowds celebrating the occasion, killing 86 people last July. MFA then contacted all registered Singaporeans in France to verify their safety.

Its embassy staff offered consular assistance to a Singaporean student who was seriously injured during that attack, and his parents, who flew to Nice to be with him.

Dr Maliki said: "I cannot emphasise again how important it is for Singaporeans to e-register."

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Using tech to tackle consular incidents'. Print Edition | Subscribe