Crossing digital divide: The future is near at hand

Blueprint launched to ensure no one is left behind in digital transition that will impact quality of life

Imagine applying for financial help from the Government via an app that can "speak" to an applicant in Chinese, Malay, Tamil or English.

This future is not too far away, with plans to develop digital government services in Singapore's four official languages, and explore the use of machine translation technologies until every last person is helped to cross the digital divide.

One-on-one assistance is also being planned to prepare every Singaporean, especially the elderly, to get ready for a digital future controlled by sensors and where cashless payments rule. It will be piloted at some community centres in the later half of the year.

These are two of 10 recommendations in a digital readiness blueprint launched yesterday at the Infocomm Media Development Authority's (IMDA) tech carnival held at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Speaking at the launch, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said: "Digitalisation will have a profound impact on our quality of life - it will affect our access to opportunities, services and social networks. And we want to ensure that no one is left behind in this digital transition."

The digital readiness blueprint, created by a workgroup led by the Ministry of Communications and Information, hopes to improve citizens' access to digital technology and equip them with the skills to use it safely and confidently.

  • Some of the recommendations

  • • Customise access to basic digital enablers, like bank accounts and mobile phones, for people with special needs such as those with disabilities, former offenders or the chronically unemployed.

    • Provide dedicated and regular one-on-one concierge-type help at community centres, public libraries and senior activity centres to impart basic digital skills.

    • Create a participation fund to support projects such as community apps that connect needy residents to volunteers, in a move to reduce social isolation.

    • Educate and encourage organisations to design their digital services to be inclusive by taking into account people with disabilities, among others.

    • Develop government apps, websites and services in the four official languages to reach out to Singaporeans who do not speak English. Machine translation technologies can also be used to make apps more user-friendly.

    Irene Tham

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary chairs the workgroup, which comprises 14 other members from the public and private sectors.

The panel also recommended widespread access to "basic digital enablers", such as mobile devices and bank accounts.

Major retail banks in Singapore already waive the $2 fee for children, the elderly, full-time national servicemen and recipients of public assistance when their account balance falls below $500.

But more is going to be done.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is working with local banks to ensure free bank accounts are available to people with disabilities, former offenders and the chronically unemployed.

"(A bank account) enables every citizen to receive their income electronically and provides access to a debit card to pay for shopping and mobile or Internet banking services...There is still a small segment of the population (without) bank accounts," said an MAS spokesman.

Two other recommendations concern the need to come up with a set of basic digital skills for everyday activities, and to build resilience in an era of online falsehoods.

The IMDA has begun work on the proposals and will roll out a series of courses targeted at the elderly later this month.

The courses, announced in Parliament in March, cover topics from the use of e-payment, chat apps and digital government services to spotting fake news and online scams.

They are an expansion of the official Silver Infocomm Initiative, which has promoted IT literacy among more than 130,000 seniors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Crossing digital divide: The future is near at hand'. Subscribe