September 22, 2020

Singapore’s COVID-19 response and digitalization following the Agenda for Action

Case Study By

Mr. Keng Thai Leong

Deputy Chief Executive, Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA)

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.

The Broadband Commission’s Agenda for Action provides a valuable and strategic framework for us  to build our COVID-19 response upon, by ensuring that everyone is connected and is able to use digital  tools in their everyday lives. Technology has strengthened Singapore’s COVID-19 response: to protect  public interest, support our people and assist businesses.

This case study will: 
  1. Explain the oversight  and coordination of Singapore’s digitalization push
  2. Examine how Singapore’s initiatives align  with the three pillars of the Commission’s Agenda for Action.

Oversight and Coordination

To oversee and coordinate Singapore’s digitalization push, we formed the Ministerial Committee for  Digital Transformation in June 2020. The Ministerial Committee is co-chaired by Minister for  Communications and Information S Iswaran and Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. The  key priorities of the committee include helping people to learn new skills and seize technology-related jobs, and helping small businesses, especially those affected by the pandemic, to go digital.  

In the same month, Singapore launched the SG Digital Office (SDO), which will drive our initiatives to  accelerate digital adoption in our community, as we embark on a phased recovery post COVID-19.  SDO will build on and ramp up existing efforts to equip every individual and business with digital tools  and skills to participate meaningfully in the new social and economic environment post-COVID 19. 

Resilient Connectivity

The solid foundations by Singapore’s past digital investments and partnerships with industry have  been critical to our response. COVID-19 has re-affirmed that a secure, resilient and robust  telecommunications infrastructure is a critical utility for a modern society. Singapore’s past  investments in high-speed broadband and fibre to the home have built network resilience. 9 in 10  Singapore households enjoy high-speed fibre connectivity. While local internet data traffic has surged,  our systems and infrastructure are able to support the increase in demand due to nationwide  telecommuting and home-based learning. Singapore continues to work closely with telcos in making timely investments to upgrade networks and further bolster Singapore’s nationwide network capacity.  This is part of our Smart Nation strategy. 

Affordable Access

Singapore recognises that COVID-19 has changed the way people live and work, and how businesses  operate. Hence, Singapore is prioritizing our push towards digitalization, with an emphasis on helping  those who require more assistance, to ensure affordable access for all. 

Helping seniors


Singapore recognises the importance of direct outreach to seniors to enable them to learn digital skills  to ensure that services remain accessible during COVID-19. The SG Digital Office rolled out the
Seniors  Go Digital initiative, which will mobilise 1,000 Digital Ambassadors to help 100,000 seniors learn to  use digital tools, such as communication apps (e.g. Whatsapp), e-payments and Government digital  services. Cybersecurity tips will also be covered. Learning will be delivered through one-to-one or  small group learning sessions, including learning journeys.  

Prior to COVID-19, Singapore already implemented Silver Infocomm Junctions and Digital Clinics as  learning hubs for seniors to start their digital learning journey. During the COVID-19 period, Singapore  migrated these initiatives online for them to remain accessible to seniors. 

Recognising that is vital for everyone, especially seniors, to be able to transact and learn online,  Singapore launched the Stay Healthy, Go Digital initiative. For example, banking partners provided online resources and guides to help seniors and the less savvy pay online and manage their finances  using online banking platforms. 

Helping students


Ensuring that all students are able to carry out home-based learning smoothly during the pandemic is  crucial. Singapore’s
NEU PC Plus programme was launched in 1999 to support eligible low-income  households with school-going children or persons with disabilities with broadband access and  computer ownership. To further support school-going children’s needs during COVID-19, Singapore  amended the programme’s eligibility criteria to allow more applicants to qualify. Additionally,  Singapore’s Ministry of Education provides tablets and laptops, and Internet enabling devices  including dongles to students on financial assistance schemes. 

Helping businesses and skilling workers


Recognising it is vital for everyone, from businesses, households to individuals, especially vulnerable  seniors and needy students, to be able to carry out their daily tasks and social activities online amid  COVID-19. Singapore’s Stay Healthy, Go Digital is a call for individuals and businesses to adopt digital  solutions so that life and business can carry on as much as possible. This is a partnership with the  industry to provide relevant resources and to reach out to individuals and businesses to encourage  and help them go digital.

It provides a suite of resources to enable businesses to continue operations remotely and digitally.  One such resource is the Digital Solutions Directory which comprised relevant digital solutions that  helped businesses with remote working, visitor management, selling online, and billing and paying  online. The Directory was put together in partnership with industry players who offered the solutions  for free or with limited time offers, so that they were more accessible for businesses during the cash constrained environment. As Singapore eases out of the Circuit Breaker period, the Directory is being  re-positioned to focus on digital solutions that help businesses with required safe management  measures as they reopen for business. 

To help businesses take action to digitalise and adapt to the new normal with COVID-19, the Singapore  Government also enhanced its financial support for digitalisation. The Productivity Solutions Grant has  been enhanced to provide higher levels of funding support for SMEs to adopt digital solutions. New  solution categories for remote working and visitor management have also been added for funding  support. Additionally, a new E-invoicing Registration Grant is being provided to businesses who sign  up for our nationwide e-invoicing network, to enable paperless transactions.  

The Singapore Government’s support for digitalisation has been an ongoing effort, even before  COVID-19. Singapore’s SMEs Go Digital programme was launched in 2017 to make going digital simple  for SMEs. It continues to provide guidance to SMEs through sector-specific Industry Digital Plans,  access to pre-approved digital solutions with funding support, Start Digital Packs with affordable basic  and easy-to-deploy digital solutions, Grow Digital B2B and B2C e-commerce platforms so that SMEs  can sell overseas, as well as digital consultancy services for SMEs that need help. 

Another initiative is Hawkers Go Digital, which will encourage our hawkers to adopt contactless  payment options through financial incentives. Furthermore, the Digital Resilience Bonus will be  awarded to qualifying enterprises in food services and retail (for a start) should they adopt nationwide  e-payment and e-invoicing solutions, as well as the pre-defined digital solutions that help them to  improve business processes, access customers online and make data-driven business decisions. 

In the push for digitalization of enterprises, national broadband infrastructures will serve countries as  a critical foundation for enterprises to tap on emerging technologies such as 5G, cloud computing, AI,  AR/VR and develop new microservices to serve consumers and enterprises. Many of these  technologies will require support for reskilling and upskilling of workers to reap the maximum benefits  for society and economy. To ensure a digitally skilled economy, the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA)  initiative was started in 2016 to support Information and Communications Technology (ICT)  professionals and non-ICT professionals to upgrade and acquire new skills and domain knowledge that  are in demand, and to stay competitive and meet the challenges of a fast-moving digital landscape.  Through partnerships with leading companies in various sectors, TeSA has helped trained and placed  Singaporeans into in-demand tech jobs such as Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, Software  Development, and Network Engineering. 

Safe use of online services for informed and educated societies

Ensuring data protection


Singapore recognises that building a trusted digital environment that supports COVID-19 measures is  crucial. In this regard, Singapore was an early adopter of robust data protection measures such as the 
Public Sector Data Security Review Committee and Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA). 

In November 2019, the Committee published a set of recommendations on data security practices  across the Public Service and how the Government secures and protects citizens’ data, which will  enhance the public’s confidence in the government’s data security regime. It also made clear that the  standards and requirements for the public sector are no less stringent than for the private sector. 

For the private sector, the PDPA ensures that organisations have reasonable standards of protection  for personal data that they collect, use and disclose. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the  Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Council (PDPC) issued an advisory clarifying that organisations  are permitted to collect, use or disclose personal data without consent for the purposes of contact  tracing and other COVID-19 response measures. The advisory also made clear that under the PDPA,  organisations must make reasonable security arrangements to protect the personal data and ensure  that the personal data is not used for other purposes. PDPC issued further advisories to provide  guidance to premise owners and employers on protection safeguards when adopting Government developed digital applications (e.g. SafeEntry) or other safe management solutions (e.g. temperature  screening, safe distancing technologies). In addition, IMDA/PDPC worked with various government  agencies to ease organisations’ and individuals’ understanding of the application of the PDPA in the  context of COVID-19 (e.g. collection of personal data for contact tracing during COVID-19) by  disseminating PDPC’s advisories across various government websites, social media platforms and  disseminated to strategic partners through eDMs. PDPC also provided guidance on personal data risk  and impact assessment, personal data protection by design considerations for the contact tracing  application, TraceTogether. With these personal data protection measures in place, individuals can  trust that their personal data is protected even in times of a pandemic. 

Implementing Trusted Digital Communication Channels to Prevent Disinformation

Singapore is aware that the dissemination of reliable, clear and timely information on COVID-19 is vital to combat disinformation and to dispel unnecessary fear. In response, Singapore has rolled out trusted  digital communication channels. We have implemented the Gov.sg Whatsapp account, which  provides citizens with timely and trusted updates on the COVID-19 situation. Available in all four  national languages (English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin Chinese), the system has been optimised to  send multi-lingual messages to all subscribers within 30 minutes. Additionally, the COVID-19 Biz  Chatbot leverages the use of an online bot that is programmed to provide employers with answers to  queries on the latest measures and guidelines, to ease the disruptions faced by businesses and provide  smoother access to key information.

Conclusion

Singapore recognises that the fight against COVID-19 will be long-drawn but we are confident of seeing  this through. Digitalization plays a key role in ensuring that our communities and economy can recover  from COVID-19. Singapore is cognizant that just as this pandemic requires a global response, Singapore  will need to continue to reach outward to hone our existing partnerships and build new ones. In this regard, Singapore will continue to support the work of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable  Development to strive for a connected world.

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.