Thank you for coming this afternoon. I thought I might give you a sense of some of the thinking behind the interventions and programmes put into place to ensure inclusivity, but I think we will reserve most of the time for your questions, assuming I have the answers to your questions, which I may not always have.

2          My way of looking at this crosses from the public sector to the private sector. It is worth thinking of the type of responses to digital readiness, digital society and digital inclusion that you would expect from the public sector and compare that to what you would expect from the private sector. There are commonalities but they are not exactly the same, nor should they be.

3          In dealing with this, we roll back our thinking and begin with the why - why are we concerned about this, why has this become an issue, why might we have to apply ourselves with some degree of seriousness, to addressing this space.

4          We have embarked on a journey of transformation that we are calling Smart Nation. In truth, this is not the first time that we are thinking this way and having to transform potentially our whole country, our economy, our society, our systems and processes of government and governance. It is not the first time we have had to do this, and it is not the first time we are doing this.

5          Ever since independence, we have had a series of what you can call threats, opportunities, or changes, to which we have responded with essentially an ongoing process of transformation over the last 54 years. It is that commitment to being forward looking, to adapting ourselves to the challenges and opportunities of the day, as well as what we can see around the corner over the horizon, that have in a way, defined what the world sees us as today – a globalised, hyper-connected forward-looking city-state and country.

6          Why have we had to do that? Partly because those success factors that have brought us here today – being connected, being heavily invested in trade, being an open economy - means that we are heavily exposed to forces of disruption and change occurring overseas. The kinds of businesses that set up here could easily locate elsewhere. There is no inherent value to our position, we have to create and recreate that value proposition.

7          When it comes to this current wave, on one hand it is not new, but what is different is the speed and the pace of that transformation. The reason I am laying this out is because when it comes to issues of inclusion and readiness, the passage of time very often helps with inclusion and integration. You allow some people to move first and take a little more risks. And then as time passes, the benefits and the risks mitigation measures are clear; the social and moral obligation and the narrative behind that will engage more and more people, and the process becomes more inclusive over time – but that is if you have time to give to let the process play out.

8          In this wave of digitally driven technology, and Smart Nation transformation, the pace of change is much faster. We are not talking about decades or lifetimes, we are talking about a handful of years after which we have to reconsider questions like what is the product, the platform and the risks. A very extant example of that is the issue of data privacy. We would not have considered the extent of which these are security risks today, compared to just two or three years ago. We are not going to achieve the level of social inclusion and social integration just by waiting for it to happen, just by waiting for that moral stance and social message, the idea of what is the right thing to do to permeate and help everybody engage.

9          Secondly, why we have to be a bit more deliberate and active around this is that there are real economic benefits. This is not merely about entertainment and leisure – it can be, but when we start thinking about Smart Nation transformation, the starting position, the fundamental outcome, and the social good that we are trying to achieve ultimately, is creating economic opportunities for Singapore and Singaporeans. If this is so, then inclusion takes on a very different tone. This now becomes important for access to economic opportunities across all of our society. You combine the very rapid pace of change, and the implication around economic inclusion, and the imperative to think about inclusion and readiness now is very different, and there is a very clear argument for not being laissez faire and sitting back, hoping and waiting and sending the right message. There is a very clear role to step forward and do something.

10          For businesses there is a cost associated with this. You design for full inclusion upfront, and it means your software is more expensive. You design your process for full inclusion right up front and you have manpower costs and compliance costs. We need to apply regulatory pressure, or pressure as customers, to insist that they have a moral and social obligation to be as inclusive as possible, if it is their product we are using due to economic reasons, or the entertainment, leisure and social reasons I have talked about. We also have a duty as a State then to make sure that increasingly Government and public sector services will be delivered through these digital means. So now, when you have essential services, where your access to these essential services are limited by your digital inclusion, then it becomes our obligation to make sure that we fix that.

11          How are we then dealing with this? We launched the Digital Readiness Blueprint last year in June, and in doing so, we brought together a wide community of stakeholders. This process about how we got the Blueprint going tells us about where the solutions might be. We brought together public sector officials, people working with Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), academics and also the large and small technology companies – people who had a business making these products.

12          Part of what we had to do was persuade them that it was good business to be inclusive. If your product is something that people used every day, we hope to demonstrate that it is a socially conscious product that engages the community in a productive way. A technology giant and multi-national company can attach their branding and marketing to it, and demonstrate their corporate social responsibility, but from our perspective, it means they are in a position to engage as many citizens as possible.

13          For the people sector, the VWOs and the academics who are studying this, we had to get quite a lot of granular level information as to who actually we need to help. It turned out that some of the people who we thought were vulnerable were finding ways to cope already. These included some communities of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), where it turned out there were already a suite of technology products, or there were members of the community who had gone out to source some of the inclusion methods and thus did not need so much help from us. On the other hand, there was a clear need from other groups of the community, which were excluded for other types of reason, for example, the issue around language. When we had a digital space where most of the products were made in English, and you had an elderly generation that were largely not English speaking, they found it very hard to engage. This was especially so when the products that are being put out there were also not the things they do on the daily basis.

14          So we broke up our approach into digital access, digital literacy, and digital participation. Access meaning who has the tools, mobile phones, computers and internet connectivity to get onboard, and if they do not, what is the right way to provide them that access. Generally speaking, Singapore is a country with a very high mobile phone and internet penetration rate, but how do we close that gap? Through a combination of things. Firstly, keeping data costs low, so one of the key issues we are doing to try and manage the telco market is to increase competition so that the data costs are relatively low. Secondly, providing access independently of ownership, through places where people can go to where for free, they can go online – for example in coffee shops, National Library Board (NLB) facilities and community centres and other community spaces where we as a State say that providing access to the Internet is a core part of that agency.

15          Literacy, so that our population will be in a place where everybody going through school will be able to come out and take maximal from the Internet. While our students are picking up digital skills quickly, we do have to make sure that the curriculum is well curated. A lot of our focus however does need to be on people who were not born in the time of the Internet. For these older people, we need a skills development framework. How do you provide people a series of workshops, competencies, training courses, engagements, opportunities to develop those skills? That becomes digital literacy.

16          The core to getting good outcomes to digital literacy, and encouraging participation. You can teach people the skills, but if they do not do something with those skills, it is not a worthwhile effort at all. If they do something with those skills regularly, then they will make mistakes but improve, and over time they will become very proficient in those skills. Participation, you have to give people the things they want to do online, not the things you think that they want to do online. That is why it is very, very important to have the businesses come along as part of the digital inclusion message, because they understand the way this market works far better, because they have to make a profit from it. Providing them access to the policy and the governance, so that they can shape this response, while also allowing us to put some degree of social and moral obligation on it – that, is a core part of our strategy.

17          Behind all this, we have to make sure our government digital services are right up there and top notch, otherwise we will not have the moral standing to persuade the companies to do what we hope they will do. So we have some work in order to make sure the Government’s digital services are as inclusive as possible. We have to lead the way and show people this can be done.

18          My sense is that we have made quite a lot of progress in just a couple of years. The programmes are running, through the NLB, community centres, the Smart Nation office and the Infocomm Media Development Authority, and we are doing it together with a whole long list of partners. Many of our education institutions are coming onboard as well. There are a lot of people who are being engaged and exposed to some of these ideas.

19          I think we are making progress because we are continuing to see people growing products and charging forth – and across the spectrum of age, ability, background and language – people are willing to pay. That means they see value, the businesses see value, so activities happen.

20          I think the conversations we are having now are also no longer about – should we be doing digital transformation, should we be doing Smart Nation, should be we accelerating the technology development pace, or should we be teaching everybody about this. We have much less concern about that, and now the focus is on making sure everybody comes along while we are doing these. People have accepted that we do have to make the transformation.

21          The work is not done. It may never be done. With every latest, greatest product, we got to rethink about how we do this, so being able to get together with the community, like all of us here today, and ask and answer questions. This will give us the opportunity to think through how we can do better going forward, in partnership with the community; this is not something anybody can do on their own.

22          I look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.

Speech by Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, at American Chamber of Commerce’s Balestier Series on 17 September 2019 Speeches Others 17 Sep 19
Speech by Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Transport, at the opening of One-North Festival 2019 Public Programme on 13 September 2019 Speeches Infocomm Media 13 Sep 19
Strengthening relations between Singapore and the Netherlands Press Releases Libraries 13 Sep 19
MCI's response on PQ on declassification of Government documents Parliament QAs Libraries 04 Sep 19
MCI's response to PQ on spam messages from illegal entities Parliament QAs Infocomm Media 03 Sep 19
Brief Remarks by Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, at the Launch of Central Singapore CDC's ‘My Digital Bootcamp’ Speeches Digital Readiness 03 Sep 19