Forging Our Digital Future Together

Introduction

Mr Chairman, may I have your permission to display a few slides. 

2. Mr Chairman, I want to thank all Members who have spoken and posed their questions, queries and suggestions for my Ministry. Several Members have spoken on the unprecedented and pervasive impact of digitalisation, as well as the new opportunities it brings for our economy, our workers and our people. 

3. Digital technology not only enhances enterprise productivity, but also creates novel pathways to access new markets. In Southeast Asia alone, the digital economy will treble to US$300 billion by 2025. Exciting careers are emerging in both ICT and non-ICT sectors - in digital marketing, data analytics, and Artificial Intelligence. With the $8 billion “Transform and Grow” package in the Budget, we are investing significantly in the innovation capacity of our businesses, and the skills of our people, so that they can fully realise these benefits. We therefore have good reasons to be optimistic about our digital future.  

4. However, the promise of digitalisation is tempered by the uncertainty of change, and the fear of disruption to businesses, to jobs and even to our lives. Enterprises, particularly SMEs, worry that they will not be able to keep pace with digitalisation and risk being marginalised. Some, including mid-career professionals, fear the long term implications of new technologies like AI.  The less tech savvy among our citizens are concerned that they are on the wrong side of a digital divide that is ever widening. Moreover, a persistent strain of online misinformation and falsehoods threatens to erode trust in our institutions and, ultimately, our democracy.   

5. These are real concerns and they must be effectively addressed so that every business, every worker and every citizen has the assurance and the deep conviction that they too, can thrive in a digital future.  That is the mission of my Ministry - to work with all Singaporeans to build a digital future where there are opportunities for all, where no one is left behind, and where trust in our institutions is preserved.

6. In this COS, SMS Ann, SMS Janil, and I, in responding to Members’ queries, will elaborate on how the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)  is working on three broad thrusts to forge our digital future together by:  (a) Seizing Digital Opportunities; (b) Ensuring a Digital Future for All; and (c) Securing our Digital Spaces.  

Seizing Digital Opportunities

7. Let me start with seizing digital opportunities.

Engaging internationally in digital trade and norm shaping

8. Mr Cedric Foo asked about our plans to enter into digital trade agreements and facilitate digital transactions.  Mr Chairman, Digital is the new frontier for trade with cross border data flows growing exponentially.  Just as we did for international trade in goods and services, Singapore is now actively involved in shaping the international rules and norms that will govern digital trade. Our goal and our interest is to work with like-minded partners to ensure an open digital trade architecture, and to guard against a new kind of protectionism.  

9. That is why Singapore is actively pursuing Digital Economy Agreements (DEA) with countries like Australia, Chile and New Zealand. These agreements will benefit businesses by providing secure data flows and seamless cross-border digital payments.  For example, when DEAs establish e-invoicing systems that are interoperable across borders, enterprises can transact at a lower cost with their international business partners because of faster invoice processing and payment.

10. I also want to assure Mr Foo that in undertaking these negotiations on DEAs, our   Government agencies regularly consult our business’ interests or business agencies and organisations, in order to establish their interests and ensure that they are adequately captured and reflected in these eventual agreements.  

11. We are also fostering trust in digital systems by building an international consensus on ethical and governance principles for nascent technologies and system threats. 

12. Singapore has been an active participant in international platforms to shape global norms in cybersecurity and AI governance. In cybersecurity, Singapore actively participates in the UN Open-Ended Working Group and the 25-member Group of Government Experts, to develop a rules-based cyberspace and implement norms for responsible state behaviour. Earlier this year, I also launched the second edition of our Model AI Governance Framework at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.  The framework translates broad governance principles into practical guidelines for businesses who are implementing AI solutions.  Notably, diverse organisations from Omada Health in San Francisco, to our own DBS Bank, and Pymetrics, a HR solutions provider, have adopted the best practices outlined in the Model Framework. In other words, it is gaining recognition, acceptance and traction. 

Investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow

13. Seizing digital opportunities also requires world-class infrastructure.  I want to highlight two important initiatives in this regard.  The first is 5G, which will be the backbone of our digital economy.  We are committed to building a world-class, secure and resilient 5G network in Singapore. That is why network design, resilience and security have been key requirements in IMDA’s 5G Call for Proposal (CFP), which was launched last October. The Government is also collaborating with industry partners to develop our 5G ecosystem, learn from early trials for future development application, and position Singapore at the forefront of global innovation in 5G applications and services.

14. Mr Mohamad Irshad asked about the status of 5G rollout in Singapore.  We have made good progress.  At the close of the CFP on 17 February, IMDA had received three submissions from the incumbent telcos - one each from Singtel and TPG, as well as a joint submission from StarHub and M1.  IMDA is evaluating the proposals, and aims to announce the award of the 5G spectrum by mid-2020.  We are on track to commence 5G deployment this year, achieve substantial coverage in the next two years, and nationwide standalone coverage by 2025.

15. Mr Douglas Foo and Mr Irshad have also asked about the benefit and cost of 5G.  The initial deployment is expected to be in certain industry sectors and consumer applications - Maritime Operations, Smart Estates and Consumer applications, where there is keen interest to explore innovative 5G use-cases.  For example, PSA has had promising results in using 5G technology to control its Automated Guided Vehicles and automated cranes, in another step towards realising its vision of being a Smart Port.   In terms of cost, similar to 3G and 4G services, the cost of service plans and handsets are expected to moderate as the technology matures.

16. Mr Irshad has also asked how we are modernising our logistics networks. This is an important point because driven by e-commerce growth, parcel deliveries have grown rapidly worldwide. In Singapore, around 200,000 parcels are delivered daily, with e-commerce projected to grow at 12 to 20 per cent annually over the next five years. It is neither productive nor sustainable for all this growing volume of packages to all be delivered to the doorstep. We do need alternative solutions. We must enhance Singapore’s last-mile delivery infrastructure. And that is why we have decided to deploy a nationwide parcel locker network. The network will be owned by IMDA, and accessible to all logistics players.  It will offer greater choice to consumers, while raising the productivity of the urban logistics sector. SMS Sim Ann will further elaborate on the nationwide parcel locker network initiative.   

Enabling enterprises with digital tools

17. The goal of our digital economy agreements and investment in world-class infrastructure is to benefit all our businesses. So, we are helping our companies, especially our SMEs, adopt digital solutions through IMDA’s SMEs Go Digital initiative.  A recent Singapore Business Federation survey found that 94 per cent of enterprises recognise the importance of digital technology in transforming businesses. The awareness is high and that is a starting point from which we can work. 

18. We can do more, especially to help our enterprises scale and access global markets through digital channels, as emphasised by Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Mr Ong Teng Koon. IMDA is launching a new initiative under SMEs Go Digital - Grow Digital, which will help SMEs access overseas opportunities without the need for a physical in-market presence.  By connecting to B2B and B2C e-commerce platforms, our SMEs will benefit from smart matching with potential overseas clients; prompt access to financing offers through the platforms; and integration with logistics companies for last-mile delivery. Grow Digital will also help SMEs fully utilise Singapore’s network of free trade agreements and digital economic agreements, to extend their business linkages and grow their customer base. 

19. More broadly, IMDA will continue to work with government agencies and other stakeholders on the Industry Digital Plans (IDPs) for various sectors such as Sea Transport, Food Services and Accountancy.  These IDPs guide SMEs on the digital solutions and training available at each stage of their digital journey and growth.

20. IMDA and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) launched the Food Services IDP in November 2018.  A Nielsen Study commissioned by ESG last year found that Food Services SMEs who had adopted the digital solutions found them easy to implement, which is important, and 70 per cent of these companies have seen shorter waiting times and greater satisfaction for customers. So, there is a tangible benefit. 

21. Building on this momentum, the Government will develop IDPs and pre-approve more digital solutions to cover all 23 ITM sectors, up from the current 10. Through these IDPs, SMEs in sectors such as Construction, Food Manufacturing, and Adult and Early Childhood Education will benefit from dedicated digital roadmaps to help transform their businesses and upskill their workers. 

A Digital Future for All

Economic inclusion across all backgrounds, ages, and sectors

22. Ultimately, this array of initiatives I have outlined to help our businesses make the digital transformation, must yield benefits and opportunities for our people.  We know that digital disruption can cause profound anxiety for mature workers, especially those who may be more advanced in their careers and not have a tech background.  They are in fact the focus of the Next Bound of SkillsFuture that DPM Heng announced in the Budget. We want to pay special attention to these mid-career workers, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s, and most keenly feel the uncertainty caused by technological disruption, but who also stand to gain from the new jobs that are being created. If the opportunity is presented and they have the requisite skills.

23. Mr Kevin Lee who went through Company-Led Training (CLT) under TeSA is an example.  Mr Lee used to be a Senior Executive in Sales and Marketing at several leading technology MNCs.  So he was doing non-tech business in tech companies. After nine months of deep-skilling with AI Singapore, he is now an AI consultant, helping organisations figure out how best to use AI and machine learning technologies. So this is an important part of what we are doing with our mature workers already.

24. But Ms Tin and Mr Ong have asked what more we can do, especially mature workers, and those who do not have a tech background. The TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) programme is a tripartite effort between Government agencies, industry, and NTUC to equip workers with digital skills, and place them in good jobs in the Info-Communications and Technology (ICT) sector.  IMDA works with trade associations like SG Tech to raise awareness of TeSA, and SMEs also qualify for a higher levels of funding support for certain types of short-form training programmes.

25. Since its launch in April 2016, close to 100,000 training places have been committed. So progress from the number I gave earlier this year. For the CLT and Tech Immersion and Placement Programmes (TIPP), which are long-form courses (courses of a longer duration and therefore go deeper), 90 per cent of trainees successfully stayed in the job a year after the completion of training. So there is traction in the market. 

26. As part of the next bound for TESA, IMDA is piloting a new programme, TeSA Mid-Career Advance, for professionals aged 40 and above. Our aim is to lessen the friction that gets in the way of mature workers being able to benefit from the opportunities being created in tech sectors on fast growing tech areas. So, we want to on the one hand, make it easier for employers to bring these workers into their teams, lessening some of the initial costs that might get in the way. And at the same time, enable workers to bridge into these roles with the appropriate chain. 

27. Under the TeSA Mid-Career Advance, the Government will support companies to hire and train mid-career professionals for tech-related jobs, regardless of whether they have an ICT background. Participating companies will benefit from access to a bigger pool of local talent, as well as Government subsidies to partially offset the cost of the training and salaries for the duration of the training. The mid-career individual will benefit from employment in a growth sector, while gaining exposure, training, and mentorship for up to 24 months. For a start, we have set aside $70 million for this programme. Ten companies have already come on board.  They have committed to about 500 positions covering many roles, both tech and tech-lite - from data analysts, cybersecurity engineers and cloud computing engineers; to business analysts, project managers and sales specialists. Over the next two to three years, we aim to place a further 2,000 Singaporeans in companies through this programme. 

28. Mr Foo and Ms Tin have asked how we will address the need to augment our local talent pipeline with the requisite talent from abroad in selected emerging fields. The Government recognises that tech companies in Singapore, and others whom we wish to attract, need specialists from overseas in certain fields.  That is why we have programmes like Tech@SG, which provides fast-growth tech companies with access to business networks and talent, so as to build their teams in Singapore.  In addition, our economic agencies like EDB, IMDA and DISG, which is Digital Singapore and working with the tech companies largely. They work closely with them to see how they can be helped to secure the talent that is needed to complement the local pool and enable them to execute their strategies competitively. 

29. In addition, IMDA and Workforce Singapore help companies to leverage this specialised expertise from abroad to develop new skillsets among Singaporeans, in other words a transfer of capability, through the Capability Transfer Programme (CTP). So that is a conscious part of this effort, even as we bring in talent from abroad to complement our local talent base. 

30. Before I move away from the topic of talent, Mr Foo raised the point about what is happening in our universities. The details and a more complete response will be given in the Ministry of Education’s Committee of Supply. But I think it would suffice for me to say that both in terms of quantity and quality, the intakes for the courses pertaining to computer science have been rising. We see this as being a very rich pipeline that will then enter the industry and meet its needs. 

Social inclusion

31. Beyond jobs and businesses, as more citizens embrace technology to enrich their lives or access public services, we must make sure that no one feels outpaced by the change or left behind.  SMS Sim Ann will explain how we are increasing support for low-income households, seniors, and children, to ensure our digital future is an inclusive one.

32. In this mission, our libraries also have an important role.  Our libraries epitomise the spirit of the SG Together movement, bringing our people, volunteers and partners together in a supportive learning community. The revamped library@harbourfront at VivoCity exemplifies this.  In just one year since its opening in January last year, it has held over 360 programmes – more than a third of them run by members of the community (volunteers). 

33. These unique partnerships form the model for the Libraries and Archives Plan (LAP25), and this goes to the point that Mr Foo raised. This is a five-year strategic plan for our libraries and archives.  Over the next several months, the National Library Board (NLB) will be engaging with various communities, partners and stakeholders on its future strategies, collections and services to ensure that it continues to meet the needs and aspirations of Singaporeans in an evolving learning and knowledge landscape. 

Preserving Common Spaces in the Digital Age

34. To derive the full benefits of digitalisation, we must protect ourselves from threats in the digital domain.  That is why we have instituted Digital Defence as the sixth pillar of Total Defence - to underscore the importance of ensuring that the digital spaces where we increasingly interact, transact and rely on for information, are safe, secure, trustworthy.

Protecting digital spaces

35. Mr Foo asked how we ensure that we are adequately protected in this environment.  And Ms Sylvia Lim also raised some questions pertaining to CSA and the work that we do with the Critical Information Infrastructure. Cybersecurity is key, in particular to safeguard our Critical Information Infrastructure from cyber threats.  CSA has been conducting regular reviews and exercises with the 11 CII sectors and the component agencies. But as Members can appreciate, this is an iterative and ongoing process because the threats keep evolving. And therefore, our capacity to deal with them must also evolve in tandem. 

36. Later this year, we will also launch a Safer Cyberspace Masterplan to proactively monitor and prevent cyber threats and cybercrimes, implement baseline security standards, and increase the adoption of these safeguards by enterprises and citizens.

37. Data protection also takes on added importance in this context.  Hence, we are reviewing the Personal Data Protection Act to support on the one hand, the legitimate needs of businesses to harness data for innovative products and services, while protecting consumers’ interests and increasing the accountability of organisations. SMS Janil will elaborate on MCI’s new measures to enhance cyber and data security.

Maintaining common space

38. But we do have to go beyond cybersecurity and data protection.  Because ultimately, our aim is to uphold the values of our society, the strength of our institutions, and preserve our common spaces.  Today, the online space is where our hard-won cohesion could fray and splinter.  In the digital age, our common spaces are no longer just physical. 

39. That is where our law against online falsehoods become very important, point on which Mr Darryl David has asked. POFMA has been used to place factual corrections next to the grievous falsehoods which distort or fabricate facts.  These falsehoods have pertained to the COVID-19 situation, police procedures and the management of public funds among other things. If Singaporeans are duped into believing such falsehoods, it can sow fear, cause panic, and erode trust in our institutions.  That is why in response, we have used the powers under POFMA to juxtapose the truth with the falsehoods at the source, so that our citizens can see both and draw their own conclusions.  

40. In this fight against online falsehoods, it is heartening to see Singaporeans stepping up to do their part.  Amid many online rumours that have been circulating in the context of COVID-19, a group of students from NTU started a fact-checking initiative called "Sure Anot", aimed at older Singaporeans. They developed a guide for seniors to assess information they receive, based on NLB's digital literacy framework - “Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate”.  They also collaborated with an independent fact-checking outfit to share reports of debunked rumours in Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

41. In a similar vein, I am also glad to share with Members that there are many initiatives from academia to study the challenges of the online information ecosystem.  In particular, the National University of Singapore is setting up a Centre for Trusted Internet and Community that will drive research and strengthen public discourse on the impact of the Internet and online harms.  SMS Janil will share the details.

COVID-19

42. All these strands of our work - to sustain trust and cohesion through information and communications - were put to the test when the COVID-19 virus broke.  Mr Ong, Mr Irshad, and Prof Lim Sun Sun asked about the lessons learned from the experience.  Mr Foo asked specifically about the role that POFMA played in dealing with falsehoods about the virus.

43. COVID-19 is not only a medical and public health challenge; it is also a psychological battle against fear and uncertainty.  As PM Lee Hsien Loong put it: “Fear can actually do more harm than the virus itself”.  The Government has therefore sought to allay the fears of our citizens and keep their trust, by being transparent about the situation, the measures we are taking and the reasons for doing so, and giving regular information on the evolving situation.   

44. Some have caused anxiety in our population by putting out falsehoods.  POFMA correction orders were used to swiftly expose them by placing the truth alongside.  Firmer levers were used when a recalcitrant Facebook page repeatedly posted falsehoods, and refused to carry any corrections.  It is abundantly clear that it would have been much harder to quell the spread of misinformation and keep the calm of our society without this set of POFMA measures which are designed specifically to address falsehoods in the online space. 

45. But to focus only on the use of POFMA for COVID-19 would be to miss the wood for the trees.  MCI has also conducted a major public communication and education campaign through the print and broadcast mainstream media, Government websites and social media. We have collaborated with Mediacorp and local celebrities, in all four official languages, and also in dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese. 

46. This communication campaign would have been much more challenging if we did not have the national platforms with the content and reach to engage and connect with Singaporeans.  Mr David asked how Public Service Broadcast (PSB) will remain relevant amid the changing landscape. PSB has long been a key source of trusted information and common experiences. But with these changes in the media landscape, we know that Singaporeans now enjoy access to multiple media platforms. But it is imperative that they also continue to access local content that reflects and strengthens our national voice and character. The Government will therefore invest more in PSB, to ensure the quality and relevance to Singaporeans of this important medium.  

47. Prof Lim asked whether we can take a more strategic approach and integrate the multiple communications channels onto existing Government mobile apps like SGSecure. In today’s fragmented media landscape, we have to bring the information to our people through the different platforms that they rely on.  That is just the sheer reality of it. The diversity of channels is therefore an inevitable consequence. But, I want to assure Prof Lim that as part of MCI’s ongoing effort, we are working with the Smart Nation Digital Office (SNDGO) and other agencies to see how we can further integrate and coordinate these different channels. But we should not let the overarching objective get in the way of responding to needs as they emerge. As they did in recent times with the COVID-19.

48. Already, amid the COVID-19 situation, our efforts have reached out through new digital platforms.  Digital display panels in HDB estates and the Gov.sg WhatsApp channel have given almost real-time updates to Singaporeans.  We have seen a huge surge in subscribers - over 650,000 in just five weeks - to Gov.sg’s WhatsApp service which issues regular messages in the four official languages.  

49. This broad-based government communication effort has been recognised and appreciated by our citizens and many others. From mid-to-late February, REACH conducted an online poll to understand public sentiments. More than 80 per cent of Singaporeans or Singapore residents who were polled indicated that the Government had provided sufficient information about the COVID-19 situation. So we are getting through, communicating, but we can always do better. 

Conclusion

50. Mr Chairman, I would like to conclude by going back to where I began.  

51. It is clear that the digital future holds much promise for Singapore but there are real concerns over the impact of technology on our enterprises and jobs.  Be it investment in world class infrastructure to seize digital opportunities; ensuring digital opportunities for all by helping our mid-career professionals secure jobs in the growing ICT sector; or education and enforcement to strengthen the digital defence of our common spaces - our goal is to forge a digital future where our businesses have the abilities and capabilities to thrive, our workers have good jobs with the requisite skills, and our citizens lead fulfilling lives by embracing emerging digital technologies.  The Ministry of Communications and Information is resolutely committed to working together with all Singaporeans to forge this digital this vision for our nation. 


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