Parliament Sitting on 26 May 2020
Response to Adjournment Motion
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I thank Ms Anthea Ong and Prof Lim Sun Sun for emphasising the importance of a digitally inclusive society, and for sharing their thoughts on how we can bridge the digital divide.
2. Let me start by making it absolutely clear. Digital inclusion has been at the heart of the Government’s national digitalisation effort, and, indeed, of every discussion we have had in this House on that subject. Our Digital Readiness Blueprint, which was launched in 2018, envisions a nation with universal digital access where every Singaporean – young or old, disabled or able, rich or poor - is empowered with access and skills to thrive in the digital future.
3. While our digitalisation message has been consistent and universal, the adoption of digital technologies has been uneven across our economy and society. COVID-19 has brought that same message across more starkly, highlighting to all the value and the urgency of digital solutions at a time when we have all had to learn and work from home, and interact and transact online.
4. So, we now have the opportunity to give digitalisation a renewed impetus and push. The NMPs have already observed that the Deputy Prime Minister has been somewhat prescient in his Fortitude Budget speech, by making digital inclusion one of the key thrusts of the Fortitude Budget.
5. But I want to make one point before I go further. I appreciate the spirit in which some of the ideas have been put forward. But in our efforts to highlight gaps and in our desire to do better, we must be careful not to forget the progress that has been made, largely because of hard work done by various government officials, in partnership with community and corporate partners.
6. So, let me begin by first putting into perspective the current state of Singapore’s digital readiness. Where are we today in our digital inclusion journey?
7. IMDA’s Annual Infocomm Usage Survey in 2019 found that 89% of all households own computers; and among households with school-going children, 98% own computers. If we exclude tablets from the definition, we find that 61% of households with school-going children own computers. So that drops significantly. Interestingly, within this group, it is noteworthy that more than 80% of HDB one to three room households, with school-going children, have access to computers. So in other words, it is gratifying that the efforts are reaching this lower income group.
8. IMDA’s survey also indicates that broadband penetration among households stood at 98% in 2019; and it is nearly universal for households with school-going children. Our 3G and 4G mobile broadband subscription rate stands at 100% of the total mobile market, compared with international averages of 75%. And our total broadband, which are fixed and mobile subscribers, stand at 807 per 1000 of population, compared to an international average of 369 per 1000.
9. Another group we pay close attention to is our seniors. Smartphone usage among adults below 60 was 99.6% in 2019. For seniors aged 60 and above, it has increased to 75% from 36% in 2016.
10. These figures, I believe, affirm that we have made valuable progress in our digital inclusion journey. One key contributory factor has been the range of initiatives that have been launched in close collaboration between our public, private and people sectors.
11. For example, since 2006, IMDA’s NEU PC Plus programme, which Members have all referred to, has helped over 46,000 low-income households with school-going children or persons with disabilities, to obtain computers and broadband access. And I want to reassure Ms Ong that the computers in this scheme refer to PCs and laptops, and not tablets.
12. A further 16,500 households have benefitted from IMDA’s Home Access programme since 2014, which provides subsidised internet access, with an option to bundle in an internet-enabled device.
13. Both these programmes are run in partnership with self-help groups and also with Social Service Agencies.
14. Digital readiness is also not just about hardware and connectivity. It is also about the literacy and the skills to derive the full benefit. And that is why we have, for example, initiatives like the Silver Infocomm Initiative, which was launched as far back as in 2007, and it provides a range of programmes for seniors at different levels of digital skills. These programmes are also provided in vernacular languages to meet the needs of our seniors.
15. Our companies have been important partners in these initiatives, with over 70 partnering IMDA, with 6,000 volunteers in our outreach efforts. And for persons with disabilities, the NEU PC Plus programme provides support for computer and broadband access. And I can elaborate further, but because of a time constraint, I just want to emphasise that persons with disabilities remain an important part of our overall effort towards digital inclusion.
16. So, we have a range of programmes aimed at youths, seniors, persons with disabilities and low-income households. And these programmes are run in partnership with the private sector and community organisations. The situation, I believe, and I beg to differ with the Member, is not as bleak as NMP Anthea Ong paints it out to be. We have made progress, but at the same time, we must have the humility to acknowledge that there is more that we can do.
17. And that brings me to the impact of COVID-19. It has led to a surge in the interest and demand to go digital. We welcome this rejuvenated interest and we do our best to support it.
18. During the period of Home-Based Learning period for example, Members have already heard how MOE loaned out more than 20,000 computing devices and 1,600 internet-enabling devices. The question has been asked – why only one device per household in the NEU PC programme? But we are talking about a pre-COVID-19 environment. And I think Members would agree that the last two months have changed the world. So what was sufficient in the pre-COVID-19 era, for example one computer per household, at a time when there was no Home-Based Learning, there was no work from home or telecommuting requirements, changes dramatically when you're in a COVID-19 type situation with circuit breaker measures.
19. So, we must have some perspective in evaluating how fit-for-purpose the programmes were, and of course then understand that if the situation has changed, then we need to adapt and introduce the measures that are necessary.
20. For example, the NEU PC programme, what IMDA did was then to adapt the programme so that families with three or more school-going children could apply for a second subsidised PC. And more than 3000 computers were given out in this period, despite the supply chain restrictions that we had to deal with. So I think it has been an important effort.
21. We have also seen commendable initiatives formed by self-organised groups and community organisations. As Ms Ong noted, the group Engineering Good has been collecting and refurbishing over 1,800 old laptops for those who cannot afford one of their own. And I also know that they have been working with partners like Progress NEST and A Good Space, whom Ms Ong is associated with. And we will continue to encourage such collaborations amongst the community organisations, and between the public and private sectors.
22. I want to conclude by highlighting again, as DPM has highlighted we want to build on these momentum, including the various initiatives for seniors, to reach out to all segments. So the efforts with seniors, hawkers and low-income households - they are all a measure of our aspiration to ensure universality in the approach we take towards digital inclusion. But it is a challenging task, as I’m sure Members like Professor Lim who has been involved in some of these community efforts know. As you go further down, it becomes harder and harder to implement.
23. Let me affirm that digital inclusion, anchored by digital access and digital literacy, remains a foremost priority of the Government’s efforts. Born of a pressing need, COVID-19 has catalysed a heightened interest among individuals, families, workers and enterprises to be equipped with digital access and to acquire digital skills. We welcome this, and will do our utmost to ensure that every Singaporean is digitally ready. And we will work with community and corporate partners, and widely canvass for ideas, as has been suggested by both Members. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that every Singaporean, regardless of age, income or background, is well-prepared to lead a fulfilling life in our shared digital future.