COS Debate 2018 (Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Committee of Supply Debate 2018
1 Mar 2018
Transcript of speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative
SECTION 1: WHY SMART NATION
We are in the midst of a digital revolution, I think everyone knows that, and we know that it is transforming our economy, our society, our jobs.
During the previous industrial revolution, the people and the regions that first got it, that were the first to adopt the latest technology, achieved a head start, and they made enormous fortunes and amassed great power. In fact, I often think we are speaking English today, because the last industrial revolution began in England, and spread to Europe. The beginning of every new technological shift is often characterised by an initial Gilded Age – an age when there is greater inequality and profits amassed by the few who get it and have access to the new means of production. It takes time for new skills to be commoditised, the means of value creation to be more widely disseminated, and then you get a larger middle class. We saw such a golden age in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with a demographic dividend, mass education, and a massive investment in infrastructure.
We believe that the current digital revolution reflects such an inflection point. The pace of change, however, of this revolution will be much faster than the previous industrial revolution. And that is why we need to ensure that all Singaporeans, and I emphasise all, master the new skills, and that our economy is rapidly restructured. Then, and only then will our people have good jobs, with good incomes and then we can remain a cohesive and fair society. So this is the context, the narrative behind our Smart Nation efforts.
SECTION 2: SINGAPORE IS MAKING GOOD PROGRESS ON SMART NATION
I am glad to inform Mr Zaqy Mohamed, Ms Jessica Tan, Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Mr Teo Ser Luck that we are making good progress.
The formation of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) last year, chaired by DPM Teo, has enabled us to be even more coordinated and responsive in the execution of our strategy.
Progress on Strategic National Projects
In particular, we are accelerating the delivery of our Strategic National Projects. These form key digital platforms and infrastructure, and are essential for a vibrant and innovative digital economy and for us to enhance our government services.
These projects are on track, and let me quickly give you some specifics.
a. National Digital Identity
First on the National Digital Identity. Ms Tin Pei Ling, I believe, asked about the progress of the National Digital Identity and of E-Payments. Both are essential if we are to achieve seamless, convenient and secure digital transactions.
We will launch the SingPass Mobile app in the second half of this year. I think members would be aware of the current SingPass system, it’s got 2-Factor Authentication, but that requires you to either have a hard token or to receive an SMS message. The new SingPass Mobile app will enable citizens to authenticate ourselves more quickly and conveniently. It will allow biometric authentication, and Singaporeans who are overseas will not have to wait to receive an SMS probably at some charge before they can log on to SingPass.
A secure digital identity will also enable our citizens to share data safely and securely with other organizations. Now, this point is important, because we have already linked 70 government services and 30 banking services to MyInfo. The purpose of MyInfo is to eliminate repetitive form-filling and document verification, and it will also enhance accuracy. This will increase convenience, improve service standards, and reduce processing time. For instance, the processing time to open new bank accounts and credit card applications has been reduced by 80%. Backroom processes have become efficient. I’ve heard Zaqy’s point that maybe we need to take this same methodology to social assistance as well, to reduce repetitive form-filling and speed up backroom processes.
Private companies can innovate and build on top of these platforms. Ms Tin Pei Ling will be pleased to note that we are enabling businesses, through the MyInfo Developer & Partner Portal, to integrate their own digital services into MyInfo, which is the government-initiated secure data platform. Since the Portal’s launch in Nov 2017, just 3 months ago, more than 150 businesses from various industries have expressed interest in doing so, and we look forward to on-boarding more later this year.
Let me say a few words on E-Payments. We are not going cashless for its own sake. And we are certainly not doing it for tax collection. The ultimate objective is to lower transaction costs for all businesses and for citizens who are purchasing goods and services. It is to expand opportunities and especially for small companies, for freelancers, for entrepreneurs, for the gig economy, for the small handicraft maker. You want them to be able to access this at the lowest possible transaction cost, in order to enhance competitiveness and participation in our economy.
PayNow was launched by our banks last year, to allow easy and immediate fund transfer using the recipient’s NRIC or mobile phone numbers. So far, it has been used mostly for mainly P2P payments, between persons, and more than $370m has been sent on this basis through the PayNow system. But this is only the beginning.
Our public agencies will shortly start using PayNow as well.
In March this year, the CPF Board will allow eligible CPF members over 55 to receive their lump sum withdrawal through PayNow. What’s the advantage? It means the funds will be transferred within the same day, hopefully on their birthday, rather than waiting 5 days, which is the current turnaround time.
We will also be piloting the use of PayNow to disburse Edusave Award monies to ITE and polytechnic students. This will surely be more efficient than having to bank a cheque.
This year, we will also launch PayNow Corporate, which will enable businesses to link their bank accounts to their UENs. They will be able to use PayNow in order to pay other businesses, and also receive payment from consumers. In other words, this will now become B2B and B2C as well.
We will be promoting the adoption of the SGQR code, which will be a national QR code standard. This will increase consumer convenience, but more important than that, it will also enable cheaper and infrastructure-light payments systems, which will benefit especially smaller businesses.
I am also glad that NETS and EZ-Link are working together to enable the EZ-Link card acceptance at NETS terminals and vice versa. Frankly, this is long overdue. But we welcome and encourage, and in fact we want to make it a rule from now on, to achieve interoperability of wallets and payments systems. This will make it much more convenient for consumers and businesses.
c. Smart Nation Sensor Platform
Another Strategic National Project is the Smart Nation Sensor Platform. This aims to put in place an integrated nation-wide sensor platform to improve municipal services, city-level operations, planning and security.
You may not feel the direct impact of this straight away, but a better and more systematic use of sensors and data will enable us to build and run a more smart, green and liveable city, including more responsive public transport, more reliable public transport, better public security and improved urban planning. The trials for various aspects of the Smart Nation Sensor Platform are ongoing right now.
d. Moments of Life Initiative
Ms Jessica Tan and I think Mr Cedric Foo quite rightly emphasised that digital services should be citizen-centric and anticipatory. The Moments of Life initiative is one example where we are reorganizing government services to provide personalised, customised services at a citizen-centric level.
You used to have to navigate your way to access the myriad of services that government provided. Then our next step was to have a ‘No Wrong Door Policy’, meaning it doesn’t matter which door you knocked on, it was supposed to work, and bring you to the right place. Frankly, I think we need to re-organise government so that the delivery of our services are organized based on the citizen rather than the agency providing those services. And this is actually not a question of technology but of re-engineering our processes. And if we succeed, then the doors should disappear.
In June 2018, we will release an app for Singaporean couples starting a family, or with children aged 6 and below. We will call this app (and we haven’t thought of a better name yet) “Moments of Life (Families)”. It will allow parents, when they have a new baby, to register the baby’s birth online, apply for Baby Bonus, view medical appointments and immunization records, and search and register interest for preschools.
We will test this out for families with babies born in public hospitals first and then roll it out further. Additional services will be added over time. And if the concept works, we will look at other “Moments of Life”.
f. Smart Urban Mobility
On Smart Urban Mobility, we are pursuing initiatives to use digital technologies to enhance comfort, convenience and reliability of our public transport systems, and support our vision of a car-lite Singapore. MOT will convey more later.
SECTION 3: WE ARE ADDRESSING THE ISSUES OF DATA SHARING, DATA PROTECTION AND CYBERSECURITY
Besides ensuring progress in these Strategic National Projects, we also need to get our approach to data sharing and protection, and system resilience and cyber-security right.
Data-sharing and Data Protection
Harnessing the power of data will be increasingly critical for government, businesses and for citizens as well. Data in a sense, is the new currency of the digital age.
I share Assistant Prof Mahdev Mohan’s concern that increased data sharing and data use have to be done in an environment where personal data and privacy are robustly protected.
Hence, we have the Public Sector Governance Act which takes effect in April. It outlines a set of data-sharing practices for Government, including using only non-identifiable information for policymaking and planning. Individual officers will be held accountable for safeguarding the information, and the Government will appoint trusted data custodians who will have central oversight over the anonymisation of datasets, before they are shared across agencies. This clarity is to encourage safe data-sharing in order to enhance policymaking and improve service delivery, and to do so securely. Assistant Prof Mahdev Mohan made other points on the social, legal and ethical dimensions of digital technology and we will study these points carefully. These are valid concerns. For the private sector, the Personal Data Protection Commission is conducting ongoing public consultation to ensure that the laws of personal data protection remain relevant.
Resilience and Cybersecurity
Let me move on to resilience and cybersecurity.
We must also build our Smart Nation on a reliable and secure foundation. Many of you have highlighted this – Ms Sun Xueling, Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Ms Tin Pei Ling.
Ms Sun and Ms Tin referred to the recent SingPass episode. Basically what happened was that a software bug was introduced when they updated the two factor authentication system within the SingPass server. That led to progressive slowness and eventually a crash. Unfortunately, this bug was in the backup system too. That’s why we had two crashes. GovTech is currently investigating the incident, and will provide a more comprehensive update when it is completed. But I take your point that for essential platform technology, we can’t afford to get it wrong.
The Government imposes stringent reliability and resilience requirements for all our critical ICT systems, and we adopt a “security-by-design” approach to building this infrastructure. We conduct regular and rigorous audits, and any findings are followed upon thoroughly. I think the staff in GovTech know that I am quite obsessive and I drill down to details so I give the engineers a slightly hard time. But I think this tension is necessary. We also work with our business associations to promote cybersecurity, because it is not enough for Government to be secure but businesses also need to adopt good cyber-hygiene and to make that a business priority. And of course we should remember that citizens also have to play their part. Minister Yaacob will share more details on our national cybersecurity efforts later.
SECTION 4: CITIZENS AND BUSINESSES NEED TO BE INVOLVED
At its core, the Smart Nation is more than just the deployment of technology, but really must expand opportunities and improve the quality of life, enhance jobs, and raise salaries.
Mr Tan Wu Meng highlighted the impact on the economy and jobs creation. We know that automation, robotics, data analytics and additive manufacturing (3D printing) will certainly disrupt manufacturing and logistics chains. For a place like Singapore, a city, an entrepot, a port and airport, surely these have profound implications on us.
We risk becoming irrelevant if we do not transform our infrastructure, our systems and our skills quickly enough. To do this, we need to ensure that workers all across the segments, as well as our SMEs, are able to take advantage of digital tools and master new skills. Minister Yaacob and SMS Janil will share more details on our TechSkills Accelerator and SME Go Digital programmes.
As Ms. Jessica Tan, Mr. Tan Wu Meng, Mr. Teo Ser Luck, and Ms. Tin Pei Ling have also highlighted quite rightly, the government cannot build a Smart Nation alone, and we need to involve citizens and businesses.
In this spirit, we are opening our national platforms. I gave the example earlier about MyInfo. Ultimately, our National Digital Identity and E-Payments systems need to be open for private sector, not only to just log on, but to actually build innovative new services on top of these platforms.
GovTech will conduct regular industry briefings to share government’s strategic ICT plans and the pipeline of projects. We have this programme called Innoleap. This basically allows government to go to the private sector or to the research institutes, set out a problem statement and let the companies offer solutions based on their own expertise.
We will work with research institutes. We also have a grant called the Translational Research and Development for Application to Smart Nation (TRANS) Grant. We have a need; you have a capability; you have a service. Give us your best offer. If it works, we use it; we pay you; we feed our own local ecosystem.
We invite the public and industry to contribute more ideas, more solutions, novel solutions especially, through Ideas!, which is a Whole-of-Government crowdsourcing portal.
SECTION 5: WE WILL LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND
I agree with Mr. Zaqy Mohamed, Ms. Tin Pei Ling and Mr. Saktiandi Supaat, that we must push ahead with digital technology, but at the same time we must make sure nobody gets left behind, regardless of age and background, and I’m also inclined to say, linguistic ability and special needs. We need to make sure that all our projects are inclusive-by-design. After all, if you pick up any modern handphone today, they’re multilingual by design. They have assistive technology by design. And I am going to push to make government services adopt that same inclusive approach.
We will also be raising the standards of Government digital content, basically checking our websites, our portals and our services to make sure they are state of the art. Basically we have a league table and we assess everyone’s website and tell them which ones don’t work, which ones aren’t ready and so on and so forth.
Minister Yaacob and SMS Janil will further elaborate on MCI’s digital readiness initiatives.
SECTION 6: CONCLUSION
Let me conclude. The digital revolution can be either exhilarating or terrifying, or both. It all depends on whether we are ready. That is why we have embarked on Smart Nation. That is why we need to do so with a great sense of urgency.
We need to ensure that there are good jobs and opportunities for all. Government will continue investing in infrastructure, creating open platforms, sharing open data, facilitating skills upgrading and encouraging our businesses to adopt the latest technologies. And you’ve heard the Budget provisions for that. Ultimately, this has to be done with an even greater sense of urgency as a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, whole-of-nation effort.