COS Debate 2020 (Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Committee of Supply Debate 2020
28 Feb 2020
Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative
Section 1: Introduction
When COVID-19 broke upon us, you may have noticed that apps like MaskGoWhere or even the gov.sg WhatsApp channel, were up and running almost overnight, literally within days.
This is only possible because over the last couple of years, we’ve assiduously built up our talent and capabilities. It is one clear and present example where it has enabled us to do things, and to do things quickly, in an agile way, and in a way that matters for real life.
Section 2: Benefits to citizens and businesses, enabled by our core digital infrastructure.
Improvements for citizens
I want to assure Mr. Cedric Foo that we are exquisitely conscious, that Smart Nation has to benefit citizens in tangible ways. We’ve reorganised our services around the needs of citizens, and made it easier and faster for citizens to access all government services. A prime example I would cite is the Moments of Life (MOL) app.
When this app first started, we were aiming to enable parents to quickly register their child’s birth and apply for the baby bonus – that Minister Josephine Teo was providing – and to reduce the time that parents needed, to apply for this. By having this app, we’ve reduced the total waiting time from 60 minutes to 15 minutes.
Last year, I shared that 2,000 births were registered through MOL. A year on, this number has increased tenfold, to almost 20,000. I think that Minister Teo will appreciate that it’s much easier to improve productivity in apps than it is in our Total Fertility Rate. Nevertheless, we are trying to facilitate matters.
In September 2019, MOL was expanded to serve the needs of our seniors. MOH will elaborate during its Committee of Supply.
As we expand the suite of services we provide through MOL, we will continue to improve the app, through constant user testing and citizen engagement.
Smart Nation has to be about solving problems innovatively, for both simple and complex issues.
We introduced the concept of a digital Medical Certificate (MC) in 2018. If you think about it, it should be easier to submit and to keep records for MC. It saves paper and time. We first tested this at the National Heart Centre. The GovTech team worked with healthcare practitioners in the Heart Centre to improve the pilot solution, before rolling it out to more places. Today, we’ve issued over 400,000 digital MCs to all patients who visit SingHealth hospitals and polyclinics. We will be expanding this to other hospitals and clinics, in particular to the private sector, starting with Raffles Medical and Mt. Alvernia Hospital.
Improvements for businesses
I agree with Mr. Teo Ser Luck and Mr. Ong Teng Koon that building a Smart Nation should also help businesses succeed in this digital era.
Over the past few years, we made it easier for businesses to transact digitally with the Government, through the various initiatives like the IPOS Go app and the Business Grants Portal. We are extending our support for businesses, to help them through their different phases – from starting up the business, seizing the opportunities to grow, to running it more efficiently on a day-to-day basis.
To give you an example, we launched the GoBusiness Licensing portal in October 2019, using the customer journey approach, to help F&B businesses start. Some of you may know that in fact, applying for the right licenses to start a business – and in particular an F&B business – can be extremely an onerous process. 14 different licences, 800 over fields to fill.
When we launched the portal for F&B businesses, we were able to simplify the application process and save businesses time, through backend reengineering, which is extremely critical. Ultimately, this allows businesses to get on with conducting their business quickly.
I agree with Mr. Lim Swee Say and Mr. Teo Ser Luck that Artificial Intelligence should be one of Singapore’s key strengths. If you think about the transition from computing power in the 80s, to connectivity in the 90s, today, the fact that computer systems can engage in pattern recognition, whether it is facial recognition, speech or hearing, this is transformative.
And similar to how computing and communication was made available to all, we need to make this ability available to everyone – people and businesses. That is why we have embarked on our own National AI Strategy for Singapore.
I give you this commitment that we are working with companies and the research community to focus our efforts on deploying AI. I want to emphasise the word here is deployment, because we will never have the oceans of data that China has, or the deep and unique ecosystem that Silicon Valley has. But I think we have a niche when it comes to deployment, especially when it comes to areas where we already have a competitive advantage, for instance healthcare, education, logistics, smart cities, urban solutions and security.
We are also putting in place ecosystem enablers to facilitate AI deployment across the board. This includes making it easier for companies to adopt AI solutions, through programmes like SMEs Go Digital and AI Singapore’s 100 Experiments programme. These are available to the private sector.
We will continue to take a human-centric approach to AI to bring tangible benefits to citizens and businesses, whilst – and I’m trying to address Mr. Singh’s point here – putting in place a strong AI governance structure, to ensure that these new abilities are used responsibly, that risks are managed appropriately, and public trust is maintained.
Investing in core infrastructure to sustain benefits into the future
To ensure benefits to citizens and businesses are widespread and sustained, we have invested heavily in digital infrastructure, at the national level. These are behind-the-scenes work, often unnoticed and underappreciated. But, like physical infrastructure, they are fundamental to our ongoing digital transformation.
National Digital Identity
Let me give you one example. The National Digital Identity (NDI) is one piece of digital infrastructure that most people would probably have not heard of. But you would’ve heard of SingPass Mobile, which we launched 1.5 years ago. Today, it has close to one million users. It has enabled us to make it easy and secure to verify identities, and I’m sure many members of this House have used SingPass for a variety of log-ons, in order to use government services.
For example, since CPF launched its online nomination service in January. Over 9,000 CPF members and their witnesses have used it to complete the entire process online, securely and conveniently. In the past, it would have required you to go down to the branch, with your witnesses and your beneficiary, to sign in front of someone. Now, with the NDI and government systems online, you can do all these entirely online, securely.
Businesses have also used the NDI to innovate, and to raise the quality of their own digital services, which are provided to customers at large. Online retailers like Carousell promote users as verified buyers or sellers when they sign up using MyInfo, thereby building trust in online transactions and the marketplace. Businesses also report saving up to $50 per transaction, and processing transactions 5 times faster, when their customers use MyInfo to prefill forms.
Apart from the NDI, we’ve also made significant improvements to our digital payment infrastructure, to support more use cases, and to make sure it remains interoperable and competitive.
Today, over three-quarters of Singaporeans between the age of 20 and 75 years old are registered with PayNow. Monthly transaction volumes have nearly doubled over the course of last year, from 4.2 million to 8.1 million transactions.
We are using PayNow more pervasively in our government services, and we are seeing high take-up rates. For instance, last year, 20,000 CPF members conducted over 90,000 CPF withdrawals using PayNow, which amounted to over $600 million being transferred almost instantly, in real time.
Through these efforts, citizens’ and businesses’ satisfaction rates in government digital services have gone up. You know that we conduct regular surveys on this. We discovered that there has been an 8-percentage point increase from 2018 to 2019. So currently, citizens and businesses indicating satisfaction with government digital services has gone up to around 86% and 77% respectively. These are our highest scores since we started measuring them in 2012. I say this not to blow our own trumpets, but to tell people we focus on the citizen experience, and on making sure we deliver real value to citizens.
Section 3: Delivering better digital services to citizens and businesses, and improving our lived experience.
Delivering Better Digital Services
We will continue to improve digital services for both citizens and businesses.
At the last count, we have about 100 government apps. I don’t take joy in that number, because citizens often tell me that is too many; which one do I use? To remedy this, we will systematically streamline our apps, and our digital offerings.
For a start, we will improve and reorganise the Moments of Life (MOL) app, which I described just now, with the eventual aim of personalising it for each user, as Ms. Tin Pei Ling has suggested. If you think about it, we all carry smartphones, but everybody’s home screen is unique. That’s what individualisation and customisation is. The question is not just about the number of apps, but whether those apps are customised and suitable for you. Citizens will soon be able to access common government services on MOL, like managing taxes and CPF matters, or even to make event bookings.
These processes will continue to be reviewed. And as I said, don’t just pay attention to the number of apps, but also to see if the app meets your needs. More importantly, whether the government is using this as an opportunity to reengineer our processes, to be more efficient, cost-effective, and responsive.
For businesses, we will be extending the user-centric approach we have taken in setting up GoBusiness Licensing portal, to help more businesses meet their different needs as they start, grow, and run. We will streamline our digital transactions and make them more user-centric; as well as provide businesses with information and tools to capitalise on the opportunities, and reduce cost. MTI will elaborate on this during its Committee of Supply.
We are also exploring more NDI use-cases for businesses, in order to make it easier, cheaper and faster for them to go digital. We are testing the use of SingPass by businesses, so they do not have to build and secure their own digital identity verification systems. Union members can currently access U Portal via SingPass, and Republic Plaza grants building access when visitors enter via SingPass Mobile, so they no longer need to surrender their NRICs.
We also ran a 12-month pilot last year for MyInfo Business, to help SMEs prefill government-verified data for bank account opening and loan applications. Later this year, we will extend such pre-filling to more B2B services.
Improving the lived experience
Of course, a Smart Nation must go beyond fancy online services and apps. It must improve the daily lived experience, as emphasised by Dr. Teo Ho Pin. Punggol Town will be our testbed to implement smart technologies, such as Open Digital Platform and smart energy grids, in our towns. Later this year, we will share more about how smart features in residential estates and community facilities will benefit Punggol residents, and ultimately all other towns.
Mr. Singh has asked about the trials of Lampposts-as-a-Platform in One North and Geylang. I thank you for asking that. Let me take a step back and explain why lampposts. Lampposts are ubiquitous. There are 100,000 of them in Singapore. They have the advantage of being in fixed locations – they do not move. They are always powered – this attribute has made them very convenient to deploy sensors on. We are deploying sensors, and testing some use cases, for instance to keep track of environmental quality sensing, traffic congestion, and crowd safety.
I think the key point that Mr. Singh made is on balance – that we must get the balance right, between acquiring data, using it, and protecting privacy and security. You have to get the balance right, to maintain public confidence. Only then can you truly reap the benefits that come with it.
I need to assure you that we have very stringent data management and protection standards, to govern the access, use and the disclosure of all collected data by government and our vendors. In particular, only officers with legitimate use of the data would be able to access the data – de-identified for data analytics and planning work. It will be identifiable only when absolutely necessary, for instance, in service delivery, or in the case of facial recognition, if the police need it to identify missing persons, or for the purposes of investigation. Then under carefully controlled circumstances, that will be enabled.
I would like to remind the house that public officers are subjected to the Public Service Governance Act, which makes the mishandling and unauthorised access of data a criminal offence.
Going forward, we will find more opportunities to deploy sensors on lampposts. But we will ensure that the collected data is stored and used securely, and SMS Janil will elaborate on this later.
Section 4: Conclusion
So let me conclude. Smart Nation has benefitted citizens and businesses, and increased our capacity to deal with rapidly changing circumstances and emergencies in the real world. We will continue to evolve how the Government operates innovatively in a digital environment, and we will work even more closely in partnership with our people.