COS Debate 2021 (Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Committee of Supply 2021
(26 February 2021)
Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative
Thank you, Mr Chairman, on behalf of Prime Minister Lee and Senior Minister Teo.
COVID-19 has been a real stress test of the work that Smart Nation has embarked on for the past more than almost seven years. It has exposed gaps, it has validated our investments over the many years and it has also allowed us to differentiate ourselves and to emerge stronger in a post-COVID world.<
So, the questions my team and I have asked ourselves in the last one year are the following: Have our digital systems helped to save lives, enhance resilience, improve the quality of services provided to our people? Has it enabled us to overcome challenges collectively without leaving anyone behind? That has been our framing.
The digital systems that we have been building up have actually showed to be absolutely critical in our fight against COVID-19. Many of the solutions that we deployed during the crisis were developed by our in-house engineers within GovTech and other public agencies in weeks, sometimes overnight, over days.
TraceTogether, which now has 4.7 million people using it, SafeEntry – all these have helped to reduce the time needed to identify and quarantine close contacts. It used to take us four days. It is now down to 1.5 days. SupplyAlly and RedeemSG have been used to distribute more than 2.9 million TT tokens and 19 million masks. And those of you who participated in this would know that this really helped turbo charge the delivery of these.
We had websites, MaskGoWhere, SupportGoWhere, FluGoWhere and we have the Gov.sg WhatsApp and Telegram channels. Again, rolled out overnight and the ability to provide crucial accurate information from trusted sources enabled us as a population to respond in a coordinated, effective and calm manner.
Over 700,000 manpower and workplace applications for businesses have been made through the GoBusiness portal and that also provides convenient, comprehensive information, especially on safe management guidelines over the past year. The Government was therefore able to continue serving people, providing services online even during the circuit breaker and thereby cushioned the social and economic impact.
Technology will be critical as we try this year to resume our daily lives. For instance, using the National Appointment System for COVID-19 Vaccination, eligible persons can book their vaccinations online when it is their turn. But it goes beyond that. It is about matching supply and demand in time and space. And for those of you who have been vaccinated, you can check your records which are available on HealthHub.
MOH and GovTech are also developing a globally inter-operable HealthCerts standard based on blockchain technology to facilitate cross-border verification of health documents. There will be notarised Pre-Departure Test (PDT) test results which will be available on SingPass Mobile and we will look into extending this to vaccine certificates as suggested by Ms Tin Pei Ling.
Ninety-five percent of Government’s transactions between citizens and businesses are today completed digitally end-to-end – 95% done paperless, cashless and presence-less. This is actually one of the highest rates in the world.
These achievements have only been possible because of our relentless recruitment of talent and especially in-house engineering capabilities before the crisis hit. And we must now double down on building up our people, building up our capabilities and our agility and to use the latest cutting-edge technologies.
One area which we will do more of is to make greater use of the cloud in order to scale new services and to re-engineer existing services.
Seventy percent of our eligible IT systems will have migrated to the cloud by 2023 under the Digital Government Blueprint. This shift to the cloud incidentally will also make us greener and more sustainable.
We will continue to attract and nurture top ICT talent within the public sector, through our Smart Nation Scholarships, Technology Associate Programme (TAP) and other talent development programmes. And we are not just looking for hardcore engineers but also multi-disciplinary teams – designers, analysts, policymakers, artists, communicators, in order to create really functional teams, fit for purpose.
We will be launching The Digital Academy next quarter, to build up the digital skills within the wider Public Service in areas including data analytics and cybersecurity. The Digital Academy will train more than 6,000 Public Service officers. We hope to offer about 95 training programmes within the first year. And I will also put in a request for Members of Parliament, those of you who want to attend these courses, please email me, and I might even try to persuade the Prime Minister to do an introductory course on C. I have not asked the Prime Minister yet.
I share Miss Cheng Li Hui’s concern that it is critical for our public officers to carefully handle classified information in order to maintain public trust. All officers will undergo an annual data security programme, so that they know their responsibilities and how to safeguard the data that they handle in the daily course of activities and we will also remind our officers of the severe consequences of mishandling data.
I agree with Ms Hany Soh that the Government plays a critical role not only in shaping the national digital infrastructure but also the processes and the thinking and the mindset around it. Just like physical infrastructure, we must commit to ensuring that our digital infrastructure, in both the hard and software side of it, is top-notch globally. The question on 5G rollout will be handled by MCI later. But even in that area, we will make sure that we are at the leading edge of the world and, both in terms of security and efficacy, we will be there.
Ms Tin Pei Ling asked for an update on the national digital identity. I am glad to report that SingPass now provides seamless and secure access to over 1,400 digital services by 340 agencies, including private sector organisations, like some banks and insurance companies. The number of users of SingPass Mobile has grown. It was one million users in March last year. It is now 2.4 million users today. We will be looking to extend the benefits of our national digital identity platform and to enable easier access to e-services beyond our shores, and we are embarking on pilot projects with Australia and Shenzhen, China.
I agree with Mr Sharael Taha that the Government’s digital services must be secure, must be inclusive and must be personalised. We have introduced the SingPass two-factor authentication (2FA) modes to ensure that SingPass remains not only secure but accessible, and especially to the elderly and vulnerable groups, especially those without mobile phones. And these include the latest use of Face Verification so that people can use Face Verification as a second factor and this will be based on matching their images against a verified database held by ICA. Individuals can also opt to have their SMS one-time password sent to a trusted family member so that they can still have the benefit of security and the help of a trusted family member.
We are consolidating information and services for our citizens under the one-stop LifeSG app. If you have not used it, please go and check it out. More than 250,000 people have already downloaded the app, and they can access a personalised dashboard of services to more than 70 Government e-services. Users can also view the Government benefits and support relevant to them, such as GST Vouchers, Pioneer and Merdeka Generation MediSave top-ups and, soon, including the benefits that have been announced under this current Budget.
We are also improving our digital services for improved productivity and, next quarter, GoBusiness will launch an e-Service Navigator to provide our businesses easy access to over 300 Government e-services. But more importantly, this is also an opportunity to re-engineer our processes and make Government services more suitable and facilitatory to all our businesses.
We have harnessed digital technology also to create more energy-efficient and water-efficient homes, and you will be aware of some further announcements on smart meters in both energy and water.
Mr Alex Yam has emphasised that partnership is key, and the Government and financial sector are, indeed, in fact, a very good example where this partnership has borne fruit. Compared to a year ago, we have a 31% increase in PayNow mobile users. Today, we have than 2.7 million users, and PayNow transactions have more than doubled in this one year. No doubt accelerated by COVID-19 and the aversion to handling cash.
Another example is the Singapore Financial Data Exchange which has enabled us, as individuals, to retrieve a consolidated view of all our personal finances, using either the MyMoneySense portal or a mobile banking app. Actually, if you have not checked this out, it is a big deal because it allows data sharing which has historically been very difficult to achieve because you get a direct overview of all your financial statements and bank accounts. But you can imagine the security needed to enable that to happen. And this was enabled because we have central digital infrastructure riding on SingPass and MyInfo and the relationship the Government has had with the banks and our role as a neutral, trusted party to enable this kind of sharing, and this kind of utility to occur.
I want to also thank the 150 Smart Nation Ambassadors who, even in the midst of the difficulties last year, volunteered to help promote the use of digital technologies, including TraceTogether. Later this year, we will be convening a citizen panel to explore how we can improve the design of our digital services.
So, let me conclude, COVID-19 did not change history but it has accelerated both the need and the opportunities arising from the digital revolution. Our Smart Nation Initiative has put us in a good position to seize the moment and to prove that we can and do solve real-world problems quickly, and to differentiate ourselves in the post-COVID world.