SINGAPORE: In a special edition of the World Economic Forum annual report released on Dec 16, Singapore was listed as one of the digitally advanced countries well-placed to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The country was ranked sixth in the world for information and communications technology adoption and digital skills, and third in digital legal frameworks.
This bodes well for Singapore’s progression towards becoming a Smart Nation. The pandemic has sped up efforts in the rollout of digital government services and the implementation of hardware solutions.
More recent measures like the Seniors Go Digital and Hawkers Go Digital programmes rolled out in 2020 focus on providing those who need more support with better access to the digital space.
However, becoming a Smart Nation requires going beyond providing hardware access. There are also “software” challenges impeding full participation and enjoyment of the benefits of a rapidly digitalising Smart Nation.
As recent debates on the use of TraceTogether data for serious crimes demonstrate, factors such as users’ trust in, and comfort level with technology, affect their adoption of digital services as well.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted at the Smart Nation Summit in 2019: “Being a smart nation is not about flaunting glitzy technology, but … applying technology to solve real problems that will make a difference to people’s lives, and across the whole of society.”
In order to realise the vision of a Smart Nation for all, the next phase of Singapore’s Smart Nation must pivot and focus on securing impact on citizens in three ways — strengthening our digital psyche, closing the participation gap, and scaling up partnerships.
STRENGTHENING OUR DIGITAL PSYCHE
The rapid pace of technological change has led to citizens being bombarded with digital scams and misinformation, which they may not recognise on first sight.
In our recent study on false information, conducted with over 2,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents, seniors, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, were found to be more susceptible to false information.
Even people we would consider informationally savvy, such as younger Singaporeans with tertiary education, are equally vulnerable. About 47 per cent of respondents from this group failed to recognise a manipulated article, indicating that nobody is immune to false information.
People with high confirmation bias and low knowledge of the digital media landscape were more vulnerable. They were more likely to believe falsehoods aligned with their existing beliefs and were unaware of how and where information online originated from.
These findings highlight key areas of improvement in strengthening Singaporeans’ digital psyche. In particular, public education encouraging residents to be introspective about individual biases when navigating the online space can be ramped up to build national resilience against misinformation that exploit such vulnerabilities.
Another is to equip people with more knowledge on the digital media and tech landscape, so they can better appreciate and assess the credibility of the online information they receive.
There are instructive overseas examples. Digital literacy programmes like MediaWise for Seniors in the US have been successful in encouraging seniors to adopt the habits of professional fact-checkers when assessing information online. Seniors are encouraged to ask questions like “who is behind the information?”, “what is the evidence?” and “what do other sources say?”
About 85 per cent of seniors who completed the course could accurately identify disinformation, a 22 percentage point increase from before they started.
Such interventions are resources we can turn to when enhancing digital literacy programmes here by adapting what works for our local context.
CLOSING THE PARTICIPATION GAP
A second thrust of our national Smart Nation strategy should focus on closing the participatory gaps formed along age, income, and occupational lines.
The success of our Smart Nation ambitions depends on whether every Singaporean can fully leverage the affordances of technology.
Yet, a survey conducted by non-profit organisation Image Mission that helps underprivileged women secure employment found that almost half do not have a desktop or laptop to access the Internet.
Their lack of access hinders their online job searches and ability to attend online job training and interviews. If left unaddressed, such scenarios where some are unable to use technology fully could further widen social and economic inequality.
A first step to closing these disparities is to establish a national framework that maps out key digital skills all Singaporeans should possess to fully participate in today’s digital world.
Countries that have established such guidelines setting minimal standards residents should work towards have seen their efforts bear fruit.
The UK government launched an Essential Digital Skills Framework in 2018 that defined a ladder of skillsets needed for all to benefit from and contribute to the digital economy.
These include digital foundational skills that underpin all other digital skills, such as knowing how to connect to the Internet and maintain online login information.
The framework also outlines digital communication skills, such as communicating with others via email or instant messaging apps and using word processors to create and share documents like a personal resume.
Yet another group of skills looked at those needed for online transaction skills, like being able to access digital financial services and fill in request forms for public goods and services.
Establishing a similar framework for Singapore will help map out basic but critical digital literacies and identify the digital skills gap for different segments of society. This will aid the design of targeted interventions whether by the Government, self-help groups or non-profits to plug existing participation gaps.
SCALING UP PARTNERSHIPS
In Singapore, there has been a growing number of initiatives attempting to tackle digital inequality. In the area of increasing digital access, the Government launched the aforementioned Seniors Go Digital programme and is speeding up the rollout of the National Digital Literacy Programme.
The private sector has been also been bolstering public sector efforts in meeting the needs of targeted segments. Organisations such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Singapore Airlines and Temasek Foundation donated and distributed mobile phones to various communities during the pandemic, in addition to face masks, hand sanitisers.
The people sector has also stepped up to provide ground-up solutioning to help fill existing gaps. Initiatives like Engineering Good collected and donated laptops to low-income students. Others, like SG Bono and Readable Asia, have conducted classes for children on how to access the Internet safely.
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To combat the ongoing “infodemic”, where falsehoods relating to the pandemic were widely circulated, individuals and ground-up groups have developed information dashboards to help spread advisories and accurate information.
Others helped make fact-checking accessible to the public by producing videos in vernacular languages and creating parodies to debunk fake news. These are critical to boost people’s digital psyche.
While people, organisations and agencies should have the flexibility and autonomy to respond to problems and gaps in digital psyche and digital participation, there could be overlaps and duplications of efforts. While the Government has been leading Smart Nation efforts, the people and private sector have shown they can play meaningful ways in fulfilling these needs.
The Government could look into how to catalyse action by these actors. One way is to develop a one-stop digital platform for the sharing and bridging of efforts would help foster partnerships across different segments of society.
In so doing, those whose work helps grow digital inclusion will be able to minimise overlaps, optimise resources and scale up their efforts.
Singapore has come far in its Smart Nation efforts, even taking a huge leap during this pandemic year to help businesses and residents adopt digital technology. Moving forward, it could afford to focus on inclusivity in ensuring that no citizens are left behind.
Carol Soon is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Society and Culture department at the Institute of Policy Studies. She is also Vice Chair of the Media Literacy Council. Shawn Goh is Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies.