SINGAPORE: People are not necessarily aware of how smart Singapore already is, said Minister-in-charge of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) Janil Puthucheary as he took stock of the year's progress in advancing the country's Smart Nation ambitions.
Citing the example of the National Library Board (NLB), Dr Puthucheary highlighted how users can look at and reference the entire collection of books from the comfort of their home via their mobile devices, or that one can reserve a book and pick it up from a locker after work hours. Such features are testament to how technology has already been tapped to deliver services to people.
“The infrastructure, the connectivity, the planning and the software in order to make these happen, it’s phenomenal,” he added. “But to us, it’s just how our NLB is. It’s just like that, right?”
Dr Puthucheary, who is also Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education, also pointed to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore’s (ICA) application for passport online electronic system (APPLES) as another example.
“You can apply for a new passport essentially by taking a selfie,” he pointed out.
It is in this environment of high-quality service delivery, though, that GovTech is operating in and Dr Puthucheary said the challenge with pushing for the Smart Nation initiative is to “persuade people that we need to disrupt ourselves”.
And in the five strategic national projects that the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) has identified – National Digital Identity (NDI) system, e-payments, Smart Nation Sensor Platform, smart urban mobility and Moments of Life – the intention is to do just that.
Dr Puthucheary explained: “Each of them has, at its heart, a challenge that has not yet been solved (and) that we need to unlock and break in order to then realise the benefits.”
SECURING ONLINE TRANSACTIONS
Taking the NDI system as an example, the GovTech minister said the intention is for the Government to provide “authentication and identity certification as a service”.
In August this year, SNDGO said the NDI system will be built on the existing SingPass system, which currently allows citizens to transact with Government agencies. GovTech was reported to embark on trials for mobile software tokens for a more convenient and secure authentication service, as well as expand the MyInfo online data vault service. Last month, a new portal was launched to provide local businesses with the resources to integrate their digital services with MyInfo.
Dr Puthucheary explained further, saying that with NDI, a private sector entity will not need to worry about authentication, as this can be done by the State.
“We do want the private sector to be more robust at how they protect citizens’ data,” he said. “What we hope (NDI) would mean is that as a customer, you can be assured that, an ice cream vendor for example, is not accumulating your identity database.
“They’ve taken your money, you’ve had a transaction with them, but as you walk away, they don’t have to protect your security anymore, because there’s nothing to protect.”
This, Dr Puthucheary said, is one of the benefits the NDI system will be able to offer once it’s up and running.
And such a system will become increasingly important to mitigate the rising number of data breaches suffered by service providers.
For instance, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi had in November revealed that hackers had compromised personal data of about 57 million riders and drivers of its service in a 2016 incident, while ride-sharing service provider oBike last week confirmed it was victim of a data breach affecting five markets, including Singapore.
E-PAYMENTS PUSH NOT FOR CASHLESS SOCIETY
As for the e-payments thrust the country has been embarking on, particularly after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech which touched on the issue, the Minister-in-charge of GovTech was keen to put the record straight.
Asked about the REACH survey findings released in September, which found that only 48 per cent of Singaporeans polled said they supported the push towards a cashless society, while 24 per cent disagreed with the move, Dr Janil suggested that the question wasn’t correctly framed.
“The issue is not about a push for cashless … what we’re pushing for is an integrated, increasingly convenient, secure e-payments process.”
He noted that in Singapore, there is already a “very large proportion” of e-payments options, such as credit cards, NETS, ez-link cards and PayNow.
“The question is how we can make the e-payments ecosystem more convenient and more seamless and interact better,” he said, and this is not something that “can be solved overnight”.
As for the Singapore Quick Response Code (SG QR) initiative, Dr Puthucheary said that it is just one of several customer-facing options for e-payments, now that the infrastructure is in place. What is important is not to have a proliferation of QR codes being used. The way SG QR was rolled out, he noted, is an example of how the Government is hoping to bring some degree of interoperability and standardisation to the market.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) had last month announced the SG QR will be rolled out and adopted by payment service providers here next year, while existing options such as NETS QR and Singtel Dash QR will also be part of the common QR code.
He was also keen to point out that the elderly also stood to benefit from the e-payments push and not be left behind, as predicted by some on social media.
“I think they should speak to a few more elderly people first, certainly the elderly in my constituency (in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC),” Dr Puthucheary said of these commentators. “When I explain to them: 'Auntie, are you OK using NETS? Are you OK with a credit card? Are you OK with ez-link? Would you prefer if your NETS, credit card and ez-link were in one device?' They all said: 'Yes'.”
“So, it’s a question of how you phrase it, how you explain it and how you empower the elderly.”