Sunday, 14 June 2020

Ministerial Committee set up to guide digital adoption, create jobs in digital economy

Ministerial Committee for Digital Transformation will work with companies, labour movement to place Singaporeans in new jobs
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2020

A high-level committee has been set up to create jobs for Singaporeans in the digital economy, help small businesses go online and ensure no citizen is left behind by technology.

The Ministerial Committee for Digital Transformation will guide efforts to accelerate Singapore's adoption of digital technology, which has taken on greater urgency as COVID-19 forces huge changes in how people work and live and how businesses operate.

Its key focus is to work with companies and the labour movement to create jobs in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and to place Singaporeans in these jobs, Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran said in an interview.

And with small and medium-sized enterprises employing some 65 per cent of the workforce here, one of the committee's prime aims is to help them survive and thrive through the use of technology.

The badly hit retail and food and beverage sectors will get special attention, for a start.

Another area of focus is to ensure all segments of the population benefit from the digitalisation push, starting with hawkers and seniors.

Setting out these priorities, Mr Iswaran, who chairs the committee with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, said the current situation has presented an opportunity for Singapore to double down on its push towards a digital future.

The committee will oversee the execution of policies and coordinate the work of the many agencies and groups involved.

"We have very clear plans and targets in place, but execution is going to be key - how we get this done," said Mr Iswaran, adding that the committee has begun its work.

Singapore's economy could suffer its worst contraction since independence, with the economy forecast to shrink by as much as 7 per cent this year. The ICT sector has been a bright spot, expanding by 3.5 per cent from January to March and creating 1,100 jobs, though companies are more cautious about hiring.

Mr Iswaran pledged that the Government will not "spare any effort" and will work closely with employers and unions to create new openings, and provide the training that mid-career professionals and fresh graduates need to take on those roles. "It is going to be a challenging task because of the environment that we are in, and I think we have to be realistic about it."

The Government has set a goal of creating 5,500 ICT jobs over the next two to three years through its TechSkills Accelerator programmes, which train workers and match them to ICT jobs. Not all of the jobs will require deep technical skills such as coding or data analytics, and there will also be "tech lite" roles, said Mr Iswaran.

"Every sector will need a digital dimension brought into it... that trend was already happening even before COVID-19," he said.

To encourage high-growth deep-tech companies - such as those in cyber security, artificial intelligence and big data - to set up shop here, the Government has allowed them to hire skilled foreigners to take on roles that Singaporeans cannot fill.

They will continue to be allowed to have a "judicious component of foreign talent" to complement the local talent base, while Singaporeans are being trained to bridge the skills gap, said Mr Iswaran.

"If we can do that, then it is beneficial for all of us overall, because it enables a company to pursue more opportunities, and that in turn is going to aggregate more opportunities for all of us," he added.

The Government's focus is to create jobs for Singaporeans, he said.

"Where we can, we will do our utmost to place Singaporeans in these jobs. That has to be the priority, that is the priority, and that will be the priority going forward."

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Carol Soon said COVID-19 has highlighted gaps in people's competencies in harnessing technology fully, and suggested that the committee develop a framework to address different levels of needs among different segments.

Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun, a media professor, said: "Efforts that could otherwise run independently of each other can potentially be more well integrated."

Concerns of hawkers, seniors to be addressed in digital push: S. Iswaran
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2020

Going cashless means hawkers would not have to count their earnings, or make trips to the bank to deposit cash. But efforts to encourage the switch have not taken off.

Many said they were apprehensive that, without money changing hands, they could not be sure they had been paid.

To address these worries, the Government worked with e-payments provider Nets to come up with a way for them to be alerted when they have received payment.

Now, hawkers using the Singapore Quick Response Code (SGQR) to collect payment will get a vocal signal in English or Mandarin or a sound signal when the transaction has gone through.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran cited this example in a media interview to show the importance of addressing people's concerns to get them onto the digital bandwagon.

It is one of the key priorities of the new Ministerial Committee for Digital Transformation he jointly chairs with Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

Digital inclusion - making sure everyone in society is able to adopt and use digital tools and technology - has gained traction in recent years as the increased speed of digitalisation worldwide exposes the digital divide.

The gap between those who are comfortable with technology and have access to it, and those who do not, has widened further with many forced to work and learn from home as offices and schools were closed to curb COVID-19.

Mr Iswaran said the Government will focus its efforts on addressing the concerns of hawkers and seniors - two groups some consider most challenging to get on board the digital bandwagon.

He said: "This is an important thrust for us. And it is going to have valuable outcomes both in the near term and also in the long term for our community and our society."

In this regard, he announced on May 31 a new SG Digital Office to coordinate outreach efforts to these segments of the population. Since then, the office has deployed 200 digital ambassadors to encourage stallholders in hawker centres and wet markets to adopt the SGQR payment solution. The aim is to get all 18,000 stallholders to do so by the middle of next year.

Mr Iswaran said the ambassadors have covered half the hawker centres in Singapore and are set to complete their first sweep of all 112 centres in the next week or two.

With dining out banned during the circuit breaker period and hawker centres emptied of patrons, many stallholders have already found ways to sell online through websites such as, he added.

"I do believe that even after all restrictions are lifted at some point, once our SMEs or entrepreneurs have had a sense or taste of what this can achieve, what sort of new possibilities it has opened up for them, I don't think they are going to make a full reversion back to where they were before," he said.

To nudge them to take the next step, the ambassadors will be a "point of assurance" - on the ground to answer their queries, and help solve any problems that may arise.

To help defray the costs of adoption, eligible hawkers who sign up for SGQR under the Hawkers Go Digital initiative can also get a bonus of up to $1,500 if they fulfil a minimum number of cashless transactions.

Even then, a small group may still need a bit more persuasion, and getting them to take the first step is what will make a difference, acknowledged Mr Iswaran. "I think we will need to do more work, understand their concerns, address their fears and see how we can then get them to cross the Rubicon," he said.

He added that, with hawker food such a big part of Singapore's culture, getting hawkers on board "will have not just an impact at the transaction level but at a systemic level - it sends a clear signal about what we are doing and how we are adapting to a new environment".

For the hawkers themselves, it is also the first step on the digitalisation journey that could open up much more possibilities, he said.

"Digitalisation is a journey; it is not a destination. Today, there is SGQR code; tomorrow, it could be how you can take more online orders for delivery... There are always new possibilities coming on," he added. "We need to get onto that platform so this whole world of new opportunities is open to us; then we can let innovation and entrepreneurial energy take its course."

The other group that will be getting more help is seniors.

Mr Iswaran said while they may be seen as least inclined to adopt technology, people should not underestimate their ability to make the transition. "Age is not the barrier here... It is attitude that counts."

"There are many examples of seniors who have adapted and they have aspirations and some of them are so adept that they are doing a lot more than I have envisaged myself doing with tech," he quipped.

The Seniors Go Digital programme will support the adoption of digital tech among seniors, and help them gain the skills to do so, through small group learning sessions at libraries and community centres as well as financial assistance for those who cannot afford devices and data plans.

With language a concern for some, Mr Iswaran said the Government is working with various parties to provide digital applications in multiple languages.

Some also fear that the digitalisation push could make seniors who are less comfortable with technology feel alienated from society.

But Mr Iswaran said the digital initiatives are meant to boost - and not replace - existing options. For instance, hawkers and shops will continue to accept cash even as they provide e-payment options. "Digitalisation is not an end in itself; it is the means to an end and the end is to improve our lives," he said.

"These digital initiatives are to give our seniors more options - in the way they get information, in the way they communicate with the family and in the way they may transact or make payments."

Work on reaching out to seniors will start in earnest when restrictions on movements and gatherings are eased, but with plans to recruit 1,000 digital ambassadors by the end of this month, seniors definitely have help along the way, said Mr Iswaran.

"They do not have to walk this journey alone," he added. "We are going to establish nodes in every division in Singapore so that the people are there for them to consult, to have a way to interact, to get guidance and to be able to then feel that they are journeying together with people."

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