COVID-19 SPECIAL: Home Front

Covid-19 pandemic hastens Smart Nation drive

With enterprises, institutions, workers, students and families going digital, S'pore is speeding up its embrace of digitalisation

Digitalise or die.

The choice has never been so stark, and the consequence so immediate, as cities come to a standstill amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic that is forcing governments to shut down offices and schools to reduce transmission risks.

Overnight, many private and public institutions in Singapore have had to think of new ways to continue their operations as tightened safe distancing measures forbid eating out and mandate shutdowns of non-essential businesses.

The swift adoption of digital alternatives - from the rise in cashless payments to the use of messaging and social media tools to promote and sell hawker food - has been nothing short of startling.

In many ways, Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation here, giving Singapore's Smart Nation projects a much-needed push.

1. Cashless dream finally a reality

Physical handling of coins and notes is viewed as a viral risk, spurring many to go for cashless options.

The volume of cash withdrawals and deposits at Singapore's largest bank, DBS Bank, fell by an unprecedented 11 per cent during the three months from January to March compared with the same period last year. The rate of decline in cash transactions had hovered at around 5 per cent yearly since 2017.

Instant digital payment transfers have spiked for all banking customers. The Association of Banks in Singapore said 34.4 million PayNow transactions - instant payments using mobile phone numbers - were made from January to last month, nearly double last year's figure.

PayNow Corporate transaction numbers - payments received by organisations - went up five times from 600,000 to three million in the same timeframe.

Also, half a million migrant workers now have bank accounts.

Employers set up these accounts to pay salaries as physically contacting these workers was not possible after Singapore entered circuit breaker mode on April 7, requiring many businesses and schools to shut down and most people to work and study from home.


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Last month, DBS added 41,000 new POSB savings accounts for migrant workers - more than three times the usual monthly sign-ups of 11,000 to 13,000. It has made the registration process fully online, with no minimum deposit required.

As of the end of last month, the total number of POSB bank accounts belonging to migrant workers swelled to 500,000, about two-thirds of the work permit holders in Singapore, excluding foreign domestic workers.

2. Working from home the new norm

Working from home, once for the privileged few, is now the norm for the majority of office workers.

At the height of the circuit breaker, only about 17 per cent of Singapore's workforce commuted to work as they were in essential services.

Some workers might have struggled initially with cyber-security settings on laptops to dial into their office networks, or setting up videoconferencing calls involving multiple parties.

 
 

Having adapted to these now, some 90 per cent of employees here wish to continue working from home in some capacity, a survey by employee engagement and performance software provider EngageRocket found. It was based on responses from more than 8,800 people as of last Friday.

Three out of five respondents also said they take less or the same amount of time to achieve the same productivity as when they are working in the office.

The ability to work from home will be a new and important perk in the ongoing talent war even after the pandemic blows over.

This will force employers to find ways to bolster productivity such as issuing laptops instead of desktops, and offering resources such as printers and accessories, firewalls and more reliable broadband connections.

3. Massive home-based learning pilot

Studying at home went through a large-scale pilot for about a month from April 8 to May 4 when primary, secondary, pre-university and special education schools closed, and students turned to e-learning.

Teachers' appetites for technology vary, resulting in some students experiencing uncoordinated online delivery of lessons across Ministry of Education (MOE) schools and even within the same school.

Some teachers went through the motions by assigning online homework to students on the MOE-backed Student Learning Space without teaching or going through corrections. Others required paper worksheets to be scanned and uploaded onto hastily created shared storage platforms such as Google Drive for marking.

These are kinks to be ironed out.

 
 
 

The more progressive teachers created videos of themselves going over concepts and commonly made mistakes, and shared the link to these videos with their students.

They provide a model for other teachers when schools reopen on June 2 after a month-long holiday.

More importantly, there is a need for coordinated pedagogical planning as half the lessons for most students will be home-based when schools reopen.

Home-based learning should not be an afterthought any more. Done right, Singapore's home-based learning system can offer the Republic a competitive advantage. Opportunities lie in redesigning courses meant for the physical classroom to suit online platforms, and infusing ways to maximise student engagement.

4. Small enterprises dip toes in digital ocean

Many enterprises experimented with digital modes of sales during this pandemic.

Many old-school hawkers - who saw takings plunge by up to 90 per cent when the dine-in ban kicked in on April 7 - are joining Facebook groups such as Hawkers United - Dabao 2020.

The page was started by duck rice seller Melvin Chew to help fellow hawkers promote and sell their food online. It has more than 260,000 members, including many food lovers who scour the posts to order food directly from the hawkers, typically over WhatsApp.

 
 
 

A related Facebook group dubbed Delivery United, which has 5,400 members, was set up last month to connect delivery drivers with hawkers.

The simple Facebook page connects hawkers directly with customers, bypassing delivery platforms such as Deliveroo and Foodpanda, which charge commissions of about 30 per cent. Hawkers say they cannot afford such commissions, given their low profit margins.

About 230 hawkers are also using an order form dubbed Take.sg, created by a software engineer at Facebook, to help hawkers organise orders received via WhatsApp. Take.sg also has a distance calculator to help stall owners quote delivery prices to customers.

Help is also available for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) going digital. A mobile commerce tool by Nanyang Polytechnic's Singapore Institute of Retail Studies, payment services firm Nets and mobile payment firm SCash aims to help more than 2,000 SMEs set up their e-stores.

In a potentially significant move, Facebook is letting businesses set up free storefronts on its social network and Instagram, with payment options on the cards.

5. Tele-everything

Telemedicine is more common now, as people avoid visiting clinics because of fears about Covid-19.

Daily calls from patients here to licensed telemedicine providers such as MaNaDr, WhiteCoat, Doctor Anywhere and MyDoc have shot up - by up to five times for some providers.

 
 
 

Via these platforms, patients can consult doctors from the safety of their homes, receive e-medical certificates and have medicine delivered to their doorsteps.

More public services have also gone online. A Bill was passed in Parliament earlier this month to allow couples wanting to tie the knot to solemnise their marriages via a video link. The first couple here to tie the knot via a video link did so yesterday.

Court hearings are also being held remotely via teleconference and videoconference for the first time.

6. Robots invade public space

Robots have been unleashed for all kinds of tasks at no better time than this, when humans must minimise contact with one another.

The Spot robot dog has been patrolling Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to remind people about safe distancing since early this month.

Originally developed by American company Boston Dynamics, Spot has been enhanced by GovTech with remote control, 3D-mapping and semi-autonomous operations as part of the trial.

The four-legged robot is on trial too at the Changi Exhibition Centre community isolation facility to deliver essential items such as medicine to patients.

 
 
 
 

Last month, an autonomous robot known as O-R3 was deployed in Bedok Reservoir Park by national water agency PUB as a safe distancing ambassador.

There are plans to use more robots to patrol more parks and reservoirs.

Hundreds of disinfection and cleaning robots are also being rolled out in shopping malls, transport hubs and healthcare institutions to lessen front-line workers' exposure to the coronavirus.

Drones, which have already been used for building and park inspection, are being used to deliver goods for the first time in Singapore.

Last month, Singapore's first drone delivery service started, with the first parcel containing 2kg of vitamins dropped onto a ship anchored off Marina South Pier. It was part of a one-year deal inked between shipping giant Eastern Pacific Shipping and Singapore start-up F-drones.

In an interview with Money FM 89.3 last month, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said the ongoing crisis has made more businesses see the value of digitalisation.

The closure of many traditional bricks-and-mortar shops - more than 8,600 closed down permanently last month, the highest monthly figure in years - is a grim reminder that time is a luxury few can afford now.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic hastens Smart Nation drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe