Coronavirus pandemic

Singapore's tech readiness gave it head start amid Covid-19 crisis: Vivian

Groundwork that began 6 years ago has helped Republic to respond quickly to critical needs

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan speaking to The Straits Times in a video interview last Thursday. Singapore's decade-ago investments to bring fibre broadband links to every home have paid off as employees and stu
Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan speaking to The Straits Times in a video interview last Thursday. Singapore's decade-ago investments to bring fibre broadband links to every home have paid off as employees and students have had to work and learn from home to manage the spread of Covid-19.PHOTO: ST VIDEO

Singapore's technology preparedness gave the Republic "a head start" in responding to acute needs when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted earlier this year, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan.

"We were starting, fortunately, from a position of strength and preparation," he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Indeed, Hong Kong-based Deep Knowledge Group's survey of 200 countries and territories released earlier this month ranked Singapore the fourth safest place in the world to live in during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country trailed only Switzerland, Germany and Israel in the survey that looked at quarantine efficiency, monitoring and detection, as well as emergency preparedness.

Singapore owes its current readiness to groundwork that started six years ago with the roll-out of Smart Nation plans that aim to see, among other things, every resident going cashless and transacting online safely and with ease using a national digital identity.

This led to the Government forming its own crack team of data scientists, software coders and engineers, which has now grown to 950 people.

"We've been able to recruit, rebuild a hard core of engineering talent that has enabled the Government now to do in-house many things which it would have had to outsource in the past," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister.

They bang out codes and design solutions to address Singapore's needs.

Most recently, they created an information site maskgowhere.sg in one day and launched it on Feb 1 to allow residents to enter their postal code to check the nearest collection point for the free masks the Government was distributing.

Singapore is also the first in the world to roll out an app to reduce the tracking time of potentially infected individuals who had come into close contact with a Covid-19 patient.

GOING FOR SEAMLESS EXPERIENCE

We are now headed to the age of convergence. Regardless of what device you have, you want to have the same experience, look and feel... and it's a software issue. The Ministry of Education is acutely aware of this, and it's working very hard to have that confluence, so that it will truly be a seamless experience.

MINISTER-IN-CHARGE OF THE SMART NATION INITIATIVE VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, on the digital divide in schools.

Launched in March, the app called TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth radio exchanges to log nearby users, was developed in about two months by GovTech engineers. Since then, dozens of governments in Australia, Britain and some American states have developed similar versions.

Singapore's decade-ago investments to bring fibre broadband links to every home have also paid off as employees and students have had to work and learn from home to manage the spread of Covid-19.

Launched in 2017, PayNow - an instant fund transfer service that maps mobile phone or NRIC numbers to bank account numbers for funds to be credited - has provided the platform for payments to go cashless when the physical handling of coins and notes is viewed as a viral risk.

"We were able to roll out all these things to meet an acute need very, very quickly because all the foundations were in place," said Dr Balakrishnan.

 
 
 
 

Even so, he admitted that several challenges emerged during the circuit breaker period from April 7 to June 1 when children had to adopt home-based learning during the school term.

Some low-income households with three or more school-going children did not have enough subsidised computers or computers on loan. Some children had to do their homework on mobile phones or tablets, but some of the course materials were not designed for access from a tablet or mobile phone.

Nominated MPs Anthea Ong and Lim Sun Sun highlighted the digital divide in Parliament last month.

Dr Balakrishnan said these were "teething issues" and hinted at a pedagogy revamp.

"We are now headed to the age of convergence. Regardless of what device you have, you want to have the same experience, look and feel... and it's a software issue. The Ministry of Education is acutely aware of this, and it's working very hard to have that confluence, so that it will truly be a seamless experience," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore's tech readiness gave it head start amid crisis: Vivian'. Print Edition | Subscribe