Exclusive: Singapore's ‘inclusion first’ policy for digital

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi and Joshua Chambers

Interview with Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister-in-charge of GovTech and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information.

Singapore’s busy MRT train stations echo with the beeps of entryways, the bustle of people with someplace to go, and the odd announcement - always in the four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

The country has to strike a balance in a multi-ethnic society, where “a significant number of our population do not have enough familiarity in English”, says Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister-in-charge of GovTech and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information. This presents a challenge when it comes to digital inclusion, as government digital services are in English.

One of MCI’s key areas for this year is “designing our approach for inclusion, right from the get-go”, Dr Puthucheary says. “Why would you go online if you are not able to have an experience that is relevant to your life, in a language that you can understand and access?” he tells GovInsider.

The language of inclusion

The communication gap becomes apparent when Dr Puthucheary runs Meet the People sessions in his constituency. “We write the letters in English and the agencies reply in English, but sometimes the residents that I met will come back to us just to have the letter translated or explained to them,” he says.

A representative from the agency in question will call or meet these residents to explain in the language or dialect of their choice, but this means that “they have to take an extra step to bring this person into that ecosystem”, Dr Puthucheary notes.

For MCI’s Digital Readiness Workgroup, which includes private and social sector players, it is crucial to identify such people who are digitally excluded - and often, it is “purely about the language or content”. Smart Nation initiatives must be designed in such a way that “we can anticipate everybody getting involved”. “The design, content, language, and the applicability to people’s lives are going to go a long way to making sure we have that inclusion by design,” he says.

The Workgroup is actively rethinking assumptions of “who needs to have the help targeted to”. The elderly and the disabled often come to mind, but in Singapore, the former are “very naturally included”, while the latter are “very significant technology users”, Dr Puthucheary points out.

That is why, for example, Singapore is exploring the use of chatbots in a project called Conversations As A Platform, which will help users navigate government services.

What are the barriers?

The barriers to access and adoption may not be obvious right away. Smartphone penetration in Singapore is at 160%, and most government services are available through smartphones. One of the things to consider, then, is whether there are people who do not smartphones to begin with, according to Dr Puthucheary. For this group of people, governments need to identify, “Is it an issue of cost, familiarity or smartphone design? Is it user-friendly for an elderly person with arthritis?”
“Is it user-friendly for an elderly person with arthritis?”
Another barrier may be people who own traditional hardcopy bank books. It will be difficult for these individuals to access online payment services, Dr Puthucheary continues.

These factors would mean that government services should be available on desktop and mobile, but also in libraries and community centres, where people may access them through public computers, he adds.

Ultimately, Singapore’s Smart Nation push cannot “sub-segment our population”, or be “geographically selective”, Dr Puthucheary notes. “Our solutions and execution cannot be predicated on the basis of ‘the top 30% of earners would be able to access this, and that’ll get us going’, or ‘80% of our population will eventually come on board and that will be sufficient,” he emphasises.

‘Re-engineer and re-architect’ services

It was announced last year that anticipatory services, or Moments of Life, would be one of five immediate areas of focus for Singapore. Personalised services will be ‘pushed’ to people at key events during their lives - births and kindergarten registrations, for example. These services from separate ministries will be accessible on one handy platform.

On the citizen side of things, this would mean “re-imagining the experience and the interface, improving convenience and reducing the time burden for individual families”, Dr Puthucheary says. When registering a new baby, the platform will suggest to the parents four or five other things that they also need done, and they’ll be able to do so right away, he explains.

It also means an opportunity for his Ministry to “re-engineer and re-architect” how services are packaged, which in today’s context, means “designing our systems to be modular rather than monolithic”.

Real personalisation

But “real personalisation” will only be a reality when various Smart Nation components are fully developed, which may take a few more years, according to Dr Puthucheary.

How will personalisation look like when this day comes? It will be when services are interoperable: Singaporeans have full control over their national digital identity, which is in turn linked to epayments and Moments of Life services.
Interoperability is just as important as ‘inclusion by design’. Users will be able to customise their interfaces to say, “I want do XYZ on my phone, I want to do ABC through push emails with a response, and I am reserving 123 on behalf of my parents”, says Dr Puthucheary.

In particular, he is grateful for the “strong element of trust” that Singaporeans have had in digital services and online interactions with government. This, despite recent high-profile cyber attacks and data breaches around the world.

Trust is the foundation to everything that his Ministry is trying to do, Dr Puthucheary concludes. “If we lose that, everything else is not going to go very well. We won't get very far in this Smart Nation vision.”

Dr Puthucheary will be speaking at Innovation Labs World. Register here to join us on 25 September in Singapore.