Closing the Digital Divide: Learnings from COVID-19

Parliamentary Adjournment Motion, 26 May 2020

INTRODUCTION

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the world has changed. The social glue has come unstuck and we are forced online to learn, work, live and stay connected. Yet there are many who are cut off from such access due to lack of internet connectivity, requisite devices or digital literacy. They are not digital natives; they are digital outcasts. Covid-19 has exposed and deepened the digital divide in our society. To achieve an SGUnited Smart Nation, closing this gnawing digital divide must be an urgent priority.

I’m heartened that DPM acknowledged this divide in the Fortitude Budget earlier. In this motion, I will address three questions: How deep is the digital divide? What factors contribute to the divide? And what solutions can we consider?

HOW DEEP IS THE DIGITAL DIVIDE IN SINGAPORE?

Mr. Deputy Speaker, at least 1 in 10 households in Singapore are not plugged into our digital world, according to the Household Expenditure Survey. Only 81% of resident households have a personal computer, and only 87% have internet access [1].

Only 45% of households residing in 1- and 2- room HDB flats have internet access; 31% have a personal computer. Contrast this with 96% and 95% respectively of households living in non-HDB apartments.

These numbers mean that some of us are almost guaranteed to have internet connectivity and a personal computer. But more than 5 in 10 households living in 1- and 2-room HDB flats have no internet access or personal computer.

This is also reflected in the ground realities exposed by Home-Based Learning (HBL). MOE has loaned out an estimated 20,000 devices, including laptops and tablets. A few community groups I personally know, including Engineering Good, have given out more than 2,600 laptops in total. They have also provided Wi-Fi dongles or SIM cards to several families[2].

The bleak picture does not end at infrastructure, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Stories from the ground reveal significant struggle in terms of digital literacy and skills, particularly among (i) low-income households, (ii) the differently-abled, and (iii) seniors.

ReadAble is a community organisation supporting families in rental flat communities. They shared that parents struggle with navigating donated laptops — whether with Zoom or even in-app functions — which compromises their children’s education.

According to Society Staples, a social enterprise working with the differently-abled (PWD) and the Disabled Persons Association, many lower-income PWDs lack equipment, Internet access or the necessary IT skills. It is difficult for them to work from home or participate in society online. This can mean loss of income and opportunities to retrain or learn new skills. They also miss out on maintaining or even expanding connections with family and friends, which increases mental stress and strains existing coping mechanisms, especially for those with psychosocial disabilities.

Cassia Resettlement Team, a community organisation, has had to support many low-income individuals, particularly seniors, who struggle with the digitisation of government services. For example, many of them cannot use SingPass without help. SingPass, as we know, is required to access many such services including checking CPF accounts, which are regularly required to apply for welfare schemes; or checking medical appointments, medical tests results and prescriptions.

In 2006, the Intelligent Nation or iN2015 Masterplan pledged that every household with a school-going child would own a personal computer by 2015. I remember this clearly as I was running my own education technology company then and was very energised by this vision of a digital future which my company also participated in. Sadly, despite this iN2015 ambition, our efforts to become a Smart Nation since 2014 and the Digital Readiness Blueprint released in 2018, we continue to struggle with a deep digital divide in Singapore.

STRUCTURAL ISSUES PERPETUATING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

I would like to highlight two structural issues that perpetuate the digital divide: gaps in government intervention as well as metrics that miss the mark.

Market forces are the key driver of this divide. Today, internet connectivity and personal computers are necessities. But they are still priced beyond the reach of the low-income in our society. This disparity in turn perpetuates further inequality [3].

The Government intervened by introducing the NEU-PC Plus Scheme in 2006, offering students and PWDs from low-income households a new personal computer bundled with three years of free internet connectivity. While it has benefitted more than 40,000 households, the scheme falls short in several ways.

First, it only permitted one laptop per eligible household regardless of household size, increasing to two only last month due to HBL.

Second, the application process is complex and bureaucratic [4].

Third, it is limited in scope, excluding pre-school, home-schooled and university students and adults.

Fourth, it discriminates against PWDs, who only receive a 50% subsidy as compared to 75% for students.

Fifth, under the Home Access scheme, adults have no option to apply for a personal computer, only a tablet or smartphone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I commend and appreciate the civil servants at MOE and IMDA who have worked very hard to resolve digital access issues during this circuit breaker period. IMDA enhanced the NEU-PC scheme. MOE worked with schools to loan out personal learning devices and kept schools open for those who struggled with digital access.

But gaps persist. The device loan programme came with conditions and liability provisions. Community organisation 6th Sense shared that there were families who were too scared to bring those devices home as they would not be able to afford to pay the schools if the devices got lost or broken. Further, the families were rightly worried about going to school and risking COVID-19 infection. One teenage student I know developed severe Covid-related anxiety before HBL began. Why should any child be required to go to school to use IT facilities at the height of a pandemic?

Given these gaps, community organisations found that it made more sense to give every family good internet connection and every child a personal computer.

By personal computer, I mean a laptop or a desktop, and not a tablet. Personal computers, including laptops, are the engines of creativity and productivity. Tablets and smartphones are not enough for work and learning. A child who has to type out an essay on a smartphone or a tablet is not on the same footing as a child with a laptop. Yet some low-income families reported that their children were told to do home-based learning on their mobile phones!

The Minister for Education has said that, by 2024, every Sec 1 student will have a tablet, a laptop, or a chromebook which the DPM just shared that this timeline will be accelerated earlier. I commend the policy intent, but I propose a broader, cross-ministry change in the form of a Digital Adequacy Framework, on which I will elaborate later.

Now, let me move to the gaps in our statistical metrics and KPIs. They do not capture whether every citizen has Internet access commensurate with their needs. In fact, certain classifications obscure infrastructural inadequacy. As they influence and inform policy-making, it is important to get them right.

First, our statistics do not reflect the sufficiency of devices in each household. Instead, they measure the number of households with access to a personal computer, which includes tablets. For example, if a household of seven has one tablet to share between them, they are classified as having access to a personal computer in the home.

Second, our metrics do not measure under-connectivity. Simply owning a personal computer and being connected to Wi-Fi is not the end of the matter. Poor connection or an underperforming hardware creates further obstacles. Xiaoqian, a Sec 2 student, recently shared her home-based learning experience on a public podcast. Before ReadAble provided her with a new laptop, she only had an old laptop at home. I quote — “It will be very slow for me to switch on and I have to wait. I wake up early to switch on the computer to wait for it, but in the end I was late for class because it was still uploading. I wouldn’t have a full lesson.” I am sure we will agree that it is unacceptable in a Smart Nation for a child to receive a deficient education because of faulty hardware.

Third, our KPIs conflate personal computers with other digital devices. This is undesirable for reasons discussed earlier.

If our metrics do not highlight these fault lines, we remain blissfully misinformed of reality and true digital inclusion will continue to elude us.

MOVING TOWARDS DIGITAL INCLUSION FOR SGUNITED

MCI has boldly committed in its Digital Readiness Blueprint that all Singaporeans will be digitally ready, no matter their income or current IT abilities. I support this commitment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and would like to offer some suggestions from the ground regarding enhancements to existing schemes and structural changes.

The NEU-PC Plus Scheme could be further streamlined. The five gaps I mentioned earlier should be plugged. For instance, beneficiaries of various financial assistance schemes could automatically qualify for NEU-PC Plus. For instance, can MSF and MOE work together to ensure that every family with a child on MOE-FAS, or every family supported by ComCare who has a child in school, automatically gains adequate access to a fully subsidised personal computer? Should adults supported under ComCare or residing in HDB rental flats not have the option of receiving a partially or fully subsidised digital device, depending on their income. IT subsidy schemes should include device replacement and customer care.

The scheme should also be broadened immediately to permit applications to benefit all children whether preschool, home-schooled or university students, and adults from low-income families. PWDs should be subsidised equally to students, especially given the changing nature of work post COVID-19.

To reduce the time and resources required to deliver digital devices to families, can we have a Digital Empowerment Voucher (DEV) scheme that combines aspects of the existing Public Transport Voucher and Innovation & Capability Voucher schemes? Families would then get the devices themselves. The vouchers could be stipulated for use only with local SMEs which would directly assist our local enterprises in these trying times.

In terms of a structural rethink to realise the Digital Readiness commitment to provide adequate digital access for those with limited resources, I propose that a Digital Adequacy Framework be considered. Because it’s not enough to just be digitally ready or included, this digital participation must adequately support their learning, work and social connections meaningfully.

Under this Framework, tablets must be decoupled from the definition of “personal computer” across the board for learning and work purposes. We should also view the amount of hardware deemed adequate for each household to be the aggregate of the needs of each member in it. For instance, should every student aged primary 5 and above have their own laptop, considering the MOE’s digital literacy plans for upper primary students? Should younger children have computer access in the home, sharing a personal computer with no more than one other person? The Framework should also fold internet speed, hardware functionality and digital literacy into its analysis to enable meaningful digital participation.

Within this Framework, universal internet access should be provided as a public utility especially for low income households. Can IMDA and HDB work with commercial providers and town councils to ensure that all low-income households have adequate internet connection? For instance, can Wireless@SG be expanded to cover all rental flats in Singapore, and enhanced for sufficient speed much like the ubiquitous WIFI access available in shopping malls?

Finally, the Digital Adequacy Framework should underpin the Digital Readiness Blueprint. To inform and guide its work, meaningful statistics and metrics across more diverse groups should be gathered regularly. Much public policy has been characterised by efficiency, effectiveness and economy, emphasising outcomes that are easily measured, rather than what might be most helpful to measure. In the UK, for example, the Office for National Statistics studies the digital divide across locations, gender, age, income, disability, ethnic groups/language, education and other social and economic determinants of digital inequality. Such information would be helpful to policy design.

CONCLUSION: BEING DIGITALLY UNITED

Mr Deputy Speaker, COVID-19 has spotlighted our deep digital divide and the ‘digital outcasts’ in our midst. Our clarion call for SGUnited must surely be a Singapore that is also digitally united through community digital resilience. I’m glad that DPM also acknowledged this need for resilience through digital inclusion earlier in his speech.

I therefore want to conclude by imploring the Government to ensure that every digital policy design intentionally includes the views and experiences from our vulnerable groups, these digital outcasts. I propose that a Citizen’s Workgroup be established comprising citizens and community groups to complement the Digital Readiness Workgroup made up of leaders in public, people and private sectors. The observations and recommendations outlined in this speech have been the result of consultative and collaborative efforts with, and between, these community groups and citizens.

Like MOH’s commitment that “no Singaporean will be denied appropriate care because of an inability to pay”, the Digital Readiness Blueprint takes the position that “no Singaporean will be denied adequate digital access because of an inability to pay, or use”. I am energised by this vision, Mr. Deputy Speaker. COVID-19 has thrust Singapore into the digital future. We must not leave any citizen in the past.

Thank you.

Notes:

[1]: This differs from IMDA statistics, which suggest that 89% of Singapore’s resident households have computer access in the home, and 98% of households have internet or broadband access in the home. The percentages increase to 98% and 100% respectively for households with school-going children: ANNUAL SURVEY ON INFOCOMM USAGE IN HOUSEHOLDS AND BY INDIVIDUALS FOR 2007. Why the difference in the numbers with Household Expenditure Survey?

[2]: Engineering Good: 1803. 6th Sense + TOUCH and co: about 400. Sgbono: about 400 as of 3 weeks after HBL started. ReadAble: about 40.

[3]: The ISPs charge $40 to $50 per month for Internet connection. Routers, installation and other fees add around another $200 to the cost. A new laptop that will last at least three years costs over $2,000, plus another $500 for warranty. Fibre installation costs nearly $500. For an ordinary household, connecting to the Internet and getting a laptop adds up to a once-off cost of over $3000, with ongoing subscription payments. While new telcos may offer free data plans, these are limited in time, subject to change, and available only to those who hear of them.

[4]: The process involves several stakeholders: Schools, lead agencies, IMDA, vendors, and applicants. Applicants get conflicting information and are pushed between agencies. The application form was almost 12 pages long previously, with some pages containing many text in small print. It has since been shortened and made more user-friendly as of April 2020.Though the application form was simplified last month, the non-FAS version remains too complicated for many non-native English speakers to use without help. Now there are 2 different forms. If the family is already on FAS, it’s actually really simple. just that it’s got a lot of fine print everywhere and looks scary. If they are not on FAS, there are lines to declare income which might put people off, but understandable that those lines are necessary (but can still be simplified). And the fine print is also still there.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store