Is Singapore ready to govern a digital population?

Amidst the country's accelerated digitalisation efforts, and as voters head to the polls, the Singapore government must realise it also needs to transform the way it engages its population, which increasingly will demand answers as more come online along with their personal data.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

As Singapore ramps up efforts to drive digitalisation across the local community, its government will need to transform the way it governs its population, which increasingly will access more information and demand answers as more of their personal data goes online. A change in mindset will also be necessary to ensure policies remain relevant and are truly adapted to a new digital economy and digital population. 

Singapore over the past several years has invested significant resources towards becoming a digital economy, rolling out an ambitious smart nation roadmap, driving the adoption of emerging technologies, and overhauling its own ICT infrastructure

With the global pandemic now adding new impetus to digital transformation, the government has made a concerted effort to drive digital adoption deeper into the business community and local population. 

It established a new office to work alongside the business community and local population to push the "national digitalisation movement". Initiatives would include the deployment of 1,000 "digital ambassadors" to help stallholders and seniors go digital and setting up of 50 digital community hubs across the island to offer one-to-one assistance on digital skills.

A new ministerial committee will also coordinate the country's digitalisation efforts and focus on priorities such as assisting people in learning new skills and galvanising small businesses to go digital. More funds and resources have been further directed to facilitate digital transformation initiatives.

However, amidst the renewed urgency to go digital, the government has seemingly overlooked the need to also review how it engages and governs a population that will increasingly be connected and, as it hopes, digitalised.

Take its recent plans for a COVID-19 contact tracing wearable device, for instance. When news about its development broke, several took to social media platforms to decry the potential invasion of their privacy and an online petition urged the public to reject its use. The outcry prompted the government to reveal more details about the device in hopes of easing privacy concerns, adding that its use would not be made mandatory -- for now, at least. Some 10,000 units of the wearable device have since been distributed to the country's elderly. 

But while it has taken the time to explain its position and development of contact tracing tools, the Singapore government appears less patient when it involves other voices critical of its policies. 

Specifically, it has used the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) against several of its political opponents, issuing five correction directions -- four of which involved politicians or political platforms that opposed the government -- within a month after the legislation kicked in last October. The fifth was issued to Facebook after the author of the alleged falsehood refused to comply with the original correction direction. 

Multiple correction orders were issued this past week alone, as candidates went on their campaign trail for the country's July 10 General Elections. 

In dismissing early concerns POFMA would be used to silence critics of the government, Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said in May last year that similar concerns were raised when the class licensing scheme was introduced under the Broadcasting Act in 1966. But since then, Iswaran had noted, industry regulator Infocomm Media Authority (IMDA) had issued 39 take-down notices or just more than one incident a year, on average. 

So, is there now real cause for Singaporeans to worry about POFMA? This question will be increasingly relevant as the government's digitalisation efforts pick up momentum and more go online and, correspondingly, begin airing their personal thoughts on social media and other online platforms, including statements that might be deemed to be falsehoods.

How many more POFMA directives then may be issued? Will the POFMA Office be able to keep up?

In addition, as more come online along with their personal data, more questions will be asked about why the government needs to collect citizens' personal information, how it plans to use this data, and what recourse will citizens have should their data be breached while in the care of their government

More transparency as well as accountability will be required on the government's part, especially as emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition advance and become real-world reality. Without transparency, there is no trust. And without trust, as the government itself knows, it will be difficult to drive the adoption of technologies such as AI amongst the general population. 

In explaining why trust underpinned everything, whether it was data or AI, Iswaran himself had said: "Ultimately, citizens must feel these initiatives are focused on delivering welfare benefits for them and ensured their data will be protected and afforded due confidentiality."

However, it can be difficult to convince Singaporeans their data is truly protected -- and afforded due confidentiality -- when this data isn't managed under the same Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which safeguards data held by the private sector, when it is used and managed by the public sector

While the government has argued that this exemption is necessary to facilitate the smooth delivery of public services, and that government agencies are still accountable for the protection of citizen data, the fact remains that different laws are applied here. And as far as citizens' personal data is concerned, this optic can stir up public scepticism and distrust -- whether warranted or not. 

In its desire to drive digitalisation nationwide, Singapore's government has to realise a mindset change will also be required in the way it governs and engages its population. 

If it fails to do this, it risks going the way of business transformation plans that neglected the importance of including leadership reform in its change management strategy.

After all, the key word in digital transformation isn't digital, but transformation. 

And the reality is that 70% of large-scale transformation initiatives fail, often due to a lack of employee engagement and insufficient leadership support. Ensuring the long-term success of such projects also requires a major "reset in mindsets and behaviours", something which few leaders are able to achieve, according to a McKinsey report.

The consulting firm underscored the need to "upgrade the organisation's "hard wiring" because a digital environment not only required new ways of working, but also changes to the organisation's overall culture. Leaders, too, needed to let go of old practices such as command-and-control supervision.

For the Singapore government, this may mean recognising that criticism against its policies and officers isn't necessarily a manifestation of a "trial by internet" culture. Sometimes, it simply reflects a desire amongst citizens who genuinely care about the country and want to see the nation correct its wrongs. 

This is further demonstrated by the fact that some of these commentators no longer hide behind the anonymity of the internet and are willing to speak publicly under their true identity. It is reflective of an online community that has evolved and matured, and is deserving of a government that is willing to do the same.

Should the government resist change within its own ranks, it risks alienating its citizens and may end up with a disengaged population. 

In stressing the importance of strong leadership in digital transformation, consulting firm Deloitte states: "It is not enough to simply command that an organisation become more digital. The transformation must be driven by a shift in the leadership culture and people's willingness to adapt and evolve. At a leadership level, this requires individuals who embrace uncertainty, who can connect across boundaries, who can visualise new possibilities, and who can ignite others behind an exciting vision for the future. Looking for these adaptable traits in your leadership is critical to facilitating the organisation's adaptation to disruption."

As its voters head to the polls today, a question begs to be asked: Is Singapore ready for a digital population?


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