Singapore mulls national identity system to fully encompass all services

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reveals possible plans for a nationwide system that will enable access to both government and private services, expanding the existing SingPass e-government login account.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore is mulling the possibility of building a national identification system that can be used to access both public and private sector services.

This would expand beyond the functions of SingPass, an existing citizen account used for e-government services, to include access to a wider range of transactions, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was speaking at Sequoia Capital's Camp Sequoia dialogue on Friday.

As a small city, Singapore had been able to rapidly roll out a robust infrastructure and support a highly-connected population, Lee said, adding that the government's smart nation initiative was aimed at further driving technology developments.

"For all our pushing, we really are not going as fast as we ought to," he said. "We are looking at major projects that will make a big different to the way Singapore is able to operate."

For example, a national data sensor network had been integrated to support the country's smart nation initiative, pulling images from various systems to provide a central data source, including police cameras, water-tracking cameras, and CCTVs that had been installed in various residential estates.

The government now was "thinking about a national identity system", the prime minister said. He explained that while citizens currently could access e-government services via their SingPass account, this did not extend to private-sector services a well as hospitals that had been restructured and semi-privatised.

"We need a good digital identification service which is reliable, which everybody can rely on. I can sign, I can identify myself, I can access services securely, and I can transact services online," Lee said, noting that countries such as Estonia already had such systems in place.

He also underscored the need for a robust electronic payment system and added that Singapore still had more to learn from other nations in this aspect. The minister highlighted that the city-state had yet to embrace cashless payments in food centres, shops, and between consumers.

The use of technology and data also could be tapped further to embed intelligence to the country's transport system, so it could be more responsive and efficient in route planning as well as adapt better to demand, he said.

Lee acknowledged the government needed to do more and better bring together incentives to push things along, while urging the need for everyone in the industry to be involved.

He also lauded local startups that set up in global markets and pointed to ways the Singapore government had attempted to provide a conducive environment to nurture young companies, such as making it easy for businesses to set up operations here. It also aimed to build the necessary ecosystem, encompassing incubators and venture capitalists, to support startups as well as adopted an open policy to bringing talent into the community.

Lee said: "The process is not like getting an H1B visa in the United States. [While] it does not mean that there is no wary observation by Singaporeans...we do make ourselves open to talent and that is critical."

Protectionism won't reap benefits of open system

On the wave of protectionism that had emerged in several global markets, he said such sentiments were "understandable" but questioned the true meaning of "economic nationalism", as used by US White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

"I can understand the motive for that, but when you are a big country and you take that approach, I think you lose on the broad benefits of an open system where everybody is able to trade and do business together. That is of great advantage to a country like the United States," Lee noted, adding that much of the US population depended on multilateral trade.

He expressed disappointment over the current state of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, following US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the multi-nation trade agreement, but said the existing member states would continue to pursue free trade with other partners.

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