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Singapore pushes digitalisation to aid economic recovery

4 June 2020: The Singapore government has announced a new ‘Digital Office’ to help with further digitalisation of the economy and support the post-COVID recovery.

This new agency will focus particularly on helping older people and small businesses access digital services. 1,000 ‘Digital Ambassadors’ will be tasked with holding training sessions with senior citizens on the use of digital tools, and helping small retailers, such as market-stall holders, adopt digital payments systems.

One key feature of the COVID-19 crisis has been the enormous growth in the use of digital technologies to support home working, e-commerce, health and other public services. However, this has also highlighted the digital divide that exists in all countries between those that can and cannot access digital technologies. Typically, the ‘digitally excluded’ include older people, disabled people and those from very poor or deprived backgrounds.

It is often assumed that everyone in more advanced economies has access to the internet. However, this is not the case at all. In the UK in 2018, for example, 10% of adults, or 5.3 million people, were classified as non-internet users. Likewise, Singapore may have good digital infrastructure and high smartphone penetration, but there are still many barriers to citizens making using of digital services, such as lack of skills or confidence, lack of trust or language barriers.

Digital exclusion has been a problem for a long time, and the gap between digital haves and have-nots has come down substantially around the world. However, there are clear risks that progress could be lost without a proper focus on it from governments. With a growing push towards cashless payments, digital health and government and home working as a result of the crisis, the impact of digital exclusion will grow. It will also be difficult for governments and essential services such as banking to reach their full digital potential if significant groups in society don’t feel able to use them.

Kirstin Gillon, from ICAEW’s Tech Faculty said: “This is a really interesting initiative from Singapore because it focuses on two groups that have traditionally been very hard to reach, digitally speaking – older people and micro businesses. However, if we are to deliver the benefits from more digitalisation of society and the economy, it is essential to help these groups get online. It will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit as part of their recovery plans.”