A Digital Chasm

The Fourth Industrial revolution is characterised by a host of disruptive and innovative technologies that blurred the line between the digital and physical world (Schwab, 2016). In Singapore, ride-hailing services such as Grab, Tada, Ryde and Kardi provide ease of access to private transport. Food delivery services such as Foodpanda, Deliveroo and GrabFood bring food to customers islandwide. Self-service kiosks are now a common sight across fast-food chains. A society that transacted in cash and cheques now does the same thing with the wave of a phone. Carousell connects buyers and sellers all over Singapore. In industries everywhere, agile startups challenge existing titans with new ways of serving customers (Dodgson, Gann, Wladawsky-Berger & George, 2013).

As Singapore transits into a digital society with technological advances spearheading swift changes in all aspects of life, it is imperative that citizens remain resilient in the face of great and often unrecognisable adjustments. Here, the government plays an active role in helping the disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Singapore who may have little to no access to these technologies or relevant knowledge to use such platforms (Tham, 2018). The government provides assistance through several initiatives and funds to shape the behaviour of citizens in adopting digital literacy skills and inculcate a disposition towards using digital technologies in daily life.

The proliferation of digital technology fundamentally altered how society functions at an unprecedented pace, impelling digitally illiterate citizens to keep up with the rapid transformation of society or risk being left behind.

The Digital Efficacy

The Silver Infocomm Initiative (SII), launched in 2007, aims to promote IT literacy and awareness to seniors aged 50 and above. Started in 2007 with only an attendance of 360, the “Silver IT Fest” now garners an annual attendance of over 5,000. In 2015, it registered over 11,000 attendees. This week-long event was held at four different locations around Singapore for ease of access. An “Intergenerational IT Bootcamp” aims to build stronger bonds between seniors and their grandchildren. Schools collaborated with iDA to co-host 145 boot camps, training nearly 3,000 seniors in learning IT skills from their children or students since its inception (iDA Singapore, 2016).

Furthermore, a “Digital Inclusion Fund” set up in 2014 by the Singapore government aims to target low-income families “without school-going children” and help them access the internet and its associated benefits (TODAY, 2014). These programs target the older, typically digitally-illiterate citizens and strive to empower them with practical knowledge in using modern applications.

Citizens such as Ng Ah Hoon, a retiree, complimented the Silver Infocomm Junction (SIJ) initiatives and added that the program benefits seniors such as herself in picking up IT skills and staying digitally relevant. 31 SIJs across Singapore bring together seniors who wish to engage with IT and technology, and senior volunteer trainers who themselves belong to the Silver Generation. These initiatives not only bridge the digital divide but also promote healthy active ageing for seniors (Nair, 2019). Over 80,000 seniors benefitted from the SIJ courses.

These measures point to a digital future where societal participation necessitates the owning and interaction of smart devices on a personal, national and global level. In China, the smartphone is now used more often than the desktop computer (Dodgson et al., 2013). The same scenario presents itself in Singapore, with the republic boasting the highest global percentage of smartphone penetration (TODAY, 2015). The parallels between the small nation of Singapore and economic-heavyweight China run deep within both societies. China’s foray into a cashless society sparked concerns about the poor being unable to participate in an economy that transacts digitally (Zhong, 2018). Yet, the cashless revolution pushes on in China. Mobile applications such as Alipay and WeChat enable electronic payments for a total of $451 billion in transactions in 2017 (Yuan, 2018). That scale is unprecedented and not only generates data for further analysis into consumer behaviour, it also raises privacy concerns.

In this regard, Singapore can learn from China’s national push for adoption and expansion of financial services and how the country uses technology to enable greater convenience for its citizens. Prime Minister Lee commented on the obsolescence of cash in Chinese cities, adding that “debit and credit cards are becoming rare”. For Singapore to adopt a digital economy, it must first solve the fragmentation issues plaguing the electronic payments ecosystem. Concurrently, the government must also ensure that the privacy rights of its citizens are taken care of, even as the digital infrastructure is laid out.

Lee also stated that electronic payment systems are being simplified and integrated to streamline Singapore’s transformation into a “Smart Nation” (Kwang, 2017). This points to  

Literature Review

Common themes explored in the literature are mobile payments, technological disruption and a potential increase in societal inequality. Dodgson, Gann, Wladawsky-Berger and George (2013) honed in on “digital money” with the belief that it can be used to address issues of “marginalisation and deprivation” in the global economy. Their report acknowledges largely positive societal transformation as a direct result of technological advances and innovation with the smartphone leading the way in bridging the digital and physical world.

Schwab (2016) states a compelling case for governments and its people from the private and public sector in working together to embrace the technological transformation. He mentions the change in these times as having no precedent in their speed and scope, disrupting entire industries at a pace never before seen. Economists cautioned that this revolution may spur greater inequality and social tensions.

In Singapore, government engagement can be seen in local initiatives with the Silver Infocomm Initiative as a prime example. Nair (2019) reports on the case of senior citizens in bridging the digital divide, showcasing digitally competent seniors training their peers. Kwang (2017) writes that Prime Minister Lee has acknowledged that though Singaporeans are digitally literate, China instead leads the digital arena where e-payments are concerned. 

Across all sources, the literature paints the inevitability of a digital future and raised concerns about take care of the digitally illiterate and marginalised communities who may stand to lose out further; lest they be shut off from this new global economy.

References

Dodgson, M., Gann, D., Wladawsky-Berger, I. & George, G. (2013, June). From the Digital Divide to Inclusive Innovation: The Case of Digital Money. 1-17. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School Of Business. Retrieved from http://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/lkcsb_research/4726

iDA Singapore. (2016, March). FACTSHEET: Silver Infocomm Initiative. iDA Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.imda.gov.sg/-/media/imda/files/inner/about-us/newsroom/media-releases/2016/0329_seniors-and-students-foster-new-bonds-through-it-bootcamp/2—silver-infocomm-initiative-factsheet-mar-2016.pdf?la=en

Kwang, K. (2017, August). National Day Rally: Singapore to go bigger on e-payments with PayNow, common QR code. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/national-day-rally-singapore-to-go-bigger-on-e-payments-with-9140068

Nair, S. (2019, January). When it comes to digital skills, age is just a number. IMDA. Retrieved from https://www.imda.gov.sg/infocomm-and-media-news/buzz-central/2017/6/when-it-comes-to-digital-skills-age-is-just-a-number

Rui, Z. (2018, September). China Can’t Afford A Cashless Society. Foreign Press. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/11/china-cant-afford-a-cashless-society/

Schwab, K. (2016, January). The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/

Tham, I. (2018, May). Digital Readiness Blueprint to ensure no one is left behind in Smart Nation plans. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/digital-readiness-blueprint-to-ensure-no-one-is-left-behind-in-smart-nation-plans

TODAY. (2014, April). S$8m digital inclusion fund to help poor get access to Internet. TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/s8m-digital-inclusion-fund-help-poor-get-access-internet

TODAY. (2015, February). Smartphone penetration in Singapore the highest globally: Survey. TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/smartphone-penetration-singapore-highest-globally-survey

Yuan, Y. (2018, July). Why millennials are driving cashless revolution in China. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/539e39b8-851b-11e8-a29d-73e3d454535d