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How Covid-19 has spotlighted the “digital outcasts” in Singapore

Anthea Ong said that because of the lack of internet resources throughout the country, it has left a great divide for ‘disadvantaged groups’

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In a commentary written for CNA, Anthea Ong shared her views on the ongoing issues Singapore is facing in this new digital age. She said that due to the crisis, Singapore has been forced to do everything online in all aspects of life – including learning, working and basically just staying connected with the rest of the world.

But Ms Ong also said that because of the lack of internet resources throughout the country, it has left a great divide for those ‘disadvantaged groups’ which she calls in her own words, “.”

The journalist explained that if Singapore doesn’t find a way to move forward in advancing towards becoming a ‘Smart Nation,’ then the country is going to find itself with a much deeper “digital divide in our society,” she added.

She went on to disclose three important questions she believes needs to be addressed in order for Singapore to reach these said goals. They are, “How deep is the digital divide in Singapore? What factors contribute to the divide? And what solutions can we consider?”

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Ms Ong cited that the most recent Household Expenditure Survey from 2017/2018 that was released showed “only 81 per cent of resident households have a personal computer, and only 87 per cent have internet access.”

This leaves a deficit of at least one household out of every 10 that does not have any access to the internet or ways to access the internet. Meanwhile, she also says that only 45 per cent of those living in smaller 1-2 room HDB flats have internet access compared to the 96 per cent of families living private flats and condominiums.

She also explained that only 31 per cent of those living in 1-2 room HDB flats own personal computers, unlike the 95 per cent of households in the exclusive flats and condominium homes.

Basically, the numbers show that at least five in 10 households in the HDB flats do not have access to either a personal computer or internet access. These issues have already proved difficult for the home-based learning (HBL) methods that have been put in place since the health crisis began and the circuit breaker measures were implemented.

To address the lack, the Ministry of Education () was able to loan around 20,000 devices, such as tablets and laptops, to those that need it for HBL options. Other local groups, such as Engineering Good, provided another 2,600 laptops to help the cause, as well as lending SIM cards and WiFi dongles to families that also need them.

In spite of this, it was found that a lack of hardware isn’t the only problem. Others from lower-income families, as well as those dealing with other hardships, also struggle with with computer literacy issues. Despite having the hardware and programmes to use, many households still struggle because they don’t know how to use these gadgets in the first place, leaving many of the children behind in their learning.

Add to this those citizens that are considered PWD or persons with disabilities, whom according to Society Staples, also lack the ability to work from home (WFH) as they don’t have the necessary skill set to do so.

The writer also mentioned that back in 2006, the Singaporean government had promised to put their iN2015 Masterplan in place, which stated that “every household with a school-going child would own a personal computer by 2015.” But because the plan didn’t push through, Singapore lost the opportunity to become a Smart Nation by 2014, as well as have a Digital Readiness Blueprint by 2018.

Ms Ong also mentioned in the article that the government came up with another plan called the NEU-PC Plus Scheme back in 2006. This scheme was meant to offer students and PWDs from lower income homes the option to get personal computers combined with at least three years of free internet. At least 40,000 families benefitted from this, but there were a number of reasons why it still wasn’t enough to answer all the issues on the ‘digital divide.’

And even when the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and attempted to enhance the scheme by working directly with children in schools, many students were still too afraid to take these lent devices home in case they accidentally broke or lost them. Other options in the plan were to allow children to use their facilities at school, but students were also scared to go to school due to fear of getting infected with the virus.

Source: Screenshot from YouTube / Edutopia

That’s why the writer explained that in the end, given all the problems and gaps within the government’s plans, the best option to deal with this is to eventually “give every family good internet connection and every child a personal computer.”

The new proposal of the MOE is that by the year 2024, “every Secondary 1 student will have a tablet, a laptop, or a chromebook.”

So how does Ms Ong propose that the country move towards the proper solution to what she also calls the “digital inclusion for SGUnited”? By the Ministry of Communications and Information () being dedicated to pushing through with the Digital Readiness Blueprint, whose purpose is to ensure that all Singaporeans will be technologically ready, despite any problems or issues due to their “income or current IT abilities.”

To see her comprehensive suggestions, click on this link: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/covid-19-has-revealed-digital-divide-literacy-singapore-12783252

In order to get the country completely ready and ‘digitally able’ it needs to come out with a Digital Adequacy Framework that will be beneficial to all Singapore citizens, regardless of capabilities, living status, job descriptions, income, or special needs or requirements.

In the end, the only way Singapore will come out united, especially while the Covid-19 crisis continues to wreak limitless havoc throughout the world, is to strengthen and firmly establish the digital issues the country needs to successfully move forward.

For Ms Ong, her message is loud and clear, “Our clarion call for SGUnited must surely be a Singapore that is digitally resilient and united.” / TISG

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