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Coming soon: A digital national ID system

SINGAPORE — The Government is looking at introducing a comprehensive digital national identification system that citizens can use for an array of services, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore Central Business District skyline. TODAY file photo

Singapore Central Business District skyline. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — The Government is looking at introducing a comprehensive digital national identification system that citizens can use for an array of services, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. 

He lamented that Singapore is not “going as fast as we ought to” in its Smart Nation drive with scope for improvement in areas such as electronic payment and transportation. 

The current SingPass system is not sufficiently extensive — while used to access Government services, it is neither used in private sector services nor in restructured hospitals, noted Mr Lee. 

“We need a good digital identification service which is reliable … I can sign, I can identify myself, I can access services securely; and I can transact services online,” he said, pointing to Estonia’s electronic ID card as an example. Estonia’s ID card can be used, for instance, as a national health insurance card, proof of identification when logging into bank accounts at home and for digital signatures.

Mr Lee was speaking last Friday (Feb 24) at an annual technology summit, where he addressed innovators and disrupters from 10 countries including the United States, China, India and those in South-east Asia. 

On the role of technology in Singapore, Mr Lee highlighted two other areas for improvement — applying Big Data to transport and a better electronic payment system. “We have not gone as far as we need in order to do cashless payments in hawker centres, in shops, between people,” he said.

He added: “I was complaining to my Permanent Secretaries the other day. The Ministers have lunch once a week together, we pay for our own lunch and there is one Minister in charge of making a collection. We made a great step forward when he said: ‘I do not want to receive cash anymore, please write me cheques.’” 

However, the Permanent Secretaries told him that they were “one step ahead” — they use DBS PayLah!, a mobile wallet developed by DBS Bank which allows users to make fund transfers via a mobile phone number. “It shows how non-pervasive (electronic payment) is and what the potential is if we can get it through,” said Mr Lee.

Similarly, not enough has been done to tap on information technology and data to create a responsive transport system that adapts to demand, and reduces “empty routes and unnecessary services”. “There are big things which we need to do and many small things which we ought to do better,” he said.

While a Smart Nation Programme Office has been set up under the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Lee felt that despite all the pushing, the Smart Nation drive is not progressing fast enough. 

“We are looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate,” he said. “For example, a national sensor network which is linked together and integrated. Whether it is a traffic police network, or whether it is police cameras or the water authority cameras tracking drains or cameras in our housing estates watching lifts and security, you can pull all of the pictures together and get one integrated data source for the whole country.”

Mr Lee reiterated that technology is a “natural area” where Singapore has an advantage. “Because we are a city, we are compact and we are wired up. It is economical for us to provide very high quality infrastructure, and we have people who take to it naturally,” he said. 

Moreover, Singapore has a “rationalist” ethos. “If it makes sense, if it can be done more efficiently, if I can short-circuit the process and cut out the to-ing and fro-ing, I will want to do that. People will support that,” Mr Lee said. 

The Prime Minister noted that the start-up scene in Singapore has livened up. “There are young people in Singapore who are trying things. There are also a fair number of young people who have gone into the Valley in California, who have caught the bug and the enthusiasm, and are not only working in tech companies but also coming out and doing their own start-ups in Silicon Valley. I think that is a very good sign; we would like more to do that,” he said.

He pointed to the Government’s move — following a recommendation by the Committee on the Future Economy — to set up a Global Innovation Alliance that would enable young people to travel abroad and ultimately “be inspired to start their own things”.

While the technical content of start-ups vary — some are meeting new market needs, while others are traditional businesses — that will “sort itself out”, said Mr Lee. “The problem is not a lack of resources from the Government. Really what is needed is the talent, the drive. And we just have to get out of the way and enable you to do that.”

To encourage start-ups, Singapore is creating a pro-business environment and infrastructure, with incubators, venture capitalists and angel investors as part of the ecosystem. 

On the education front, there is a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics “so that we can have people with the technological capability, technical know-how, to go and have these ideas and implement them”, Mr Lee said. Be it via driverless vehicles or personalised medicine, the way forward is with technology, he stressed. “Use it, master it, and make life better for people.”

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