During the budget debate speech in Parliament earlier today (27 Feb), MP for Jalan Besar GRC Professor Yaacob Ibrahim argued that communication is essential in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure that all Singaporeans are informed and updated. This is crucial, and because of the lack of it, Singaporeans had to rush and stock up food items during a fateful weekend.
The MP recounted, “During SARS there was no social media. Today, we are inundated by news of all sorts from various platforms and from friends and strangers alike.”
In such an environment, as information is constantly being updated and shared, Prof Ibrahim questioned how would Singaporeans trust the Government, especially when it comes to informing the public on what needs to be done during a critical period.
“Rumours and misinformation about the lack of supplies helped fuel senseless hoarding. This shows a lack of trust” he said.
Another issue concerning the people’s trust in the government is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). To Singaporeans, Prof Ibrahim said that POFMA is being used to stifle dissent and to serve the Government’s own agenda.
The politician explained that he is familiar with the notion as he recalls a time in 2013 when he was the Minister for Communications and there was a move to license online news websites.
According to the MP, several internet groups alleged that this move would put a stop to diverse voices on the internet. However, this proved to be wrong as the licensing did not silence the voices of dissent, and many of these internet groups flourished.
Prof Ibrahim reiterated that there is a need for responsible behaviour on the internet, especially when it involves the lives of many Singaporeans.
In this context, he added, “The government will need to build trust in doing what is right for our people, even though it means spending significant resources over a long term period to benefit future generations.”
Digitalisation and protecting data privacy
Touching on the issue of digitalising the economy and society, the MP observed that the government’s decision to place closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) on void decks has gained the trust of the people.
Overall, Singaporeans believe that these cameras are placed to ensure their safety and security. “People trust that our government is using the data captured for good,” he noted.
The MP brought this into comparison with places such as San Francisco, where citizens have voted against having videos in public places.
For the digitalisation efforts to succeed, Prof Ibrahim emphasized that there is a need for the element of trust to prevail, and that the data obtained should solely be used for developing useful services for the public.
In his debate, Prof Ibrahim tossed some important questions such as, “Can our government protect us from being manipulated by the big tech giants? Can we trust our government to use our personal data for the benefit of all Singaporeans and not some political agenda?”
“These are questions of trust brought about by the use of technology in our everyday lives”, the MP explained.
Proposal for an independent Digital Commission
The MP also pointed out that Singaporeans have shown great trust in their public institutions – such as hospitals, schools, the judiciary, and security agencies – as they are “well-managed, staffed by capable and competent people, and are known to deliver fair and good outcomes”.
Apropos the ethics involved in artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of machine learning, the MP proposed the creation of an independent “Digital Commission” which would consider the concerns of protecting privacy of Singaporeans from all sides dispassionately.
“So I raise these questions and concerns out of belief that continuing digitizing of our economy and society, is a good thing. But I cannot avoid the nagging concerns of privacy and transparency that digitization will bring. If we do not deal with this early, the trust in government can be eroded,” Prof Ibrahim said.
Winding up the debate, Prof Ibrahim recalled that he became a member of the house on 2 January 1997, and that this is his 24th year as an MP. He thanked all past and present parliamentary staff who worked with him, for this was an “opportunity of a lifetime to be able to serve the people of Singapore as an elected Member of Parliament”.
In that note, Prof Ibrahim concluded that he supports the budget statement.