Speech by MOS Tan Kiat How at the Debate on the President’s Address
Sep 3, 2020
Building Our Home On The Internet – A Safer And Kinder Online Community For All
Introduction: Pace of Digitalisation is Accelerating
Mr Speaker Sir, I rise in support of the motion.
Danger Lurks at Every Corner of the Internet
Many members in the house have spoken about the importance of seizing opportunities in a digital age, and the tremendous positive benefits that it brings.
Even as we ride the wave of the digital revolution, we need to bear in mind that technology is a double-edged sword – there can be also significant negative consequences.
I will speak today on how we can minimise the downside while we seek and strive to maximise the upside, how we can safely navigate cyberspace when there is danger lurking at every corner, and how we can come together to build a safer, kinder and more caring online community for all.
Let me first share a few stories. Names have been changed to protect their identity.
Mdm Tan, who is in her 70s, recounted to a Digital Ambassador in my constituency that she had received a seemingly legitimate SMS asking for her bank details urgently, threatening to freeze her bank account otherwise. Fearful of the consequences, she hurriedly replied. Just like that, she was scammed of more than $10,000, a substantial part of her life savings.
Seniors are not the only victims. 15-year old Joyce had what she thought was an innocent online friendship with a supposedly 18-year-old boy. This turned into one of manipulation, where he threatened to harm himself unless Joyce fulfilled his requests – even for nude photos. Though the relationship has since ended, the episode left her struggling to trust the people around her.
Mr Speaker, the impact on the physical, mental, and financial well-being of victims and their loved ones are real and lasting. Mr Ong, another East Coast resident, shared with me a harrowing experience. Inappropriate photos of his daughter were downloaded from her phone without consent and circulated online. Though police reports were made, the social media platform was slow to respond, and the photos stayed online. His daughter was traumatised and even contemplated suicide. The family felt extremely helpless, not knowing what to do and who to turn to.
These stories are not isolated cases. A 2018 survey commissioned by Mediacorp’s Talking Point showed that three out of four youths between the ages of 13 and 19 have been bullied online. Very few told their parents. Based on a study by Microsoft in 2019, two in three Singapore youths between the ages of 13 to 17 have encountered at least one form of online risk, including exposure to unwanted sexual content. Online scams doubled in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period last year. There were almost 8,000 scams, with a staggering $103m cheated. Seniors are vulnerable, with those aged 55 and above making up almost half of all victims of Inheritance Scams and Tech Support Scams in this same period.
Societies All over the World are Grappling with These Challenges
This is not unique to Singapore. Countries around the world are also grappling with these challenges.
New Zealand criminalised serious instances of online bullying and harassment and appointed an organisation “NetSafe” to act as the first port of call to investigate and resolve complaints on online harm. For example, NetSafe liaises with website hosts and Internet service providers to take down harmful content through persuasion and mediation.
Australia set up an Office of the eSafety Commissioner, a dedicated agency that was empowered to investigate and take action against perpetrators, by issuing warnings, requesting websites to remove harmful material, or seeking a civil penalty order in Court.
In South Korea, the government itself operates a ‘Digital Sexual Crime Victim Support Centre’. This one-stop centre provides counselling services, liaises with websites to delete harmful content, and refers victims to pro-bono legal services. Importantly, victims and their loved ones know that they are not alone in their darkest hour of need.
Each society has an obligation to protect its citizens. We too have a duty to keep Singaporeans safe from online harm.
My Vision for a Safe and Kind Online Community
Singaporeans are proud that we have one of the safest streets in the world. We let our children and loved ones walk freely around the neighbourhood, and we trust they have pleasant interactions.
Likewise, we must also strive to build a safe and kind online space – one marked with care and respect, where everyone including our children and our seniors can interact freely without constantly looking over their shoulders, looking for perpetrators and predators.
A few days ago in this house, Mdm Rahayu spoke passionately about building a kind and compassionate society, both online and offline. This is a worthy goal. We must act now and decisively, and not wait till it is too late.
Building on a Good Foundation
We are building on a good foundation. Our content classification regime protects our young from harmful or unsuitable materials, while ensuring the rest of us access the whole wide range of content. The recently formed Inter-Ministry Committee on Scams coordinates efforts across the Government to tackle scams. The Protection from Harassment Act, or POHA for short, was enhanced in 2019 to allow authorities to better respond to emerging online trends, such as by criminalising the act of doxxing.
We also educate Singaporeans on online harm. MOE’s Cyber Wellness education teaches students to recognise risks in the digital space, identify negative influences and navigate online spaces safely. The National Crime Prevention Council raises awareness on online scams through a WhatsApp broadcast channel and they run an anti-scam helpline.
Yet, despite these efforts, we are only playing catch up, for a few reasons.
First, cyberspace evolves rapidly. A few days ago, Ms Tin Pei Ling spoke about the immense popularity of the TikTok video sharing platform. Each emergent platform – be it Instagram or TikTok – brings with it new challenges. This requires us to be nimble and adaptable.
Legislation and Government efforts by themselves are insufficient. Multiple stakeholders need to be involved and each given a stake in this effort. The Government can set out the broad approach to develop regulations, code of practices and norms, but we need ground-up initiatives to experiment with various approaches to meet the needs of our citizens. If they are successful, we can scale up these initiatives.
Three Steps We Can Take to Build a Safe and Kind Online Community
With these considerations in mind, let me propose three steps on how we can achieve this – how we can Step Forward, Step Up and Step In.
Step Forward – Government Agency to Step Forward to Champion and Coordinate Efforts
First on Stepping Forward, the Government plays a critical role in this multi-stakeholder approach. It sets the tone and brings the right parties together. Today, no single agency bears the responsibility of preventing and mitigating online harm. Correspondingly, different government agencies grasp different aspects of the issue: MOE – cyberwellness education in schools, MCI – digital literacy for seniors and media literacy for young adults, MSF – counselling and support for victims through voluntary welfare organisations, and MCCY – youth mental well-being. Consequently, we do not fully understand the shape of the elephant, much less tame the beast. This approach must change, so that we can adapt to the growing complexity of the problem.
We need a government agency to step forward and develop a citizen-centric perspective on this issue. Like its overseas counterparts, this agency should champion and coordinate the government’s efforts in this area and take the lead in assembling a multi-stakeholder response.
This agency should work with a panel of experts so that we can think about this matter holistically, ensure that we keep abreast of global developments, and stay on top of this issue. Mental health professionals and academics can help us make sense of the social and psychological dynamics of the online space. Community partners can help us understand the impact on vulnerable groups, and what kind of support they need. Educators and pedagogy experts can study and share best practices on how schools can facilitate learning on these topics. Industry representatives can advocate for the role of the private sector in working with us to build a safer and kinder online space.
This panel can be empowered to make recommendations on how to prevent these harms and provide timely help to the victims. This could include proposals to strengthen current legislative and enforcement levers, or even establish new ones.
Step Up – Supporting Different Stakeholders to Step Up and Play a Bigger Role
But the Government’s role is only one part of the solution, which brings me to my next point: we need every stakeholder group to step up and take action.
To the private sector, my appeal to you is “Starting safe is half the battle won”. It is in a firm’s interest to do so – a safe customer, is a loyal customer. I will touch on two aspects on how corporates can contribute.
First, companies that deliver digital services should be more thoughtful in the design of their products. They should adopt the concept of “Safety by Design” and embed safety features from the outset, as part of the design process. Today, cars and consumer appliances need to meet safety standards before they are allowed into the market. Similarly, we should consider ways on how we can give users a sense of assurance in the online space.
There are some early efforts, and areas we can further explore in Singapore. Banks are exploring monitoring elderly customers’ accounts to spot irregular transactions so they can be alerted in time. Seniors may also be given the option to disallow cross border remittances made through their e-banking service. Caller ID can be a first line of defence for seniors to spot scam calls. For instance, the plus sign is now prefixed to all incoming international calls, to combat spoof calls from overseas. This is a good step and more can be done. Perhaps Telcos can consider maintaining a common database of blacklisted numbers and block incoming calls from these numbers, and also consider making many of these functions easily accessible for all seniors. In fact, just this morning, there was a Forum Letter on this very issue in the Straits Times. E-commerce platforms can also better safeguard its customers by implementing measures such as escrow accounts to reduce e-commerce scams.
Keeping customers safe online should not be an afterthought or treated just as the customer helpdesk’s problem. Management needs to take ownership. I commend many responsible companies that are adopting such a mindset and I encourage many more to do so too. It is the right thing to do, and it makes business sense.
Second, social media platforms can step up to detect and resolve online harm issues early, as well as raise awareness on these issues. Nip the issues early in the bud, before irreparable harm is done.
Platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have existing functions for reporting content, comments, or accounts. They can work with the appointed government agency on how we can better use these tools to combat cyberbullying and cybergrooming.
Facebook has piloted programmes with TOUCH Cyber Wellness to equip seniors to use technology safely, and workshops with school counsellors on how to talk about cyberbullying in the classroom.
Singapore has a stellar reputation for trust globally. It is a win-win outcome for us and the social media platforms if they can do more in Singapore, and set the benchmark for the rest of the world.
To parents, my appeal to all of us, would be that “Staying safe online starts at home.” This was the advice that a group of secondary school girls that initiated ‘Project Bluetick’ shared with me. The team started off with a very simple objective to raise awareness amongst their peers and encourage them to ‘bluetick’ uncomfortable online messages – ‘bluetick’ which is to read the messages, ignore these messages, and report the user.
However, they soon realised that the key group that needed education were the parents. One parent signed up for the cybergrooming workshop thinking that it was online courses on how to improve their kid’s appearance!
The girls shared with me how important it was for parents to provide a safe space at home, where children can seek advice or help without fear of being judged.
So to all parents, I humbly call upon all of us to also step up, to better understand the dangers of online harm, and to create such an environment where we and our children can speak freely, heart-to-heart.
Step In – Everyone to Step In and Be Part of a Movement
I spoke about how the Government can step forward, and how key stakeholder groups can step up. Finally, we need everyone to step in and be part of a national movement to build a safer and kinder online community.
We must foster a culture of inclusiveness where we make technology accessible; we must foster a culture of kindness where we respect each other like we do in real life; and a culture of safety so that our seniors and children can learn and enjoy the Internet without fear.
The Singapore Kindness Movement started in 1997, building on the National Courtesy Campaign. Many of us, even the young kids I spoke to, fondly recall the iconic ‘Singa the Lion’, the face of this campaign since 1982.
Perhaps it is timely for us to have a new national movement under Singapore Together for the online space. A new movement to rally passionate individuals and groups, and channel their energy and enthusiasm into taking action that would make a difference to society.
A good example is “Flag, You’re It!”, an initiative by a group of NTU students to campaign against cybergrooming. The campaign encourages youths to flag out uncomfortable or predatory online conversations, and to have candid conversations on such experiences with their loved ones.
They ran a powerful, immersive exhibition at the National Library called “45 minutes in the PreyGround”, where visitors were led to step into the shoes of victims, to understand their experiences of being preyed upon online. I went through the exhibition and it was enlightening and very moving.
I reconnected with them recently. Because of COVID, they have focused their advocacy effort on Instagram, sharing stories of victims and bite-sized infographics and videos. They have reached nearly 40,000 individuals online. They even came up with a card game to encourage conversations amongst friends!
The Government can certainly support this national movement by convening platforms to bring together such like-minded parties, and amplify these ground-up efforts through funding and mentoring support.
Another insight the NTU team shared with me was the importance of peer support, friends looking out for one another. Each of us can step in and be part of this movement. We can spread awareness, offer a listening ear to our friends, or direct those in need to avenues for help and support.
We can also learn how to speak about such issues in a supportive way – to push back against stigmatising such issues and provide a safe space for victims to come forward. Ultimately, kindness starts with each one of us. Put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, think before we click.
Speaker Sir, before I conclude, please allow me to say a few words in Mandarin.
Conclusion – We Need to Act Now, and Work Together
Mr Speaker Sir, Madam President spoke about the need to build a fair and just society. As our world becomes increasingly digitalised, we must also pay attention to how the most vulnerable amongst us not just access, but also navigate the digital space.
My wife and I just had our baby. Isaac will be turning a month old this weekend. He, and other children of his generation, will grow up in a very different world from all of us, where they will spend a large part of their lives in cyberspace.
It is the duty of our generation to do all that we can to make sure that our children and seniors can grow up and grow old in a safe and caring online community. Where there is no digital divide, where our people have the confidence and skills to ride the digital wave, and where, just as they are at ease moving around in the physical neighbourhood, they can have the same peace of mind navigating the digital space.
We need to act boldly and decisively now, before it is too late. So, let us all step forward, step up and step in to be part of this national movement.