We need to make sure lower income households in Singapore don't get forgotten by the push for Smart Nation

They are likely not to use mobile apps or digital services as much, and that is worrying, says contributing editor Aloysius Low

(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)
(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)

A recently released survey highlighted the perceptions of Singaporeans towards mobile apps and digital services. Commissioned by Yahoo Southeast Asia, "The Clicks and Shifts: Yahoo Singapore Digital Study" was conducted by Milieu Insight in February 2024, and examined the habits and perspectives of 1,500 users concerning mobile apps and digital services.

As a millennial, the findings don't particularly surprise me. Cash is slowly fading out among the younger generations, who like me, prefer to use digital payments. Another thing that caught my eye was the fact that our younger generations prefer to use ride-hailing apps, while older folks think it's too expensive.

In fact, I just had this conversation the other day with my wife, who told me how her parents were super reluctant to take a cab, even if we were the ones paying for their ride. It made no sense to us, since it was a matter of convenience and comfort.

But the one result from the survey that stood out the most to me is that those with higher incomes and educational levels are the ones that use digital services and mobile apps more often.

Those with lower household incomes – below $3,000 monthly – use them less frequently. Furthermore, only 55 per cent of those with lower incomes believe that the pace of technology is just right, and less than half (48 per cent) believe that learning and using mobile apps outweighed their challenges and disruptions.

It got me wondering why this is happening.

The limitations of budget smartphones?

Perhaps good smartphones are a luxury item for them, despite the fact that in Singapore, 97 per cent of people own them.

They may have a smartphone, but if it's old and, or laggy, then getting them to use mobile apps or digital service is obviously not a pleasant experience.

This could explain why they would prefer using cash or a more physical option like a token or card, instead of tapping out on their smartphones.

In fact their phones may not even have NFC payment support, or even a digital credit card to use for payment.

If they want to get a better smartphone experience, they would have to pony up around $600 to $800, which is a huge chunk of their monthly income just to get a mid-range phone.

The lowest-end iPhone could be almost half of their monthly income, or more depending on their take home after CPF.

But why not get spend a bit less and get a $200 to $300 budget phone you ask?

Well, for one, these phones may be fine to use for a year, but they will start slowing down a lot faster than a mid- or flagship phone.

That's because they likely use cheaper components for storage, which can slow down as the space gets filled and rewritten. This happens when apps download data, or when streaming, the data is written on your phone first before deleted.

Apps also may start requiring more RAM, which lower-end phones may not have as much (or use slower RAM to cut costs).

These factors will reduce the user experience in the long run, especially after it starts getting OS updates which may take up more space or require more memory to function.

Plus installing firmware updates can be daunting for a new user, who will likely skip doing so. But skipping is bad, as it exposes them to malware. Through social engineering, users can be tricked into installing Android APKs that grant an attacker access into their phones, letting them steal passwords and even take over the phone.

That sounds scary to me, even as an experienced tech journalist who tries his best to be cautious — for someone less familiar with smartphones, it could feel extremely daunting.

It's no wonder then, they would try to cut down on mobile usage and digital services.

Heck, they may not even have Wi-Fi or proper broadband at home. A data plan could be all they are using, and even then they probably won't be paying for streaming platforms, most of which have continuously raised prices over the last few years.

Rethinking Singapore's digital literacy strategies

Perhaps our government should allocate part of its Assurance Packages to subsidise the cost of smartphones and mobile plans for lower income households.

I note that they already do something for tablets and laptops, called the Digitalaccess@home, as well as offering seniors (those 60 and over) subsidised mobile phones. That said, the phones offered are budget models on the lower end, which basically makes my point about how quickly they become obsolete.

Then there's still the issue for those who fall into the below $3,000 house income bracket and aren't old enough to qualify. What can be done for them?

Lastly, I don't recommend giving out free phones though. Unless there's a way to lock down the phones to prevent them from being sold on second-hand market, expect them to be resold just like the free Health Promotion Board Fitness Trackers.

We will need to rethink our digital literacy strategies.

It's not about equipping everyone with a Singpass or the pre-installed SG Secure apps, or teaching seniors to use mobile phones.

I do like that we have digital literacy classes at community centres, but this isn't the solution for low-income households.

Access to the internet is a basic human right, and we should take steps to make sure no one is left out.

Regardless, I think we can all agree we need to do more for vulnerable income groups, and to make sure we don't leave them behind as we push forward as a Smart Nation.

Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com. Views expressed are his own.

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