Singpass – short for Singapore Personal Access – is Singapore's National Digital Identity (NDI) platform.
Managed by the Singapore Government Technology Agency (GovTech), it gives Singapore residents easy access to a wide variety of government and private services.
It is one of the Smart Nation projects in Singapore with the vision of improving citizens' lives, creating business opportunities and transforming the skills of government agencies.
Today Singpass provides access to more than 1,400 digital services and empowers over 340 government agencies and private organizations.
Singpass enables residents to access cross-industry services – from banking and insurance to healthcare and charities – and conveniently access their personal information, digitally sign documents and remotely authorize transactions through their Singpass app.
In 2020 Singpass was one of the most downloaded apps in Singapore and currently has more than four million users.
Birth of the national digital identity
A national digital identity system is the first step in building a digitally inclusive society.
More than a billion people around the world have no formal means of proving who they are. In many cases, this creates difficulties in securing basic government services, including access to public health care, education, electoral services and benefit programs.
A digital identity will make these services more accessible while improving the quality of life for locals.
Tay Li Soon, Senior Product Manager at GovTech / Photo credit: GovTech
Tay Li Soon, Senior Product Manager at GovTech, stated that it literally means NDI because that was the vision.
We wanted to make Singpass a true national digital identity experience where not only is your identity securely within your own options, but also connected to your data and other available services.
When asked if there were any countries that inspired Singapore to launch the NDI initiative, Li Soon said that it is imperative for us to first understand “how and why other countries are doing this in order to deliver these lessons ( back) to bring us ".
For example, the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, doesn't even have a central passport. But maybe it works in Singapore because we're much smaller, he reflected.
When Singpass started in 2003, it was more of a "government service registration portal," Li Soon described.
They soon received feedback from the public to consolidate all government services on one platform. GovTech then informed the government that it could do this with Singpass, which soon became an authentication method.
Government services like the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) all use the same authentication methods. There is now one less thing for users to consider as so many of them keep forgetting their passwords.
“If every agency prescribes a separate login for a user, it is not very system-friendly. Because we serve them as one government (we have to offer a holistic platform), ”Li Soon said.
In addition, the agencies have the burden of maintaining a database, so this just doesn't make sense operationally.
Singpass 2FA authentication / Photo credit: GovTech
However, the first iteration of Singpass was mostly about solving the common pain point of users forgetting their passwords.
At that time, you enter your one-factor authentication (1FA), which is your ID and password. The user then receives the one-time password (OTP) via SMS to log in.
When the app launched the first issue that was resolved was that users didn't have to enter any of it – just scan the QR code and you're done. The point is to reduce the number of contact points.
Using the QR code as an authentication method is also helpful for overseas Singaporeans. Previously, the OTP text was sent to the local number. The whole thing is bypassed by scanning the QR code.
While they have successfully resolved this first problem over time, they wondered what else Singpass can be used for.
"The emergence of NDI – if you think about it, we have had Singpass since 2003. So it makes sense for us if Singpass has been around for more than 10 years at this point, what happens next?"
“If you look at other countries that are moving in this direction, there are some countries that are much more prominent, like Estonia. We can only look at the global climate and see where we are. It just makes sense to go in the next direction. "
In October 2008 the Singpass app was finally launched. Users can easily check their CPF balance, apply for HDB apartments, do internet banking or manage their insurance policies without having to remember passwords.
Users can also use their Singpass app to digitally sign electronic documents such as insurance policy applications.
Will Singpass develop into a digital health pass?
Digital Health Passport / Photo Credit: Common Pass
Speaking at the Singpass rebranding event last month, Smart Nation Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said, "It's not hard to imagine that (Singpass) will eventually evolve into an international digital identity or … passport will develop. "
When asked to comment on the possibilities of a digital health passport, Li Soon simply said that vaccine certification is being managed by the Ministry of Health (MOH). Since it is not issued by GovTech, the ball is unfortunately not in their field of play.
While digital health passports are currently a big issue in countries in terms of solutions, they are at an entirely different stage.
"If you compare us on an international level, we are definitely ahead of the curve. But if we want to make this an international thing, we have to wait for other people to come on board. There is this interoperability problem," remarked Li Soon.
Since Singpass is based on digital identity, it seems like a natural evolution of the app to evolve to meet the travel demands of the "new normal" where travelers also have to prove their health.
From a product perspective, we are definitely seeing a very strong relationship and we will definitely push for collaboration.
(However, it's) not whether we think it's the right thing to do, it's really about the bigger forces at play. So it is now difficult for us to show a strong commitment. There are many different stakeholders and considerations.
While the idea of a digital health passport may not become a reality anytime soon, Singpass managed to successfully meet contract tracking requirements during the Covid-19 pandemic.
How SafeEntry works / Image credit: GovTech
A SafeEntry check-in function has been introduced, which allows users to simply scan the QR code or search for their location via the app without having to physically record their data. This was easily possible thanks to the existing NDI framework, said Li Soon.
With the introduction of SafeEntry check-ins, Singpass’s app user base increased from 700,000 a few years ago to more than 2.5 million today. While the number of her app users was consistently high, "it accelerated overnight," noted Li Soon.
The transactions enabled by Singpass also doubled to over 170 million transactions in the past year as more and more people turned to digital transactions during the pandemic.
When asked what preliminary work is done before new features are introduced, he noted that product testing is common. In addition, they tap public forums like Tech Kaki and get feedback on individual or group settings.
In this way, they can introduce relevant functions that apply to users.
How businesses can access Singpass APIs
There is a story that users only log into Singpass for SafeEntry check-ins on a daily basis. So how can the team use brainstorming methods or use cases to get users to sign in to do more in-app activity?
“As a citizen, I know what I use the Singpass app for. Another aspect would be the business use case, ”said Li Soon.
Businesses and agencies can access Singpass's application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide access or create new value-added services for Singapore residents.
Let's say you are a bank. There are certain things you want to know about what your customers want. For example, if you want to create a bank account, you want to get a loan. In processes like this, you know that your users are giving you a lot of data. It's a long process so we're working with these banks to make this process easier.
This is just one example, but it shows our collaboration in the industry. Basically, we understand their pain point and look for a solution to resolve that.
Singpass check on carousel / Photo credit: Carousel
For one, their API has helped fintech company YouTrip onboarding customers. It has also helped Carousell online marketplace review its sellers. Since there are so many illegitimate sellers, the seller's identity had to be linked to their account – similar to a kind of “blue check mark”.
Another example is Make-A-Wish. When making donations, donors have to fill out forms for tax deduction purposes, which is very problematic.
"People just want to do charity and give donations, but they have so much paperwork to do that we want to remove the entire administrative process (for them)," explained Li Soon.
The future application of Singpass is also interesting: you will soon be able to use it to buy alcohol from vending machines.
Fintech company Ascan plans to roll out a new feature for vending machines that will allow customers to purchase alcoholic beverages in stores with Singpass in lieu of a physical NRIC to confirm they have reached the legal drinking age.
It is clear that Singpass’s open APIs can be easily integrated with the services of organizations to improve customer experience and improve business efficiency.
Li Soon emphasized that they are not only helping the big boys, but also the smaller players such as local SMEs.
While their intent is classy, business owners don't take it for granted that they can use Singpass APIs.
Li Soon responded to this observation and described the current situation as a "chicken and egg dilemma".
Many institutions want to apply for the API because they want access to their user base and use of government data. However, they also often ask how many companies are on board but there aren't many right now, which is why the team is working hard to raise awareness.
He added that while Singpass is commonly known as an app that acts as a gateway to government services, there are many APIs built into the app for the private sector.
"To request the API, it's really easy – you basically have to make sure you're (a) legitimate (company)," Li Soon said.
A look at the future Singpass roadmap
Li Soon shared that the team is currently working on many roles. Though unable to provide the details, he revealed some key priorities for the next year.
The first is better discoverability for the app. He argued that while they have introduced a lot of new things to the app in the past few years, they have almost reached a point where new users still think the app is for logging in only.
Users don't know that there are so many other things that can be done, so it feels like a wasted effort (on our part). … There are a number of people who have never bothered to explore the app and mainly use it for SafeEntry.
Interestingly, the O-Level digital certificate found on Singpass has encouraged users to tap the app and actively explore other features.
Not only are you working on better visibility from a user interface or user experience (UI / UX) perspective, you want to create awareness and more of those "trigger points" that are memorable enough to get users to explore the app.
Roadmap 2021 / Photo credit: GovTech
The second focus is on increasing user engagement. You want to make sure that people are not only informed about the services included on Singpass, but that they are also using them in their daily lives.
“We have our NDI products for this area. We have the Login API, the Verify API, and the Notify API – all of them have their own visual roadmaps. Some of them will get enhancements, and those enhancements will fit into the Singpass app, ”said Li Soon.
“We're also working on a corporate identity. You may have heard of Corppass, this summary – for lack of a better word – for Singpass. So if you have Corppass, you can have it all in one app in the future. Everything lives only from your app, both personal and professional. "
The third area is to synchronize Singpass with other government initiatives. Since they are already building the ecosystem, they want to add more relevance by integrating more services into the app.
Our challenge is to make or keep our users happy – not just at the reading level, but is there a word of mouth effect when they use it?
One of the sub-points of this is improving usability, and an important factor in that is inclusivity. Since Singpass is the "door" to government services, we need to make sure we serve everyone. We will be offering multilingual functions on our app and website by the end of this year.
Since Singaporeans use different types of mobile operating systems, they recently launched the Singpass app on the Huawei AppGallery, which is not only suitable for Android and iOS users.
You can expect more maps to be digitized
Digital IC / Image Credit: Singpass
In addition to digital transactions, the digital IC has also been introduced in the Singpass app since September 2020 to offer users an alternative method of identity verification.
While users can scan their digital IC barcode at kiosks in libraries and polyclinics, it is still difficult to say that banks see it as a valid form of identification.
Li Soon acknowledges this stumbling block, but explains that digital ICs are currently still considered new. Even so, he understands concerns some companies may have.
“For example, can you trust your on-site employees that they will not take a screenshot or a video? There is a risk that they will have to be taken into account. If they are willing to balance and accept these risks, that is good for us. But until then, we can't force people to do it, ”said Li Soon.
“At the moment we can only explain that this is available. What we offer is digital IC with watermark functions to prevent screenshots etc. It's very difficult to hire because there will be people who will fight it or it just takes time. "
So will there ever come a time when physical NRICs will become obsolete and we will fully rely on the digital ones that exist on Singpass?
In response, Li Soon said that while some are familiar with the idea of digital NRICs, there is still a group of people who still believe that physical NRICs are the way to go. Just as some people prefer cash rather than cashless, they need material things to convey a feeling of familiarity and security.
One of the existing challenges to make digital NRICs a thing is the existing business processes. For example, many global companies, when performing their KYC (Know Your Customer), upload a photo of your NRIC to verify your identity. It will take time for this to change, but we are in a transition phase as people are getting used to digital NRICs.
There are other considerations as well: "What if there is no internet?" What happens when your phone's battery runs out? “While digitization is the ideal direction, these are the obvious challenges.
In addition to the IDs, Li Soon announced that other IDs are also in the works. A digital version of the Singpass app will already be displayed in the driver's license this year.
While the driver's license details are already available in the app, much like the NRIC, they also want to mimic the physical card.
Li Soon stated that having the appearance of the physical version will make users feel familiar. "You cannot skip these steps because people will lose meaning and then you will not be adopted," he added.
While a digital passport would be an interesting feature, Li Soon is unsure of its feasibility.
Instead, some other possible uses could be the professional licenses of grave and taxi drivers. "It's related to the driver's license, but it's different so this could be a (potential) area."
Ultimately, what kind of data is shared in the Singpass app depends on the respective government agency.
"When new data such as vaccinations (results) comes in and MOH gives us that data, we will likely integrate it into the Singpass app and make it available to users."
“If there is performance data like GST vouchers, CPF is responsible for that right. If you choose to forward this data from Myinfo, we may also display it. So it's really about data transparency, which is a very important goal of NDI. "
Selected image source: GovTech
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