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The evolution of Singpass: How Singapore’s national digital identity came about

Written by Vulcan Post Published on     10 mins read

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Managed by GovTech, SingPass provides Singapore residents with easy access to a myriad of government and private sector services.

Singpass—short for Singapore Personal Access—is Singapore’s National Digital Identity (NDI) platform. Managed by the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), it provides Singapore residents with easy access to a myriad of government and private sector services. It is one of Singapore’s Smart Nation projects with a vision to improve the lives of citizens, create opportunities for businesses, and transform the capabilities of government agencies.

Today, Singpass offers access to more than 1,400 digital services and empowers over 340 government agencies and private organizations. Residents can use Singpass to access services across sectors—ranging from banking and insurance to healthcare and charities—and conveniently retrieve their personal information, digitally sign documents, and remotely authorize transactions on the Singpass app.

In 2020, Singpass had more than 4 million users and was one of the most downloaded apps in Singapore.

Birth of the national digital identity

A national digital identity system is the first step in building a digitally inclusive society.

More than 1 billion people around the world have no formal way of proving who they are. In many instances, this leads to struggles in securing basic government services, including access to public healthcare, education, voting services, and benefit programs.

Tay Li Soon, senior product manager at GovTech. Photo courtesy of GovTech via Vulcan Post.

A digital identity would make these services more accessible while improving quality-of-life for locals.

Tay Li Soon, senior product manager at GovTech, explained that it is called NDI because that was the vision. “We wanted to elevate Singpass to a true national digital identity experience where peoples’ identities were not only secure but one that also connected to their data and any other services available.”

When asked if there were any countries that inspired Singapore to embark on the NDI initiative, Tay said that it’s imperative to first understand “how and why other countries do it in order to bring those lessons back to us.”

“One of the most powerful countries in the world, the United States, for example, doesn’t have a centralized ID. But maybe it works in Singapore because we are much smaller,” he said.

When Singpass started back in 2003, it mainly involved “logging into a portal for government services,” said Tay.

GovTech soon received feedback from the public to consolidate all government services into one platform. It then stepped up to inform the government that this could be possible with Singpass, which soon served as a method for identity authentication.

Government services like the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) all use the same authentication methods, so users now have one less thing to remember because so many of them keep forgetting their passwords.

“If each agency mandates their own log-in, to a user, that is not very system-friendly. Since we are serving them as one government, we need to offer a holistic platform,” said Tay.

Singpass 2FA. Photo courtesy of GovTech via Vulcan Post.

That said, the first iteration of Singpass only solved the common pain point of users forgetting their passwords. “Back then, users typed in their one-factor authentication (1FA), such as their ID and their password. The user would then receive a one-time password (OTP) via SMS to log in,” said Tay.

“When the app was launched, users didn’t need to do any of that. They only needed to scan a QR code. It’s about reducing the number of touchpoints.”

As time went on, GovTech began thinking about other use cases for Singpass.

In October 2018, the Singpass app was finally launched. Users can use it to check their CPF balance, apply for HDB apartments, perform internet banking, or manage their insurance policies with ease, without having to remember passwords.

Users can also digitally sign electronic documents such as applications for insurance policies using the Singpass app.

Digital health passport. Photo courtesy of Common Pass via Vulcan Post.

Will Singpass evolve to become a digital health passport?

At a Singpass rebranding event that took place last month, Smart Nation Initiative minister-in-charge  Vivian Balakrishnan said, “it is not a stretch to imagine that Singpass will eventually evolve into an international digital identity or a kind of health passport.”

When asked to comment on the possibilities of a digital health passport, Tay said that vaccine certification is led by the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Even so, since Singpass is based on digital identity, it seems like a natural progression for the app to evolve to meet the travel demands of the ‘new normal’ where travelers have to also prove their health status. “From a product perspective, we definitely do see a very strong relationship, and we will definitely push for collaboration.”

“However, it is not whether we think it’s the right thing to do, but really it’s about the larger forces at play. And that’s why it’s difficult for us to give a strong commitment now. There are many different stakeholders and considerations involved,” he said.

While the idea of a digital health passport might not be a reality anytime soon, Singpass has successfully managed to support contract tracing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How SafeEntry works. Image courtesy of GovTech via Vulcan Post.

It introduced a SafeEntry check-in feature, where users can scan a QR code or search for their location via the app without having to physically record their details. This was made possible thanks to the existing NDI framework, said Tay.

With the introduction of SafeEntry check-ins, the app’s user base jumped from 700,000 a few years ago to more than 2.5 million today. While the number of Singpass users has always been consistently high, it “accelerated overnight,” said Tay.

Transactions facilitated by Singpass also doubled to over 170 million transactions last year as more people turned to digital transactions during the pandemic.

When asked what sort of groundwork is being done before they roll out new features, he revealed that GovTech often conducts product testing sessions. On top of that, it also taps into public forums such as Tech Kaki to get personal or group feedback.

This way, it is able to introduce relevant features that are applicable to users.

How businesses can use Singpass’ APIs

There’s a narrative that people are logging in daily to Singpass solely for SafeEntry check-ins, so how is the team brainstorming ways, or use cases, to make users login to do more with the app?

“As a citizen, I know what I use the Singpass app for. Another angle would be the business use case,” said Tay.

Businesses and agencies can use Singpass’ application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable access or create new value-added services for Singapore residents. “Let’s say you’re a bank. There are certain things you know that your customers want. For example, setting up a bank account or taking out a loan. In such processes, you know that your users will submit a lot of data to you. It’s a long process, so we work with these banks to make that process easier.”

“This is just one example, but it shows our collaboration in the industry. Basically, we understand their pain points and look for solutions to resolve them,” he said.

Singpass verification on Carousell. Image courtesy of Carousell via Vulcan Post.

For one, their API has helped fintech firm YouTrip with customer onboarding. It has also helped online marketplace Carousell with sellers’ verification. Since there are so many illegitimate sellers, there was a need to tie sellers’ identities to their accounts—much like a ‘blue tick’ of sorts.

Another example is GivePlease. When making donations, donors have to fill out forms for tax deduction purposes, which is very hassling.

“People simply want to do charity and give donations, but they have to do so much paperwork, so we want to remove the entire administrative process for them,” explained Tay.

What’s also interesting is the future use application of Singpass: you can soon buy alcohol from vending machines with it.

Fintech firm Ascan plans to launch a new feature in vending machines that allows customers to buy alcoholic beverages using Singpass, instead of a physical NRIC at shops, to confirm that they are of legal drinking age.

It’s clear to see that Singpass’ open APIs can be easily integrated with the services of organizations to enhance customer experiences and improve business efficiency.

Tay stressed that besides just helping big companies, they are also helping local SMEs.

Many institutions want to apply for the API because they want access to their user base and leverage government data. However, they also often ask how many companies have onboarded, but there aren’t many at the moment, which is why the team is working hard to raise awareness.

Organizations can tap into various Singpass APIs to enhance user experience and efficiency. For instance, tapping on the Login API enables customers to log into their portals with Singpass, so they do not have to manage their own authentication platforms.

Leveraging Sign also allows its users to digitally sign documents, and Myinfo lets users provide their information from government sources to reduce application time.

A look at Singpass’ future roadmap

Tay shared that there are many features that the team is currently working on. While he didn’t share the specifics, he revealed some key focus areas for next year.

The first is better discoverability for the app. He reasoned that while GovTech has introduced many new things to the app over the last few years, it has almost reached a point where new users still think the app is only used for log-in purposes. Users don’t know that there are so many other things that can be done on Singpass, and there are some who mainly use it for SafeEntry.

Interestingly, the digital ‘O’ levels certificate that can be found on Singpass has triggered people to tap around the app and actively discover other features.

Beyond working towards better discoverability from a user interface or user experience (UI/UX) perspective, it wants to create awareness and encourage users to explore the app.

2021 roadmap. Image courtesy of GovTech via Vulcan Post.

The second focus area is about increasing the engagement level of users. GovTech wants to make sure that people are not just aware of the services available on Singpass but that they also use them in their daily lives.

“For this area, we have our NDI products. We have the Login API, Verify API, Notify API—they all have their own visual roadmaps. Some of them will get enhancements, and these enhancements will be introduced in the Singpass app,” said Tay.

“We are also working on a corporate identity. You may have heard of Corppass, which is like a Singpass for corporations. So if you have Corppass, in the future, you will be able to have everything on one app—both personal and work stuff.”

The third area is to have Singpass synchronized 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 making, or keeping, our users happy,” said Tay.

One of the sub-points of this is increasing usability, and one important factor to this is inclusivity. Since Singpass is the ‘door’ to government services, GovTech is focused on catering to everyone. “We are planning to offer multi-language capabilities on our app and website by the end of this year,” he said.

Additionally, since Singaporeans use different mobile operating systems, GovTech recently launched the Singpass app on the Huawei AppGallery, catering beyond Android and iOS users.

Digital IC. Photo courtesy of Singpass via Vulcan Post.

You can expect to see more cards going digital

Beyond digital transactions, the Digital IC was launched in the Singpass app in September 2020 to offer users an alternative method of identity verification.

While users can scan their Digital IC barcode at kiosks located in libraries and health clinics, it’s still a stretch to say that banks see it as a valid form of identification.

Tay acknowledges this stumbling block but reasoned that digital ICs are still considered new right now. That said, he understands the concerns that some businesses might have.

“Can they, for instance, trust their staff on the ground to not take a screenshot or a video? There’s this risk that needs to be taken into account. If they are willing to balance and accept that risk, then it’s good for us. But until then, we can’t force people to do that,” said Tay.

“For now, we can only declare that this is available. What we provide is a digital IC that has watermark features to prevent screenshots. It’s tough to mandate because there will be people who are resistant to this.”

Tay said that while some are comfortable with the idea of digital NRICs, there is still a group of people who think physical NRICs are the way to go. Just like how some people prefer cash over going cashless, they need material things to give them a sense of familiarity and security.

“One of the existing challenges in making digital NRICs a thing are the existing business processes. For instance, a lot of global companies, when they do their KYC (Know Your Customer), they make you upload a photo of your NRIC to verify your identity. This will take time to change, but we are in a transitional phase where people are getting used to digital NRICs,” said Tay.

“There are also other considerations: ‘What happens when there’s no internet? What happens when your phone battery dies?’ Although going digital is the ideal direction, these are the obvious challenges.”

Beyond identity cards, Tay shared that other identity documents are in the works too. Particularly, Singaporean drivers’ licenses will see a digital version on the Singpass app as soon as this year.

While driver’s license details are already available on the app, they aim to mimic the physical card too, much like the NRIC.

Tay explained that making it look like the physical version will help give users a sense of familiarity. “You can’t skip these steps because people will lose the meaning, and then you won’t get the adoption,” he added.

Additionally, while a digital passport would be an interesting feature, Tay is unsure of its feasibility. Instead, some other feasible applications could be vocational licenses.

Ultimately, what sort of data is being shared on the Singpass app is dependent on the respective government agencies.

“When new data comes in, such as vaccination results, or benefits like GST vouchers, it’s likely that we will integrate it into the Singpass app and make it accessible to users. It’s really about data transparency, which is a fundamental goal of NDI.”

“At the end of the day, to empower Singapore residents with a digital identity that’s useful for all of their everyday transactions, we must work closely with our public and private sector partners to propagate the use of Singpass across a myriad of services,” he said.

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This article was originally published by Vulcan Post.

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