How Our National Digital Identity Came About


Singpass — short for Singapore Personal Access — is Singapore’s National Digital Identity (NDI) platform.

Managed by the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), it allows Singapore residents to get 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 organisations.

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 authorise transactions on their Singpass app.

In 2020, Singpass has more than four 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 a 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 programmes.

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

Tay Li Soon, senior product manager at GovTech
Tay Li Soon, senior product manager at GovTech / Image Credit: GovTech

Tay Li Soon, senior product manager at GovTech, explained that it is literally called NDI because that was the vision.

We wanted to (elevate) Singpass to a true national digital identity experience where not only is their identity securely within their own options, but 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, Li Soon said that it’s imperative for us 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, United States, for example, don’t even have a centralised ID. But maybe it works in Singapore because we are much smaller, he mused.

When Singpass started out back in 2003, it was more of a “logging in portal for government services,” described Li Soon.

They soon received feedback from the public to consolidate all government services into one platform. GovTech then stepped up to inform the government that this can be made possible with Singpass, which soon became like an authentication method.

Government services like the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) all use the same authentication methods; so for the users, they 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 Li Soon.

Moreover, agencies have the burden to maintain a database, so it simply does not make sense operationally.

singpass 2fa authentication
Singpass 2FA authentication / Image Credit: GovTech

That said, the first iteration of Singpass was mostly to solve the common pain point of users forgetting their passwords.

Back then, you key in your one-factor authentication (1FA), which is your ID and your password. And then the user will receive the one-time password (OTP) via SMS to log in.

When the app was launched, the first pain point solved was users don’t have to key in any of that — just scan the QR code and you’re done. It’s about reducing the number of touchpoints.

Using the QR code as an authentication method is also helpful for overseas Singaporeans. Previously, the OTP text is sent to their local number, so by scanning the QR code, it sidesteps the whole thing.

While they have successfully solved that very first problem, as time went on, they started asking themselves what else can Singpass be used for.

“The genesis for NDI — if you think about it, we already have Singpass since 2003. So it kind of makes sense for us that if Singpass is already there for more than 10 years at that point in time, then what’s next?”

“When you look at other countries moving towards this direction, there are some countries that are much more at the forefront like Estonia. We can just look at the global climate and see where we are. It only makes sense for us to move to the next direction.”

In October 2018, the Singpass app was finally launched. Users can use it to check their CPF balance, apply for HDB flats, 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 their Singpass app.

Will Singpass Evolve To Become A Digital Health Passport?

Digital health passport
Digital health passport / Image Credit: Common Pass

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

When asked to comment on the possibilities of a digital health passport, Li Soon simply said that the 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 relation 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’s many different stakeholders and considerations involved.

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.

safeentry singpass
How SafeEntry works / Image Credit: GovTech

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

With the introduction of SafeEntry check-ins, Singpass’ app user base jumped from 700,000 a few years ago, to more than 2.5 million today. While the number of their app users was at a consistent high, it “accelerated overnight”, remarked Li Soon.

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 they often conduct product testing sessions. On top of that, they also tap on public forums such as on Tech Kaki and get feedback via one-on-one or group settings.

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

How Businesses Can Tap On Singpass’ APIs

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

“As a citizen myself, I know what are the things I use the Singpass app for. Another angle would be the business use case,” said Li Soon.

Businesses and agencies can tap on 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 what your customers want. For example, you want to create a bank account, you want to get 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 point and look for a solution to resolve that.

singpass verification on carousell
Singpass verification on Carousell / Image Credit: Carousell

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’ identity to their account — much like a ‘blue tick’ of sorts.

Another example is GivePlease. When making donations, donors have to fill up 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 Li Soon.

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 services of organisations to enhance customer experiences and improve business efficiency. 

Li Soon stressed that besides helping the big boys, they are also helping the smaller players like local SMEs.

While their intention is noble, it is however a matter-of-fact that it won’t come naturally to business owners that they can make use of Singpass’ APIs.

Addressing this observation, Li Soon 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 leverage on government data. However, they also often ask how many companies have onboarded, but there isn’t many at the moment, which is why the team is working hard to raise awareness on this.

Organisations can tap on 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 their 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

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

The first one is better discoverability for the app. He reasoned that while they have introduced many new things to the app over the last 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 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, they want to create awareness and encourage users to explore the app.

singpass 2021 roadmap
2021 roadmap / Image Credit: GovTech

The second focus area is about increasing the engagement level of our users. They want to make sure that people are not just aware of the services housed on Singpass, but 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 fit into the Singpass app,” said Li Soon.

“We are also working on a corporate identity. You may have heard of Corppass, this subsume — for a lack of a better word — for Singpass. So if you have Corppass, you will soon in the future be able to have everything on an app. Everything just lives on your app, both personal and work stuff.”

The third area is to have Singpass synchronised 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 — not just on a reading level, but when they use it, is there a word-of-mouth effect?

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, we have to make sure that we cater to everyone. Coming up, we are going to offer multi-language capabilities on our app and website by the end of this year.

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

You Can Expect To See More Cards Going Digital

singpass digital ic
Digital IC / Image Credit: Singpass

Beyond digital transactions, the Digital IC has also been launched 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 located in libraries and polyclinics, it’s still a stretch to say that banks see it as a valid form of identification.

Li Soon acknowledges this stumbling block, but reasoned that digital ICs are still considered new right now. That said, he understands 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 they need to take into account. If they are willing to balance and accept that risks, then it’s good for us. But until then, we cannot force people to do that,” said Li Soon.

“For now, we can only declare that this is available. What we provide is a digital IC that has watermark features to prevent screenshots et cetera. It’s very hard to mandate because there will be people who are resistant to this, or it simply takes time.”

So will there ever be a point in time when physical NRICs will become obsolete and we fully rely on the digital ones that exists on Singpass?

Responding to this, Li Soon said that while some are comfortable with the idea of digital NRICs, there is still a group of people who still 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 to making digital NRICs a thing is 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.

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, Li Soon shared that other identity documents are in the works too. Particularly, the driver’s license will see a digital version on the Singpass app as soon as this year.

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

Li Soon explained that making it look the like the physical version will help to 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 to have, Li Soon is unsure of its feasibility. Instead, some other feasible applications could be the 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, like maybe vaccination (results), and benefits like GST vouchers, it’s likely that we will integrate it into the Singpass app and make it accessible to the users. It’s really about transparency of data, which is a very important 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.”

Featured Image Credit: GovTech

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