Covid-19 Exclusives: How Far on Your Digital Journey Have You Come?


PENANG’S GOAL OF becoming a Smart State is still a nascent one since the concept itself still lacks a single universally acknowledged definition, tending to shift in meaning from area to area. What can be agreed upon though is the use of ICT to enhance city functions and to improve the quality of life of its citizens.1

The state outfit Digital Penang (DP) was recently established to aid the digitalisation of government functions, to promote the state’s digital economy, to help build the digital infrastructure – and to raise Penang’s digital literacy.

To be sure, digital onboarding will not happen overnight. There is still much to tackle with. For example, where the state’s digital infrastructure is concerned, grand plans have been announced for a 5G network to be rolled out, but this requires a fibre backbone and the laying of fibre optic cables will take time and major investment. “If there aren’t enough subscribers, telcos don’t become profitable. They will not be motivated to put fibre in if there’s no return on investment,” says CEO Tony Yeoh.

Cherry-picking places to provide high connectivity will no doubt exacerbate the technological gap, leaving those in harder-to-reach areas with old infrastructure, i.e. copper wires and an outdated quality of service.

In general, older people are the ones least able to adapt to the digital world proficiently. As part of creating an income supplement during this pandemic as well as increasing digital literacy, the #DahDigital initiative was launched. With public health concerns rising, the state’s wet markets are targeted to adopt cashless payments by the end of the year. The aim is to reduce the use of banknotes, which are potential carriers of bacteria and viruses. DP has so far recruited a total of 50 out of the targeted 250 Digital Promoters to guide both market vendors and goers to familiarise themselves with the cashless payment systems that are presently in use.

The #DahDigital initiative includes the Digital Promoter and Digital Coach schemes, in which tech-savvy Penangites are hired to guide people like senior citizens in digitalisation.

A more hands-on class to teach usage of apps for the purposes of ebanking, video calls, emails, etc. will be conducted by 32 Digital Coaches in multiple languages at state assemblymen service centres and MPKK community centres.

Where the goal of raising digitalisation in the state is concerned, Yeoh thinks that the digital journey specific to each stakeholder should be the key focus. For example:
a. The citizen or resident: How do we get them to adopt digital services?
b. The investor: How do we make the investment process from application to approval seamless?
c. The entrepreneur: How do we digitalise SMEs to be more innovative and export-oriented?
d. The tourist or visitor: How do we deliver a great experience and maintain a loyal digital relationship?

“These journeys must foster digital relationships between the State and its stakeholders. They are also about establishing and maintaining trust.” He adds that the digital journey of citizens in particular, should be prioritised above that of the service provider and be citizen-centric.

DP is working to digitalise processes at state assemblymen service centres which is currently manual and cumbersome. For the long-term goals, it is presently drafting Penang’s Digital Transformation Master Plan (DTMP). The DTMP will revolve around four main pillars: Infrastructure, Economy, Government and Community, and when done, it will recommend strategies and policy incentives for Penang to embrace digitalisation.

Preserving Penang’s Appeal

Digital transformation can potentially harm Penang’s charm and character. So caution and awareness need to be exercised from the planning stage onwards. For example, last April, MBPP collaborated with DeliverEat to launch the Jom Beli Online platform through which the DeliverEat app raises the visibility of Penang’s street hawkers.

Nicholas Theng (left) during the latest round of MBPP hawker interviews last July after the application process was brought online.

“Many of our hawkers are not registered with food delivery services, so Jom Beli Online actually provided them with a great opportunity to go online," says Nicholas Theng Jie Wey, the alternate chairman of the Licensing and Public Health Committee. He adds that some hawkers recorded an additional income of RM600 to RM800 through the platform alone during the first week after the launch of the initiative.

Jom Beli Online has received 351 active sign ups since September, allowing hawkers to compete with renowned food chains and local cafes that have long had a strong presence on food delivery service platforms. The enterprise was not initially well-received, however; concerns were raised regarding the high sales commission charged by food delivery companies and the amount of time needed for revenue earned from Jom Beli Online to be transferred into the vendors’ bank accounts.

Theng explains that the MBPP, in response to this complaint, flipped the payment system to allow hawkers and DeliverEat to mark up their selling price, enabling hawkers to better afford the commission. To ensure that the vendors were paid as quickly as possible, MBPP decided to step in to reimburse the hawkers first, and to take payment from DeliverEat at a later date.

The MBPP’s hawker interviews went digital in March, coinciding with the start of the MCO. The local council currently owns 41 food complexes throughout the island, and there are always stall vacancies available. Pre-Covid-19, interviews were normally carried out every three to four months to select new vendors; and each of these in-person interview session would receive around 400 to 500 hawkers per day.

“During this pandemic, we simply cannot have 500 people crowding at a venue; that would be in violation of the Health Ministry’s SOPs,” says Theng. “Now, hawkers can simply apply online and then show up at their allotted time.”

Expanding Mind-sets

Bad mismatches have been long known between the skills gained by school graduates and the skills needed on the job market. Wawasan Open University (WOU) has been working to bridge this gap in communication.

With the onset of Industry 4.0, WOU provides a wealth of resources for its students in order to prepare them for the digital future.

With the tagline “Think Tomorrow”, the institution strives to produce graduates for the digital future. “The pandemic and the MCO have brought to the fore the importance of having core digital literacy skills,” says Professor Dr. Lily Chan, chief executive and vice chancellor of WOU. But being digitally competent may not be enough to get you a job. Soft skills such as critical and analytical thinking, excellent communication, and problem-solving capabilities are also a requirement.

The newly launched School of Digital Technology, or DiGiT, offers programmes in fields of technology cutting across multiple disciplines, from business to computing technology to the creative industry. These emphasise workbased learning, and link theories to real-life applications.

To be sure, the upskilling process is not without its fair share of hurdles. “For digital natives, it’s a challenge to get them engaged in online learning platforms; this is due to their short attention span, their affinity for online games or resources, and their tendency to use mobile devices for social media and entertainment, rather than for studying.”

WOU Chief Executive and Vice Chancellor Prof Dr. Lily Chan.

Digital accessibility is another hot topic to debate. Covid-19 has hastened the adoption of e-learning, but it has also highlighted the uneven access to technological devices and to stable internet connection; the viral news about Sabahan student Veveonah Mosibin perching in a tree to gain sufficient internet access for her online exams2 accentuates this fact.

No one should be left behind in online learning and in the digital economy. A digital infrastructure is analogous to having roads – where access is fundamental,” Chan stresses, adding that WOU is extending financial assistance for internet connectivity upgrades and for laptop purchases to students who can ill afford them. This levels out the playing field and ensures that all students will have the means to become future-ready graduates.

Chan also acknowledges that many professionals, including academicians at higher learning institutions, do not possess the required skill sets to deliver optimum work online. There is an assumption that educators can deliver their course/class content in the same way as when they deliver it in-person. This is however impractical with long lectures.

Hence, the mode of delivery is key. WOU’s tutors suffered minor slip-ups when transitioning to online learning during the MCO. These included poor background setting when speaking, poor lighting, not facing the camera the correct way, forgetting to mute and unmute where appropriate, clumsy transitions from lecturing to the sharing of screens, and awkward silences.

To counteract this, certified trainers have been engaged by the university to hold workshops on the conducting of online classes. By using animation, videos, interactive tools and slides, tutors are taught how to smoothly and clearly deliver engaging and lively lessons online.

The User Experience

The digital onboarding process does not end when these projects have been introduced to the public. “Technology is about adoption, it’s about experience. You can create cool technology, start state-of-the-art projects, but if people don’t adopt or use it, or if they have a bad experience using it, then the digital onboarding process will not be successful,’” says Yeoh.

Penangites are as yet unaccustomed to using self-checkout. Many still opt for traditional checkout counters when grocery shopping.

The needs and worries of Penangites from all walks of life must be considered when implementing initiatives like Jom Beli Online and e-wallet payments. The user must always come first.

Ideally, everyone, especially the elderly and people from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds should be involved. When attention is paid to those less digitally-inclined, the general public will be more receptive to initiatives such as those mentioned above.

“Data security and protection in e-wallets should be reinforced by e-wallet merchants, to give better assurance to everyone about the safety of our bank accounts and the credit cards attached to them,” says Dallas Ariadass of Pulau Tikus wet market. Muhammad Syukri of the Taman Tun Sardon wet market in turn highlights the importance of widespread promotion and information before the execution of such initiatives. “Many of my customers didn’t know about e-wallets being used at wet markets until I told them about it; the public should have been better informed about plans such as this.”

The needs and worries of Penangites from all walks of life must be considered... the user must always come first.

In this regard, the Public Education Committee under MBPP, according to Theng, is looking into promoting media and technological literacy through social media engagement, where information about safe e-wallet usage is circulated to the public. Various e-wallet merchants participating in the initiative are also constantly advised by MBPP to reinforce the security of their systems in order to prevent scams and potential data privacy breaches by ill-intentioned individuals.

Sheik Mohammad's Malay rice stall at the Fisherman's Wharf food court currently offers Touch 'n Go eWallet and Boost as e-payment options.

Though doubts and uncertainties still persist, there is rising awareness about the need to embrace new technologies. Teh Eng Lai of Pulau Tikus wet market and Sheik Mohammad Sheik Alawi of Fisherman’s Wharf food court both welcome the initiatives, believing that Penangites should stop resisting the trend of digitalisation.

Choong Lai Hock, the owner of Hon Kei restaurant, says his business was digitalised after he took it over from his father four years ago. A digital ordering system utilising touchscreen tablets has replaced handwritten food orders; this sends orders from each table straight to the cashier’s computer and to the kitchen. Despite the high costs of digitalising his business, Choong has no regrets. It has instead greatly increased efficiency. “I encourage other traditional businesses to do the same; we will be left behind if we go against the grain.”

Teh Eng Lai manning his vegetable stall at the Pulau Tikus wet market.

“It’s going to be a very long road ahead,” Yeoh admits. He points out the need to have an end goal in mind, and reiterates the importance of digital journeys. “We need to think about the various touch points we have with these stakeholder groups along their digital journeys, and how we can gain their trust and loyalty. An agenda as critical as this needs to have a strong mandate.”

Making Penang a Smart State will be an exciting challenge, and for the general public, it will require, as Yeoh puts it, “a culture and a mind-set shift, and may take a generational change.”

Related Articles