Building a nation of e-citizens

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HOIE is one of a growing band of Singapore civil servants employed to become visionaries. Singapore has never had a problem with what President Bush famously called the "vision thing", but the "thing" has taken on a new urgency as Singapore intensifies plans for an "e- government", serving "e-citizens".

Mr Hoie, the senior corporate planning director at the National Computer Board, works in Science Park Drive, at the board's austere modern building, surrounded by a clutter of other austere buildings. All are devoted to making Singapore what Mr Hoie describes as a "multi-media hub", developing into a "multi-media media-industrial hub".

This involves having every home, office and factory wired up to a broadband cable network, which from the earliest stages of development will put the government directly online to its citizens. The citizens can transact most of their business with government online, including paying taxes and obtaining passports (but not, as in Britain, with the resulting chaos of computerisation).

The wired community will stretch further and further, delivering online tutorials to schoolchildren and further education to adults. It will put businesses directly online to each other. On the lighter side, it will deliver videos over telephone lines and provide virtual tours of places, projects and the like at the click of a button.

Much of the hardware is already in place, not least in the shape of the Singapore ONE nationwide high-speed broadband cable network, which is already accessible to 98 per cent of Singaporean homes and offices. It was completed last year at a minimal cost of more than pounds 115m because the island state was already equipped with a fully digitalised telephone system, requiring only relatively minor tinkering to upgrade it for broadband purposes.

This makes Singapore the only country on earth (albeit one somewhat smaller than Greater London) to be wired to such a high degree. The government is keen not only to get more people on to the high- speed broadband network but, in typically Singaporean fashion, to ensure that they use it. "The government is trying to leave people with no choice," said Mr Hoie. In other words, users of government services who do not access them through computers will either have to pay more or simply find there is no other way of accessing the service.

Those who do not have a computer in their homes will be able to go to community centres, libraries and other public places where they can log on for a minimal charge. "We will upgrade the computer literacy of the people," says Mr Hoie.

The government's master plan envisages training 100,000 people by the end of next year. In schools, training is even more rigorous. By 2002 some 30 per cent of the school curriculum will be taught by computer. At present, a pilot scheme is giving selected children a month off school to pursue their studies at home using computers. Unsurprisingly, it is proving popular.

Yeo Cheow Tong, the communications and information technology minister, says: "Over time, the concept of e--Citizen and e-Government will become a reality." He is unlikely to have been speaking of creating a virtual government but within two years, that government will be making all its services accessible through the Internet.

"Our vision," says Mr Yeo, "is to transform Singapore into a dynamic and vibrant global information and communications technology (ICT)capital with a thriving and prosperous net economy by the year 2010."

Even in Singapore transforming vision into reality is not easy. This becomes quickly apparent by taking a walk down Orchard Road, Singapore's Oxford Street, dotted by brightly coloured booths erected by Singapore ONE to attract interest in the new network. Only rarely do passers-by venture across for a hands-on experience. On a Sunday morning George Tay, a school student, was having a go with a friend. `It's really boring," he says. "Nothing much to see there." At home, his personal computer is linked to a host of interesting websites, but the Singapore ONE network was "all about shopping".

This is unfair. Although e-commerce is a big Singapore ONE feature, it also features 170 other multimedia applications. But George Tay has a point that may explain why the broadband network has only 60,000 users compared with the 400,000 total who are hooked up to the Internet (that, incidentally, means one in six Singaporeans are surfing the Web).

The government bridles at any suggestion that its problem is not in hardware, but software where creativity is lacking. "It is not clear in my mind that this stereotyping - that Singaporeans cannot think, are not creative - is necessarily the truth," said Lim Swee Say, Mr Yeo's deputy minister.

Yet the image is shared by many Singaporeans sometimes bemused by the government's efforts to control the flow of information rather than throw open the doors. Singapore still imposes censorship over websites, although only 100 or so are banned.

The new network intends to compete largely on the basis of quality and innovation. It can access the wider Internet at speeds 100 times faster than a normal 33.6K modem but the price is three times higher than those levied by slower Internet service providers.

Mr Hoie speaks of plans for developing a Chinese language inputting system, using electronic pens to write the characters. This will replace the highly cumbersome keyboard- based system, which is time-consuming. There are also ideas for voice inputting.

Singapore has been making plans to ensure a place on the new technology bandwagon since 1980. First there was a national computerisation initiative, then from 1986-1990, a national information technology plan. In 1991 the government launched IT2000, a plan to improve content of computerisation and hi-tech commun- ication services, turning Singapore into an "intelligent island".

The government ambitions stretch far beyond home use, the hi-tech plans are seen as the key to Singapore's economic growth. Some 45 per cent of Singaporean homes have at least one personal computer, but only 15 per cent of companies are engaged in electronic commerce.

Another of the government's masterplans envisages half of the nation's companies employing e-commerce by 2003, transacting pounds 1.5bn of business. Singapore is ranked fourth in the world league of the most information- driven economies and societies as defined by International Data Corp (IDC). The United States, Sweden and Finland precede Singapore but the IDC expects the island state to climb to the number two spot by 2002.

Mr Hoie said that by establishing a solid ICT base in Singapore it should be able to attract multinational companies to use the island as "a laboratory or test bed for new products". These companies are already in Singapore and the local information technology industry brought in revenues of some pounds 4.6bn last year, compared with a mere pounds 1bn in 1991. But the government wants lots more As well as providing a test bed, multinationals get tax breaks and other incentives to lure them in.

Plans, masterplans, targets, visions and campaigns for everything from courtesy to productivity flow from the Singapore government almost as fast as briefings from New Labour's spin doctors.

This tiny country, devoid of natural resources, and surrounded by more powerful neighbours, has a strong feeling that if it does not forge its own destiny, others will do it for them.

The hi-tech effort is the latest in a long line of initiatives to ensure Singapore retains its place in the sun.