National information infrastructure


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Poh-Kam Wong


Over the last 3 decades, Singapore has achieved one of the most rapid economic growth among developing countries and newly industrializing economies (NIEs). Since the early 1980s, the Singapore government has also been among the most aggressive in terms of promoting the diffusion and adoption of information technology (IT). The level of informatization of the Singaporean economy by mid-1990s probably ranks as among the highest among NIEs (see Table 1). It is therefore of no surprise that, in the early 1990s, the Singapore government was among the first country in the world to articulate a vision of developing a broadband National Information Infrastructure (NII) as a means to achieve her future national socioeconomic goal (IT2000 Plan: A Vision of an Intelligent Island).

[Insert Table 1 here.]

The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of the background and motivations leading to the articulation of this NII vision, the strategies and implementation initiatives undertaken, and the development status so far.

The case of Singapore is of interest in comparative studies of NII development worldwide, not only because she was among the first in the world to articulate an NII Vision, but also because the challenges she faces may be of particular relevance to other small, newly industrializing economies (NIEs). Without a substantial home market of its own, being far from the lead user markets (particularly the US), and with the absence of big home-based corporations with advanced technologies, deep pockets and global clouts, Singapore has little comparative advantage to influence the global directions of NII-related technological developments or mass market trends. Whatever NII systems that Singapore adopt must be able to plug into the global networks of NIIs emerging in the advanced countries. A key challenge facing NIEs like Singapore is therefore one of timing. By moving early when global NII developments are still in the emerging, pre-dominant design stage, NIEs like Singapore can hope to gain competitive advantages versus other NIEs or even advanced countries, but in the process run a high risk of betting on the wrong technologies or focusing on the wrong markets. By waiting until the dominant features of the new NII industry are already clear, however, Singapore will lose whatever lead she may hope to gain over other NIEs, let alone trying to leapfrog over more advanced countries.

With a small domestic market and little technological resources of her own, small NIEs like Singapore cannot build the NII using her own technological sources, and cannot hope to recover the cost of building the NII based purely on current domestic demand. Hence, unlike the advance countries, Singapore faces the challenge of how to leverage the advanced technological resources and regional market reach of global firms from the advanced countries to help build an NII that is made commercially more viable by serving the larger regional demand of global firms. In this regard, the policy framework and investment regulatory environment must be sufficiently open and attractive to encourage foreign technology suppliers and lead users to transfer their technologies as well as to bring to Singapore regional market business volumes.

Finally, the distinctive "communitarian" ideology of the Singaporean political leadership (Chua, 1995) also leads to a very unique set of policy concerns from those of the western social democracies. The Singapore political leadership has consistently espoused a need to promote social and community values through exercising control over what she believes as undesirable information. This communitarian ideology prescribes restriction of individual freedom of expression in the public domain, and by extension, to control over freedom of the press. Consequently, the development of NII poses interesting issues of how the promise of information abundance is to be reconciled with the "communitarian" ideology.

Background and motivations

Establishment of the National Computer Board

Singapore first started to pay attention to the potential of exploiting IT to improve economic performance in the early 1980s. It was among the first countries in the world to establish a public agency, called the National Computer Board (NCB), in 1981 to promote computerization and IT industry development in a coordinated manner. One of the earliest tasks of NCB was to initiate an ambitious program of computerizing government services. Called the Civil Service Computerization Programme (CSCP), the programme in effect made the government sector the lead user of computer technology in the country. The fact that NCB was established under the Ministry of Finance gave it the clout needed to plan and implement computerization projects for the entire public sector.

Another early task of NCB was to coordinate computer education and training to ensure that the output of computer manpower from the various training institutions would meet industry needs. A third task of NCB was to help promote the evolution of an export-oriented software industry. This was done primarily by coordinating with the Economic Development Board (EDB) to encourage leading IT vendors in the world to use Singapore as their regional marketing, technical support and software development hub in Asia.

National IT Plan (NITP)

Under the initiative of NCB, a National IT Plan (NITP) was formulated in mid-1985 to map out a strategy to promote IT development in Singapore. The plan identified seven building blocks:

· IT Manpower - to develop a corp of IT professionals with the right blend of skills for extensive and innovative exploitation of IT

· IT Culture - to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of IT among the people in order to facilitate its application

· Information Communication Infrastructure - to build an efficient information communication infrastructure and promote its creative and widespread use

· IT Applications - to promote widespread and effective IT application in every sector of the economy in order to improve productivity and create competitive advantage

· IT Industry - to foster the growth and technological sophistication of the IT industry order to support the extensive and innovative application of IT and the export of competitive IT products and services

· Climate for Creativity and Entrepreneurship - to nurture an indigenous IT development and marketing capability to the level of international competitiveness

· Coordination and Collaboration - to make the most of limited resources through co-ordination of public and private sector organizations involved in IT development

The plan considerably broadened the scope of government involvement in IT promotion and policy. As the agency entrusted to spearhead the implementation of the plan, NCB's activities and influence expanded significantly over the next few years. IT applications in the public sector accelerated: between 1985 and 1990, the number of mainframe/minicomputers installed in government departments jumped from 35 to 107, the number of applications systems developed increased from 72 to 293, while annual government computer spending increased from S$14 million to S$200 million. Some of the public sector IT applications have received international recognition, with TradeNet being the most well-known example.

Several new institutions were established by NCB to pursue its widened role. For example, an Information Technology Institute (ITI) was formed in 1986 to enter into applied R&D. An Information Communication Institute of Singapore (ICIS) was set up in 1989 in collaboration with AT&T Bell Labs, USA to provide postgraduate telecommunications software training, while a Japan-Singapore Artificial Intelligence Centre (JSAIC) was started in 1990 to promote AI technologies. New promotional programs introduced include technical and financial assistance for small enterprises (Small Enterprise Computerization Program (SECP)), subsidies for IT training of office workers (IT POWER Program), and grants for advanced IT manpower training (CITREP Scheme). Annual events such as National IT Award, National IT Week and Software Competition were also launched to promote IT awareness among the populace.

IT diffusion and industry development

Spurred on by the various pro-IT policies and programs of NCB and other government agencies, the diffusion of IT usage expanded rapidly throughout the 1980s (see Table 2). By mid-1990s, over 90% of organizations in Singapore employing 10 persons or more had computerized. At the same time, the production and export of IT hardware and software grew significantly into a major industry in Singapore, albeit one mainly dominated by foreign IT companies. As Table 3 shows, direct export of computer systems and IT services to end-users had increased more than 6-fold to S$2.2 billion in 1994 from just S$358 million in 1990. These figures do not include the export of computer peripherals like hard disk drives and printers. Although not as dramatic, domestic IT spending also registered strong growth from S$1.5 billion in 1990 to S$2.8 billion in 1994. Of the total sales of S$5 billion recorded by the IT industry in 1994, about 72% were derived from hardware, 12% software, and 16% IT services (NCB, 1995).

[Insert Tables 2 & 3 here.]

Telecommunications and media industry development up to the early 1990s

Telecommunications had always been recognized as a strategic infrastructure to support Singapore's role as a regional manufacturing, trades and financial services hub. Although the public telecoms operator, Singapore Telecoms (STel), had a monopoly in virtually all areas of telecommunications except terminal equipment, it had proven remarkably dynamic and efficient, in contrast to PTTs in many other countries (Kulwant, 1994, and Wong, 1993). The World Competitiveness Report has consistently ranked Singapore as among the best in terms of telecommunications infrastructure.

In the case of the media industry, the government had maintained a tight control over newspaper publishing and broadcasting since political independence (Kuo, 1993). Practically all local dailies were published by one company (Singapore Press Holdings(SPH)) closely linked to the government, while the state-owned Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) had a monopoly over terrestrial broadcasting (three TV channels and radio stations) prior to its corporatization in 1994. Until the early 1990s, no public cable TV was permitted, while satellite broadcast receiving dishes continue to be banned to this day. The government on the whole maintained a very strict policy against pornography, and exerted tight censorship control over movies and imported videos. While foreign press circulated freely in Singapore, they are subject to the government's right-of-reply policy. Senior political leaders have also not hesitated to resort to the court of law to act against the press when it publishes what they consider as libelous.

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