Web-Savvy Singaporeans Cut Through Red Tape With E-Government

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By Regan Morris/AP

Grouchy bureaucrats are everywhere citizens conduct routine business with governments — unless those citizens are Singaporeans, doing business on the Internet.

Increasingly, people in the small southeast Asian nation are finding they need do little more than boot up a PC and visit a single government Web site to accomplish tasks as mundane as applying for an extra phone line or as monumental as buying a new home.

While governments around the world race to make their services available online, “e-government” is old hat in tech-savvy Singapore, which has been aggressively computerizing its services since 1981.

The idea is to get people online — and out of long lines at government offices — and to show the world’s business community that Singapore is a seriously efficient little country.

Need to check the balance of your pension fund? Apply for a scholarship? Register a motor vehicle? Download an application to patent a new idea? In Singapore, you can do it 24 hours a day by logging onto the e-Citizens Center.

The site is organized by life experiences rather than ministry names.

It displays virtual “buildings” for health, business, law and order, transportation, family, housing, employment, education and defense located along a winding “Road of Life” and gives information on how to register everything from a birth to a death. In the “defense building,” for example, young men can register for compulsory two-year military service.

Singapore’s experience has governments around the world paying attention.

The state of Pennsylvania and the Canadian province of Alberta looked to Singapore as a model when building their own e-governments. And southeast Asian governments signed a pact at a recent summit to share information about putting public services online.

In a 1999 survey, the U.S. General Services Administration called Singapore’s e-government site “the most developed example of integrated service delivery in the world.”

In September, Washington launched its own one-stop government Web site: firstgov.gov. Building the U.S. site was a mammoth task that involved merging and linking 20,000 government sites — some 27 million Web pages.

Singapore’s e-government is a more simple matter. Only about 4 million people live on the compact, urbanized, tropical island.

Yet despite Singapore’s much-ballyhooed reputation for efficiency, the e-Citizens Center lacks strong private sector involvement, which means it may take a long time to pay for itself. The government has set aside $870 million over the next three years for the project.

“In the U.S., a private company may offer to build an e-government platform for free” — betting it will eventually cash in on a pool of Web-savvy consumers, said Chia Sher Ling, a spokeswoman for the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, or IDA. “Here, the government has to make the initial financial and manpower investments.”

The e-Citizens Center saves Singapore an estimated $23 million a year, says Chia. In addition, Singapore expects to save $46 million a year through various new online government-to-business initiatives, she said.

Singapore’s online income tax filing system — one of its most popular e-services used by foreigners and locals — is also showing some promise of profitability. Available since 1998, the $1.3 million system has saved $1.54 per e-filer or a cumulative savings of $343,000, Chia said. About 40 percent of taxpayers, or 500,000 people, filed their income tax returns electronically this year, said Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan.

Tan says Singaporeans will have access to 200 electronic services in the e-Citizen Center by next June. Many services on the site, like registering birth, are merely links to information which tell you the appropriate ministry to go to — in the flesh.

Other top officials, including elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, speak often of their vision of creating a “knowledge-based society” and an “intelligent island” — with every Singaporean home, school, business and government department jacked into a single, vast online network.

Ninety percent of the island is wired with a high-speed broadband connection. Many children are assigned e-mail accounts at school at age five.

The so-called digital divide is not very deep in Singapore.

For people without Internet access at home, there are plenty of other places to surf the Net. Most schools and libraries are fully wired, and more than 40 percent of the country’s homes already have Internet access.

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