From cargo port to digital hub

I remarked to Ching Yee Tan, IDA's Stanford-educated CEO, that critics refer to the country as "Singapore, Inc." "Why is that bad?" she asked. From an IT perspective, I think the answer is: "It isn't."

Developing an Asian IT strategy can be daunting. The world's most populous continent poses many challenges. Governments are often unstable and unpredictable. Translating language - and dialects - can be baffling. Modern facilities are built adjacent to communities still waiting for electricity.

Tiny Singapore might solve many such problems. This workaholic island-nation of 4 million is already America's 12th-largest trading partner. More than 1,300 U.S. companies operate there, and 300 make it their regional headquarters. There's good reason: Singaporeans are among the world's best-educated citizens. Its government is investing billions into research, IT and broadband development. Enhancing technology and collaborating with the private sector is mandated. Everyone's bilingual. English is the national language.

Recently, I was invited to examine the country's claims as an IT mecca and Asia-Pacific digital hub. It makes a compelling case. One night, during a seaside dinner with Hock Yun Khoong, a senior official at the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the techno-centric government department hosting me, we saw a seemingly endless line of freighters and tankers pass by offshore. Khoong observed, "Half the world's oil passes through here. Think what Al Qaeda could do if we're not vigilant."

But Singapore is vigilant. Safety is foremost, and technological capability follows closely. Singapore's is the world's second-largest, best-automated and statistically safest port. You can't bribe your way in and property simply doesn't disappear. Singapore has built a solid infrastructure, making multinational transactions easy and compliant. It's the first "paperless port," communicating wirelessly with inbound ships, eliminating hundreds of pages of paperwork per vessel.

All these attributes apply directly to Singapore's advantages to IT. Add government's superb attitude and you get a unique recipe for success. IP - your company's most precious cargo - is as safe there as freight in the port. Singapore's message: "Store your IP here. Use broadband technology to distribute localized versions of your IP to larger but less secure markets and conduct your transactions here where governance is top quality. Have a unique challenge or need an educated, adept labor pool? Let government partner with you."

Government as a partner? My biggest surprise was the competence, candor and cooperation of IDA representatives on all levels. IDA's charter is to devise, develop and execute information communications programs, accelerating Singapore's economic development. It does it with precision, collaborating with private companies at nearly all points. Intel was instrumental in devising IDA's broadband strategy, resulting in ubiquitous corporate, government and educational facility access. More than 75% of all homes have access.

Singapore believes its most valuable resource is its population. It cultivates its citizens to be among the world's best-equipped and best-informed knowledge workers. Literacy is well over 90%. Singapore pays for overseas college education with the proviso that graduates return to serve in government for a time equal to the time spent studying.

I remarked to Ching Yee Tan, IDA's Stanford-educated CEO, that critics refer to the country as "Singapore, Inc." "Why is that bad?" she asked.

From an IT perspective, I think the answer is: "It isn't."

Israel is editor-in-chief of Conferenza Premium Reports. He can be reached at


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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