INTO THE
INFORMATION AGE

What did it take for Singapore to
establish its slate of e-government
services? This journey began with
a simple commitment – to offer
citizens a better way.

Even as Singapore’s economy grew in leaps and bounds through the 1970s, the operational systems and processes of many public agencies often seemed of a different era. Only a handful – such as the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Finance, the Central Provident Fund Board and the Public Utilities Board, among others – used computers, and when it came to collecting a passport or submitting an application form, long queues were the norm. Government records were often kept in folders, with enormous resources dedicated to manually maintaining them.

In the late 1970s, the Public Service turned its attention to better serving citizens through the use of technology. Formed in 1980, the Committee for National Computerisation proposed a three-pronged approach: computerise the Civil Service, encourage the private sector to do the same and build up the talent pool in computing.

Ms Ong Lih Ling, a Director at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), first joined the National Computer Board (NCB) in 1984. She recalls the early challenge of convincing officers to embrace the digital future. “In those days, computers weren’t well-known as productivity tools,” she says. “But we knew they were necessary if we wanted to boost operational efficiency and cut down on unnecessary paperwork.”

Once initiated, change came quickly. By the end of 1985, 59
application systems had been delivered to public agencies, and the number of mainframe and minicomputer installations had swelled from 350 in 1981 to over 2,000. “Once the agencies got a taste of the productivity gains that could be realised from using computers, there was no going back,” Ms Ong recalls. “The demand for automation and programmers just grew and grew.”

A second computerisation drive now sought to offer one-stop services for citizens by sharing information across agencies. One ground-breaking success of this period was TradeNet.

Before the launch of TradeNet in October 1989, customs declarations and other trade-related documents had to be submitted in person to the relevant public agencies. The approval of permits could also take up to four days – a process compounded by the fact that, at that time, Singapore was processing some 2.5 million trade documents a year.

When TradeNet came online, its impact was immediate and profound. The system routed documents to the proper agencies automatically and approvals could be granted within 15 minutes. Costs were reduced by 50% and productivity raised by 20%–30%. By mid-1991, TradeNet was being used by 1,800 business entities to submit some 3.1 million trade declarations a year. “The benefit to agencies was also great as it eliminated routine processing and reduced paperwork. The transformation was radical.”

Meanwhile, the Public Service continued to make inroads in developing its very own Service-wide network. Ms Lim Bee Kwan, Senior Director with IDA, was one of the NCB officers tasked to set up this central infrastructure to allow agencies to share central systems and transmit data more securely and efficiently. “It’s a relatively straightforward process today, but in the early 1990s, the challenges were considerable,” she recalls. “Yet we were able to achieve a good level of collaboration between agencies, and our current central infrastructure is now one of the cornerstones and strengths of the Public Service.”

Ms Ong Lih Ling

Ms Ong Lih Ling

Having laid the foundations for an integrated, digital future, in the late 1990s, the Public Service now made a concerted push towards e-government. The goal? To finally banish inefficient service counters and take as many services online as possible.

From booking a badminton court and filing an income tax return to applying for a passport, e-services soon became the norm. Other e-government milestones during this period included the eCitizen portal (a gateway to different public services), SingPass (our personal identification framework for e-services), BizFile (the online business registration and information system), GeBiz (the Government’s online procurement system), EnterpriseOne (a portal that provides businesses with information and services from across the Public Service) and Careers@Gov (the online job portal for the
Public Service).

Ms Lim Bee Kwan

Ms Lim Bee Kwan

At the Ministry of Health, Ms Lim and her team also helped develop the Electronic Medical Record Exchange in the mid-2000s. Using this system, practitioners could share information for more timely and effective medical care. “This was a great benefit to both patients and doctors,” says Ms Lim.

Subsequent drives have put the focus on making e-services more integrated, user-friendly and secure. “We need to keep up with new technologies and have an eye for how to best exploit them, in order to serve the public,” Ms Lim says. “Technology is always evolving, and ours is a never-ending journey.”