Selling the Singapore e-govt story

By Robin Hicks

In the last issue of FutureGov, we asked senior figures in China, India, Korea and the Philippines whether or not they thought the Singapore e-government model would work in their countries. Not all of them said yes. In fact, only one did. And he was from Korea, a country that like Singapore wants to sell its e-government model to the world.

This doesn’t bode too well for IDA International, a consultancy born out of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) earlier this year. The swine flu pandemic isn’t helping either, by restricting travel to and from the countries Singapore wants to do business with.

We caught up with Seah Chin Siong, the CEO of IDA International, for a progress report on selling the Singapore e-government model overseas.

How much progress has IDA International made since it launched?

We’re still in discovery mode at the moment. We’re not yet a year old, although it is true that the IDA has actively looked at how it can help other countries in the past. We’re getting interest from a range of countries at different stages of their development. And no two countries are alike.

Indeed. So what do you say to government modernisers in India and China who say that the Singapore e-government model is of no use to them?

It is a short question that requires a long answer. We respect that different countries have different processes, infrastructures, cultures, and the way they prioritise their e-government objectives. We are not trying to make the Singapore model work for everyone, and don’t expect it to be imported lock, stock and barrel.

We need to spend time explaining why and how parts of our model can work. Often the challenges of implementing a Singaporean solution can be made difficult by the existence or absence of legislation. Some countries are still going through the rigours of the Electronic Transactions Act [which was implemented in Singapore in 1998 to provide a legal foundation for electronic signatures and contracts], which takes a lot of time. Some countries have low internet penetration. Some have a large land mass, making it difficult to lay sufficient broadband cables. The cost and benefits of e-government need to be weighed up, and the challenges clearly identified.

We are hoping that other countries will see Singapore as a benchmark, a process of enquiry that can help them on their journeys to better governance. Some countries want their IT industry to grow into a healthy economic sector, but unless the industry has had time to mature, it’s difficult to know where to begin. It has taken us 29 years to get to where we are. We are now on our sixth IT master plan. For each plan, we’ve had to iron out the complexities of governance, legislation, policy, leadership, education and so on.

These master plans are obviously not just about IT, and we understand perfectly well that it is not possible to transplant our model – or any other model – into another country without careful planning and consideration for a range of factors.

Which countries are you targeting?

Most of the countries we have worked with to date are in the Middle East, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. They see Singapore’s model as a possible solution. But not in its entirety. While the range of governance models is very diverse, there’s a surprisingly common set of issues from country to country.

Such as…?

One is human capacity. Many countries have to grapple with the problem of finding sufficient numbers of ICT professionals to execute e-government initiatives. The problem is particularly acute in countries where the population is small, such as Brunei, Qatar, Costa Rica or South Africa. But even when the workforce is large, as it is in China and India, finding talent can be a problem.

Can you go into a bit of detail about a recent project you’re working on?

We signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Oman IT Authority (ITA) in January (the ITA is like the IDA, but without the regulatory function). Our brief, in a nutshell, is to help them work out how ICT can translate into e-governance. We’re still defining the enterprise and e-government architecture, and the next step is to establish IT standards. The bigger picture is that the Oman and Singapore ICT industries will benefit in terms of trade, investment and technology partnerships.

How have you marketed IDA International?

We don’t see the need to market ourselves aggressively. You won’t see an ad for IDA International in the paper! The idea is to be of assistance to other countries and we have received requests to share what we know. But it’s a slow-burning process. Things don’t happen overnight, especially in the current climate. And we are learning too. We are in the process of introducing Singaporean IT companies to foreign governments and establishing relationships. This takes time. Remember that Singapore’s IT industry is not very large – it’s only around five per cent of GDP. We don’t have a Microsoft or a Google to drive the industry.

So presumably this explains why IDA International needs to sell on behalf of Singaporean IT companies? Can’t they survive on their own?

When you look at any Singaporean e-government strategy and execution there are multiple success factors. One is the close link between government and industry. To ensure that any part of the Singapore model is adequately executed, we must ensure that the entire stack is brought over and explained to the country we’re dealing with. There’s no sense in going to, say, India or China, and bringing the cart but forgetting the horse. IDA International can devise and implement a solution end to end.

So what is IDA International’s pricing policy? Can you put a value on Singapore’s e-government model?

We are still working that out. That’ll take another three to six months. Whatever that model is, you can rest assured that it will be financially sustainable. We want to establish partnerships between local IT companies and foreign government agencies, and will probably be remunerated on a case by case basis. Have you talked to the Koreans about how much they charge for their e-government services? No, we haven’t, although we are aware that Korean e-government services are promoted overseas. And good luck to them.

What are your views on e-government rankings? Singapore does well, so presumably so you are a fan?

Each has their own merits and areas of focus. That Singapore regularly ranks first validates that we have found the right formula for ourselves, and I am comforted by the fact that we are a leader in a number of different surveys.

Do you have a final message that you would like to get across?

Put simply, IDA International is committed to making available Singapore’s public sector infocomm expertise for countries interested in our model. I’d like to believe that our experience can lead to positive economic and social outcomes beyond this country.

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