Marketing Savvy

In a study of e-business environments and opportunities in 64 countries, the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit placed Singapore at the top of the Asia-Pacific region, and a sound 7th world-wide.

The rankings are based on about 100 criteria, from infrastructure to consumer adoption, business environment, social and cultural conditions, legal policies and the availability of supporting services. It’s a fairly comprehensive overview of how ready a particularly economy is, for infocomm-based market opportunities.

Singapore’s performance, which places it just behind the US, UK and the reigning Scandinavian countries, is encouraging. It’s yet another indicator that the key IT sector -- worth over US$3 billion last year and growing -- is no era flash-in-the-pan. By most accounts, Singapore shares many strengths in common with the acknowledged global leaders -- strong government investment, involvement and initiative in the sector; a wired and savvy population, and a positive business climate to fuel further development.

Of course, rankings don’t always give the full picture. For instance, rising powerhouses such as India and China don’t tend to fare well in such aggregate studies (India ranks a paltry 46th; China, 52nd), but they support thriving sectors and markets. That’s because they have managed to exploit cost advantages in specific niche areas, while the rest of the country lags behind in terms of infrastructure and technology adoption.

Such studies could merely give assurance that Singapore is still a great place to be in. But they can also uncover relative vulnerabilities. In the EIU rankings, for instance, Singapore fares among the worst of the top-seeded economies in several key IT enablers: including consumer and business adoption of IT.

In other words, we have the manpower, means, and machines, but seem to be having a harder time actually getting people on board the IT bandwagon in a big way.

Those tasked with developing and promoting Government services online would disagree. With over 1,600 services online, government e-services are said to have been used at least once by over 75% of the population, enjoying millions of hits a month. The Inland Revenue Authority’s pioneering tax e-filing system, launched in 1998, now receives over 60% of all tax returns. Surely indications that our online services are well used and well received?

Yes, but it’s also easy to drive up usage numbers by making online transactions the only means of doing business -- as is now the case when you want to register a business, or take part in certain government tenders. Recent hiccups with the business registration system and the GeBIZ procurement portal suggest that users are obliged to work with systems that turn out less than robust. Adoption, sure; satisfaction, perhaps not.

And there are odd gaps in service provision: on the eCitizen government services portal, for instance, you can bid online for a COE, but not to apply for a driving test. You pay your road tax in one section, but apply for season parking elsewhere. eCitizen, which was launched in 1999 as a customer-centric, one-stop means of transacting with government that cuts across all agencies involved, seems to have settled for a patchy, ad hoc menu of services.

To be fair, a project of such scale and ambition as Singapore’s e-government roll-out is bound to face technical difficulties. It’s not as if local commercial service providers have better alternatives. Indeed, many SMEs and even large local corporations have a limited or non-existent presence on the web to this day -- good news for web developers but bad news for our globalisation efforts.

These things matter because we’re playing in a different class from developing giants such as India and China, who can still afford to let some things slide while focusing on a few narrow sectors of growth. As a mature business environment pegged to the top economies in Europe and America, our adoption and implementation of world-class technologies is expected to keep pace, across the board, with our level of economic development.

Our small domestic market and limited reach means we’re likely to produce no more than the odd Creative Technology; there are as yet hardly any other homegrown IT products that have hit it big worldwide. The reputation and marketability of our IT sector rests not on our inventiveness, but almost solely on our sound infrastructure, reliable manufacturing and solid project management skills.

Last week the Infocomm Development Authority and the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation jointly opened the Singapore Solutions Centre in Shanghai. The centre is an aggressive effort to showcase Singapore’s expertise in making IT work, in key areas such as financial services, logistics, transport and healthcare. The centre is no doubt only the first in a series of timely thrusts to project Singapore’s IT industry beyond our wired but limited shores.

We won’t be able to compete on cost, nor yet on ingenuity, so we’ll have to ace the execution. In order to sell our IT savviness to the world, the acid test is to get it right at home.