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Singapore's Computer-Connected Future Worries Government Critics

With its top-down control, the government of this city-state has been able to push through a rapid technology revolution

SINGAPORE'S government has ambitious plans to create a computer-linked, high-tech economy by the year 2015. But critics say the technological breakthroughs will come at the expense of individual liberties.

Under the government's information technology plan, IT2000, Singapore plans to develop a sophisticated computer network that will serve as an information highway.

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The government strongly encourages high technology, says Wilson Tan, South Asia region general manager for Apple Computer. "It's an open economy but a closed society," Mr. Tan says.

Critics say the government's computerization plans ignore privacy rights guaranteed in the US and other industrialized nations.

"Keeping a citizen's computer files secret isn't even an issue here," says a computer professional. "It's part of the government's general authoritarianism."

The National Computer Board developed IT2000 in 1991 as part of a long-term effort to move Singapore toward high value-added manufacturing and service industries. Major elements of the plan include:

* Building a fiber-optic information highway to connect phones, computers, and faxes in virtually every home and office.

* Developing fast and efficient computer networks. TradeNet already saves shipping traders about $1 billion a year by reducing paperwork processing time.

* Enhancing technology education. Teachers will broadcast to remote learning locations and multimedia computers will teach foreign languages. In one existing pilot project, university students call up class schedules or library data from laptop computers equipped with wireless modems.

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Chin Tahn Joo, senior director of technology for the National Computer Board (NCB), says IT2000 goals are realistic. The NCB has spent the past 10 years computerizing virtually all government agencies. That process, in turn, encouraged the private sector to do the same. The government has introduced computer networks for lawyers, shippers, real estate agents, and medical professionals. It even distributes a low-cost computer program for filing income taxes.

Singapore's state-run universities have turned out highly trained professionals. "In the early 1980s we had only 700 trained computer professionals," Mrs. Chin says. "Now we have over 10,000." Singapore's total population is 3 million.

Singapore already exceeds the United States in the percentage of installed telephone lines capable of handling high-speed data.

Yuen Chung Kwong, head of the computer science department at the National University of Singapore, cautions that comparisons between this city-state and the US can be misleading. "Singapore is more advanced than the US" in a number of fields, he says, "but not compared to New York City." As a very small country, Singapore can implement technology much more quickly, Prof. Yuen says. "There is only one level of government," he says. "When you need to deal with city, county, state and federal government - a s well as private companies - then obviously the complexity level will be much greater."

Some computer professionals charge that Singapore's government is efficient but ruthless. They worry that pervasive computerization will further erode human rights.

"There are no restrictions on the government opening your files or reading your electronic mail," one programmer says. "The more you use a computer, the more the government will know about you."

Prof. Yuen says such concerns have not become a major issue. "There is a difference in social and cultural attitudes," he says. In Singapore people ask 'If you haven't got anything to hide, why are you worried about it?' "

Government supporters and critics agree, however, that Singapore has fostered a respect for computer professionals not seen in many other countries.

Dai How, a programmer for Apple Computer, concedes that his polyester slacks and plain white shirt would characterize him as a nerd back in the US. Here he commands respect. "The general perception of the computer professional here is not nerdy," he says.

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