Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 02/85 item 02 - scanned

THE WISDOM OF THE EAST (column)

Imagine you were running a tiny island state with no natural resources. How on earth would you keep your two and a half million subjects busy? How would you generate the money to buy the food, fuel, water and raw materials necessary to keep your population clothed, fed and sheltered? The answer, of course, must lie in services of varying kinds. Singapore is just such a country and I believe it can teach us a thing or two.

Its prime minister is regarded more as a monarch by the majority of the population. Lee Kuan Yew appears to be a man with a vision. He has dreams for his small republic and these dreams are daily becoming reality. I met about a hundred people while I was there and I could not avoid being deeply impressed by them. To a man, the Singaporeans were kind and considerate. More than that, they were industrious and clearly proud of their achievements. "This will be the tallest hotel in Asia"; "This is where our underground railway will run"; "Ten years ago the land you are standing on was part of the sea" . . . About half the people I met were engaged on some form of self-improvement courses outside work. The people seem keenly aware that brain power is an important national resource.

The government is in no doubt that information and the processing thereof will form a major part of Singapore's income in the future. Already plans are afoot to establish the country as a centre for computer services. It has clearly stated aims to increase the pool of computer professionals on the island and to actively promote the software industry. It aims to computerise the information processing needs of the entire civil service by the end of this decade. Programmes and incentives to encourage software development are being set up with special favour to those companies working with state-of-the-art technology.

Singapore recognises that many skills have yet to be developed. The services of foreigners able to impart the necessary knowledge and skills will be secured to help build the pool of local talent. Eventually, it is planned, this will bring about an export-oriented computer services industry in the country.

Now I was only in Singapore for eleven days but in that time I learned in no uncertain terms what the government was up to in terms of information technology. I sensed a clear direction which had been communicated to all those people I met while I was there. I'll be fair and mention that they were all connected with the computer industry in some way. But I'll be equally fair and say that I know hundreds of people in the computer industry in this country and I've never heard a clear statement of this government's strategy for IT, assuming it has one.

Maybe we don't feel it appropriate for the government to provide a sense of direction. That seems unlikely because we love to blame it when things go wrong. Perhaps we rely on market forces to create the right strategy. I find that unlikely too since the short-term gain is likely to get in the way of the long-term good. Perhaps we do have a master plan, but if someone is sitting on it then we may as well not have one. Each individual in this industry should be aware of the direction we're taking and why.

Maybe we don't feel that information technology is an important part of Britain's future. If that's the case I'd like to know so that I can emigrate (we thought you'd never offer. Ed). Since we have oil (for how long?), coal, farm products, iron ore and all those other things necessary to keep body and soul together maybe, we don't feel any sense of urgency about establishing a revenue stream to take us into the 21st century. If that's the case then we must be round the bend. It seems madness to me that we can ignore an opportunity which will cost us little, gobble few material resources and guarantee continuing foreign revenue.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with ecological issues will tell you that it is much better to use renewable resources than to use up irreplaceable deposits, be they oil, coal or whatever. What resource is more renewable than brains? If we develop our national brain power (both natural and artificial) and sell the end products on the world markets we could create a substantial source of future income. This seems to me to be common sense, but where is our national strategy?

The government has latched on to the need for us to have an indigenous supply of silicon chips. It has also decided that we need to respond to the 'threat' of the Japanese Fifth Generation effort. (What about the Sixth which seems to be on the way now?) To my mind both of these things are inward-looking. (They also happen to be leap-frogging some more immediate concerns.)

But isn't it time we looked outward too and formulated a clear national strategy aimed at ensuring that this country also becomes a world centre for computer services?