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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4779


Senator TIERNEY (7:09 PM) —Mr Acting Deputy President, I congratulate you on your rise to high office. I rise tonight to speak on Singapore's position in relation to information technology and education. I recently met with top Singaporean information technology experts and school and library officials to discuss their approaches to tackling the roll-out of the information age. Senators will recall that the Senate currently has two inquiries into information technology under way—the first into information sources and the second into information transmission. Hearings will take place later this year, and the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee will report back to the Senate around Easter 2003. It was therefore timely to examine Singapore's approach, which provides us with an excellent model for consideration when we discuss Australia's future direction in this information age.

Singapore is a major IT hub for the whole of Asia. The whole island being so small, it is very easy to wire up, and Singaporeans are very keen for outside cables to come in and link them to nearby countries. This highlights Singapore's desire to be the IT hub of Asia. Two years ago it introduced a legislative regime allowing a more liberal foreign investment system, and there are now 35 carriers and over 300 service providers in Singapore. It has also installed infrastructure that is ahead of demand and it is leading the world in wireless technologies such as m-commerce—mobile commerce. It has made a determined effort to overcome the digital divide between the rich and the poor. There is a pervasive computing goal to apply technology as widely as possible across Singaporean society. E-literacy rates are already at 55 per cent, and the national goal is to push these to 65 per cent by 2005. An example of the pervasive technology that will be developed is the smart house, with very advanced types of applications enabling you, for instance, to make your home fridge cooler from the office.

Such high-level applications are being developed not only in the home but also in schools and libraries. They have a master plan to fast-track the use of IT in the curriculum, in teaching and in the administration of schools. All schools now have one terminal to every two pupils and one notebook to every two teachers. Pre-service programs have been coordinated with in-service training resources being put into this system. They have also integrated IT systems across their schools, they have contractors to develop IT solutions in each school and each school has an IT assistant on top of that. They have put strategies in place that will actually solve the problem of the lack of `withitness' on IT issues that often exists in schools. They envisage that up to one-third of the curriculum will be available using IT by 2005. They are also rolling out a number of demonstration schools for IT at the moment and they hope that this will flow right across the school network.

The National Library of Singapore is playing a very impressive role in the roll-out of the information age. It started as the Raffles Library in 1871. Over the following 90 years there was not very much change, but in the last 30 years there have been some dramatic changes, particularly with a very extensive and comprehensive library network across Singapore which is trying to reach out to all people right across society and bring them into the information age. The system includes one of three university libraries, a professional library and 36 branch libraries, including one located in a shopping mall, which I visited. This lifestyle library is pitched to the 18- to 35-year age group. In the mall you enter the library through a coffee shop where a lot of young people were studying and drinking coffee. This provides a much more user friendly entrance than the traditional library.

The Prime Minister of Singapore has decreed the development of a `take it to the people' approach which should also be extended to those not so well-off living in the big high-rise housing estates. An interesting strategy has been developed for children, in which 40 of the tower blocks people live in have children's libraries on the ground floor which include not only play areas, reading rooms and your normal library but also up to 20 computer screens where children as young as four can start down the path of e-literacy at a very early age—initially by playing games, but moving up from that.

Also being created across Singapore is a string of learning spaces. Often these are in rented places in shopping malls and, as well as books, they have up to 120 computer screens for adult and community education. Education, especially retraining, is going to be a major underpinning of the future development of the Singaporean economy. These learning spaces will play a major role in retraining and upskilling the work force, and extending IT skills to those that are still on the wrong side of the IT divide.

Through the library outreach spaces, they are driving e-literacy on five levels. The first level is basic IT; the second is information and computing; the third is business uses; the fourth is e-careers, for example helping people develop the skills to be a web master; and the fifth is specialist IT applications, such as Cysco engineering. From the bottom to the top, through this adult education approach people can plug in at whatever level they are up to and advance their IT skills. With this very advanced community education model, people can develop all levels of IT training. This is all driven out of the extended library structure of Singapore. They feel this approach will work because libraries are perceived as being non-threatening education environments.

I also had the opportunity to observe how smart IT technology is revolutionising the workplaces in Singapore. For example, there is a very large emphasis on efficiency in the library. By using this new technology in clever ways, they have managed to improve efficiency by 30 per cent. But they did not fire 30 per cent of their staff; they extended the reach and services of the library and developed the skills of all their staff. Some of the devices they have are quite neat: the use of smart cards and tagging systems for checking books in and out. You do not actually interact with people when you do that in the Singapore libraries. All the fines are also distributed automatically, and queues have disappeared. They have actually abolished form-filling at the National Library of Singapore. Staff used to fill out about 70,000 forms a year, for sick leave and all sorts of other things. That has now all gone. Everything is done with smart cards and entering data on the computer. As I have stated in this place before, education and access to information can have a major effect on economic development and the efficient way in which our economy works, particularly in this developing information age. We should take these lessons from Singapore into account when we plan for Australia's IT future.