Information Power: Singapore

… an Atlas blog post

Leslie A. Pal, 1 May 2013

I’ve been living in Singapore for the past four months while on sabbatical at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Four months is too short a time to make many informed judgements about public management in a country, though Singapore typically ranks near the top of league tables in most governance indicators, except democracy. The island state has all the bells and whistles of democracy, but has had the same party in government since 1965. But I don’t want to focus on the macro-picture here, or any of the dozens of policy fields in which Singapore is a clear leader (e.g., health and education). I’d rather focus on the micro, and in this instance the way that information is used on the ground to provide cues and signals to citizens and consumers in their daily lives.

My example − since I took it every day − is the MRT or the mass rapid transit system of subways, elevated trains, and buses. Millions of people use the system every day − though they are sometimes grumpy about some flaws, it is nonetheless considered one of the best and most efficient in the world. Part of the secret is effective information messaging. All this seems trivial, but in the aggregate make moving around the city a seamless and even pleasant exercise. The usual signage is everywhere of course, as is the colour coding of different lines. Video monitors throughout stations (not just on the platform) tell passengers how the long the wait will be (laughably, never more than 5 minutes, but it’s comforting to know whether you will have to endure 2 or 3 minutes). Recorded announcements say that the train is arriving, that it has arrived, that the doors are opening. Once on the train, both recordings and visual banners indicated what the next station is, along with electronic maps over the doors that show progress station by station. Lights above the doors indicate which side will open, and again this is reinforced with electronic scrolling banners. Periodically you are asked to report any “suspicious looking person or item.” Supplementing this is hard information technology. The system operates with smart cards that are simply tapped on the turnstile in buses, both getting on and getting off (a pay-by-distance-travelled basis). The cards can be easily topped up. You can use your transit card to shop at the 7-11 and other stores.

The MRT is unobtrusively saturated in information, but information that has been carefully designed to support the seamless flow of passengers every hour of every day. I’ve seen the same principle in other sectors − the temporary residence card I received (I applied on a Thursday, and it was ready for pick-up at the Manpower office on Saturday morning!) has my biometric and passport information on it. When I leave or enter the Singapore airport, like other Singaporeans I simply go to a checkpoint, slide my passport in to be scanned, and then place my thumb on the bio-metric reader, and I’m out (or in) within 15 seconds. These are both low-tech and high-tech examples of the use of information as a policy instrument. If done intelligently and with clear design, it can make significant differences in quality of life − I prefer the MRT to Toronto’s version, and I’ll take Changi Airport over Pearson any day.

Image: Singapore MRT route info panel, courtesy of the Anthony Robbins Blog.