Citizens trying to conduct routine business with governments find grouchy bureaucrats everywhere. Unless those citizens are Singaporeans, doing business on the Internet.
Increasingly, people in this southeast Asian nation are finding they need do little more than visit a single government Web site to accomplish tasks as mundane as applying for an extra phone line or as monumental as buying a new home.While governments around the world race to make their services available online, ``e-government' is old hat in tech-savvy Singapore, which has been aggressively computerizing its services since 1981.
The idea is to get people online - and out of long lines at government offices - and to show the world's business community that Singapore is a seriously efficient little country.
Need to check the balance of your pension fund? Apply for a scholarship? Register a motor vehicle? Download an application to patent a new idea? In Singapore, you can do it 24 hours a day by logging onto the e-Citizens Center.
The site is organized by life experiences rather than ministry names.
It displays virtual ``buildings' for health, business, law and order, transportation, family, housing, employment, education and defense along a winding ``Road of Life' and gives information on how to register everything from a birth to a death. In the ``defense building,' for example, young men can register for compulsory two-year military service.
Singapore's experience has governments around the world paying attention.
Pennsylvania and the Canadian province of Alberta looked to Singapore as a model when building their e-governments.
And southeast Asian governments signed a pact at a recent summit to share information about putting public services online.
In a 1999 survey, the U.S. General Services Administration called Singapore's e-government site ``the most developed example of integrated service delivery in the world.'
In September, Washington launched its one-stop government Web site: firstgov.gov.
Building the U.S. site was a mammoth task that involved merging and linking 20,000 government sites - some 27 million Web pages.
Singapore's e-government is a more simple matter. Only about 4 million people live on the compact, urbanized, tropical island.
Yet despite Singapore's much-ballyhooed reputation for efficiency, the e-Citizens Center lacks strong private-sector involvement, which means it may take a long time to pay for itself.
The government has set aside $870 million in the next three years for the project.
``In the U.S., a private company may offer to build an e-government platform for free,' betting it will eventually cash in on a pool of Web-savvy consumers, said Chia Sher Ling, a spokeswoman for the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, or IDA. ``Here, the government has to make the initial financial and manpower investments.'
The e-Citizens Center saves Singapore an estimated $23 million a year, says Chia.
In addition, Singapore expects to save $46 million a year through various new online government-to-business initiatives, she said.
Singapore's online income-tax-filing system, one of its most popular e-services used by foreigners and locals, is also showing some promise of profitability.
Available since 1998, the $1.3 million system has saved $1.54 per e-filer or a cumulative savings of $343,000, Chia said.
Christina Tan, a 29-year-old marketing executive, loves online filing: ``I don't have to bring all my documents around, and I don't have to waste the postage and going all the way to the post. It's just one click, and that's it.'
About 40 percent of taxpayers, or 500,000 people, filed their income tax returns electronically this year, said Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan.
Although some might consider e-services cold and impersonal, Singaporeans are busy, practical people and genuinely seem to appreciate the time the Internet can save.