Saturday 12 December 2015

Singapore can afford to be more open in sharing data

By Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley, Published The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2015

Mars sounds like an exciting place. Scouring daily images from NASA's Curiosity rover, some amateur astronomers are convinced that the Red Planet is home to mice, iguanas and humanlike gods. Regardless of whether these are valid claims or just cosmic pareidolia, it is noteworthy that NASA publicly releases images.

Although the information can harmlessly find its way to untrained observers, it is a potentially valuable tool for crowdsourcing low-level analysis, and has revived public interest in space exploration.

Data openness - from space images to government budgets - sounds like a defensible cause. In the information age, citizens expect transparency, and degree of openness is an increasingly common benchmarking metric.

However, not all governments are so forthcoming, and Singapore is one example. Rarely outshone in the world of performance indexes, Singapore is ranked in the global top 10 for per capita gross domestic product (GDP), national competitiveness, ease of doing business, personal safety, and lack of corruption, among many other metrics.

However, Singapore's Government has never been accused of being overly transparent, and the recently released Global Open Data Index underscores this.

One force increasingly transforming national politics and geopolitics is the democratisation of information, and the connection between transparency and political legitimacy probably explains some countries' reluctance to share information. Indeed, governments possess sensitive data that should not be publicly released, but access is increasingly seen as a public right rather than a privilege. The global proliferation of social media has empowered policy advocates to mobilise groups for a variety of purposes, including rallies and voter turnout.

The same enabling platforms have provided infrastructure for information-sharing, just as curiosity is rising among citizens in countries with historically secretive governments. For example, in Russia and China, technology-enabled data exchange among citizens is growing despite crackdowns.

The Global Open Data Index, administered by the global non-profit Open Knowledge, "measures and benchmarks the openness of data around the world". Each country is assigned a score broadly reflecting degree of openness derived from a weighted average of two factors: technical (data updated, in digital form, and machine-readable, etc) and legal (data free, publicly available, and openly licensed).

Among the 97 countries studied, the United Kingdom is the most "open" (97 per cent) and Guinea the least (10 per cent). Singapore ranks 63rd (34 per cent open), having the same score as Bangladesh, Bermuda, Nepal, Senegal and Tunisia. For a highly developed country, this is not good company.

Singapore ranks lowest on government spending: 0 per cent transparency, 86th and tied for last place with 11 countries that otherwise have little in common with the 20th century's greatest economic miracle.

Singapore ranks highest on transport timetables (45 per cent and 24th), and is 55 per cent transparent (59th) in "national statistics" that measure GDP, employment, population, etc. The percentages of these and other sub-metrics are derived under the same methodology used for overall scores, described above.

Notable is the transparency gap between government spending and government budget (0 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively). In the index metrics, spending is highly detailed at the transaction level (monthly items under US$1 million - S$1. 4 million at the current exchange rate), while budget is "high-level" data by department and sector.

Most countries are more transparent in the latter than the former, but, for Singapore, the difference is notably large. The reasons are largely a matter of speculation, but may include reluctance to release details about defence, security and wealth-fund activities, and the data requirements of particular budget and accounting processes.

Singapore joins the likes of Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Zimbabwe, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia in being among the 12 least open for government spending.

Cyprus is an offshore tax haven and tourist destination, Saudi Arabia is almost entirely resource-dependent, and Cambodia is working mightily to outrun the shadow of a tragic history.

Besides Indonesia and China, the remaining countries with the least open data on government spending include Guinea, Mali and Benin, and can be viewed as dysfunctional laggards sodden with corruption. This is strange company for Singapore indeed. Given its global openness and pragmatic attitude, Singapore should strive to do much better than the above countries in any aspect of governance, including transparency.


One strategy for a government to maintain legitimacy is to provide more avenues for information access. There are three reasons why improving transparency is a good strategy. First, transparency shifts discussions about policy and governance away from supposition and innuendo, and towards facts. If a government truly has much to credit its efforts, evidence denies emotion-laden opposition any credibility.

Second, transparency invites creative policy solutions from society, including non-profit and private sectors. This allows proposals to tap non-government analytical and intellectual capacity.

Finally, more transparency enables a country to be internationally compared on a broader variety of metrics. If the country has proven itself a global leader on numerous levels, withholding information is unnecessary and arguably counterproductive.

Throughout Singapore's decades of fiercely ambitious developmentalism and historically unprecedented growth, pragmatism has become the Government's brand image.

In the eyes of many in Singapore and around the world, Mr Lee Kuan Yew is the anti-ideologue. In a 2007 New York Times interview, he stated of the Government: "We are pragmatists. We don't stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let's try it, and, if it does work, fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one." Such earthy honesty is refreshing in a world of paranoid dictators and image-minded populist opportunists. Transparent pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

If any country has nothing to hide, it is Singapore. Aside from national security, there should be little concern about the sensitivity of government data. Good governance and data openness are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are fundamentally complementary. It is no imperative to sacrifice freedom of information at the altar of political stability. If an analyst or curious citizen finds an opportunity to improve policy, a country should embrace the process that made it possible.

Like Mars, Singapore has exciting but undiscovered facts: mice and iguanas - and, some could say, even humanlike gods. Why keep that a secret?

Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Kris Hartley is a doctoral candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

* Govt more open in sharing data

The commentary last Friday ("S'pore can afford to be more open in sharing data") cited data from the Global Open Data Index, which attempts to benchmark openness of data internationally.

In the latest 2015 rankings, Singapore ranks a joint 23rd out of 122 places, and not 63rd, ahead of places such as Germany, Switzerland and Hong Kong. In the government spending category, Singapore scored the same as countries such as Australia, Denmark and the United States.

We are surprised that the commentary writers, Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley, who are academics, relied on an outdated version of a single index to conclude that the Singapore Government has not been transparent and open in sharing its data.

Had they checked with us, we would have pointed out the flaws on the measurement for Singapore in the old index and advised them to refer to the latest version.

They could also have looked up the "Revenue and Expenditure Estimates" information on the Singapore Budget website ( for details of government spending. It is regrettable that they had drawn the wrong conclusions without exercising the care and rigour one expects of academics from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The Government now makes available more than 12,000 data sets on the Government's open data portal (

We have recently revamped the portal to make data accessible in more machine-readable and useful formats.

This has enabled users to access more real-time data via application programming interfaces.

We are continually enhancing the portal, currently a beta version, based on public feedback, and we welcome further inputs on ways to improve.

Many government agencies have organised hackathons and made data available for the public to create useful solutions. For example, transport-related data from the Land Transport Authority has enabled the creation of journey planner apps that provide bus arrival times and carpark locations.

Many companies and non-profit organisations have built interesting apps and business models off the OneMap geospatial platform. As part of our Smart Nation journey, we continue to share data to improve services to citizens, create economic value, and promote research and the co-creation of solutions between government and society.

We will continue to make more data available in ways that are consistent with the need to protect individuals, enterprises and the public interest.

Lim Yuin Chien
Corporate Communications
Ministry of Finance
ST Forum, 15 Dec 2015

THE WRITERS REPLY:Our analysis was based on the Global Open Data Index (GODI) for last year.

The 2015 analysis came out well after we did our analysis and after we submitted our piece to The Straits Times for publication. Thus, the insinuation that academics like us used outdated data is not only unwarranted but is demonstrably unfair and erroneous.

Singapore has indeed improved its ranking this year, based on the data set released only last Wednesday. While GODI's data shows that Singapore's spending is 10 per cent transparent (up from 0 per cent last year), it is difficult to understand why most developing countries share such low scores.

Methodological errors are GODI's and not ours. Equally, no one indicator can give a full picture for different countries. We are considering an academic paper assessing their methodologies.

For any country to advance, data should be readily available to the public and academics for independent scrutiny and research. In recent years, we have seen perceptible improvements in data availability.

We believe open discussions can only facilitate more and more availability of data that academics need for research. This will enable us to put forward regularly new and innovative policy alternatives for public consideration and discussion. Hopefully, many of these can eventually become government policies.

Govt welcomes conversations anchored on serious research

We refer to Professor Asit K. Biswas and Mr Kris Hartley's reply to our letter published yesterday ("Govt more open in sharing data"), in response to their commentary last Friday ("S'pore can afford to be more open in sharing data").

The writers indicated that the 2015 Global Open Data Index came out well after they did their analysis and submitted their commentary to The Straits Times for publication.

The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) posted the 2015 Global Open Data Index draft rankings and methodology on its website as early as Oct 28, and invited the public to verify the accuracy of the 2015 index.

These remained accessible to the public until the OKF published the finalised rankings for 2015 last Wednesday.

The Government welcomes objective conversations on data sharing, but such conversations should be anchored on serious research.

Lim Yuin Chien
Corporate Communications
Ministry of Finance
ST Forum, 16 Dec 2015

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