Computing Nanyang: information technology in a developing Singapore, 1965-85

Stevens, Hallam, and Chan, Jiahui (2022) Computing Nanyang: information technology in a developing Singapore, 1965-85. In: Dick, Stephanie, and Abbate, Janet, (eds.) Abstractions and Embodiments New Histories of Computing and Society. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, USA, pp. 299-319.

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[Extract] On November 3, 1969, Ong Pang Boon, Singapore’s minister for education, officially opened the Nantah Lee Kong Chian Computer Centre at Nanyang University. Although other computers had been operating in Singapore for several years, this was the first computer in the island nation that was to be used for training and education. “The artificial intelligence built into the computer is such that it has invaded every field of human endeavor,” Minister Ong said—and taking advantage of this “revolution” meant having well-trained individuals to control computers and use them effectively.1

Singapore is now globally recognized as a high-tech city-state—from self-driving cars to “smart city” sensors, it is a place wired deep for the information technology age. The island’s technological development owes much to the Singapore government’s active cultivation of computing and communication technologies. In the late 1970s, the government recognized the need to develop information technology for Singapore. In 1980, the minister for trade and industry Goh Chok Tong appointed the Committee on National Computerisation to study Singapore’s prospects. Its report recommended enhancing computer education in Singapore, the digitization of the civil service, and the establishment of a National Computer Board (NCB) to help oversee these efforts.2 Due to its subsequent success in these activities, the NCB has received much of the credit for putting Singapore on a path toward digitization.

But the government’s later role in developing IT has overshadowed the fact that, by the late 1970s, computer science was already an active discipline within Singapore, and a first generation of IT professionals had already been trained in computer use. Indeed, Singapore’s computer pioneers were not the NCB but rather a small group of professors and technicians at Nantah Computer Centre and the Department of Computer Science at Nanyang University. Telling their story sets the history of information technology in Singapore in a different light. Most importantly, it relocates the initiative and agency in Singapore’s modernization further away from the government and closer to other individuals and institutions. In particular, it suggests the importance of relationships between the educational and private sectors in fostering long-term technological development.

In the last decade there has been a concerted effort amongst historians of computing to decenter the West and offer a wider range of geographical and cultural narratives around information technology. In the domain of networking in particular, we now have excellent accounts of electronic networking in the Soviet Union, France, and Chile, amongst others.3 Švelch has called attention to the role of gamers and hackers in developing computing in Eastern Europe, and in this volume he elaborates on these narratives by examining the cloning of computers in communist-era Czechoslovakia.4 Likewise, Ekatarina Babintseva argues that we should not think of the development of Soviet versions of artificial intelligence as merely derivative of developments in the United States.5 Within the United States, recent work by Joy Rankin has demonstrated the role of non-elite, non<N>Silicon Valley pioneers in the developing of computing, programming, and networking.6

Despite this turn away from Western, white, male narratives, there remain relatively few detailed English-language accounts of the development of computing in East Asia. Scholarship on Japan has focused on the development of robots and artificial intelligence.7 For China, Jiri Hudeček has described Wu Wen-Tsun’s efforts to create and utilize a uniquely Chinese version of mathematics and computation during the Cultural Revolution.8 Thomas Mullaney’s account of the Chinese typewriter looks toward, but does not yet outline, a more recent history of computing in China.9 Elsewhere, histories of computing in Asia have either been focused on the role of governments and government agencies (e.g., the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan), on the development of information and communication technology infrastructure, or on specific systems, machines, and companies.10

The historiography of computing in Singapore has followed this pattern. The vast majority of attention has been given to understanding the impact of government policies, government agencies, and leaders on the development of Singapore information technology capacity.11 This includes the government’s role in attracting and fostering a strong microelectronics industry that played a significant role in Singapore’s economic development. Fairchild semiconductor set up a factory in Singapore in 1969, followed by Hewlett-Packard in 1970, DEC in 1980, and Seagate in 1982. These facilities were centered on labor-intensive manufacturing and assembly processes.12

The story in this chapter, on the other hand, is about neither government policy nor electronics manufacturing. Rather, by examining how Singapore’s first “public” computer was set up and used, we explore here the role played by academics, philanthropists, private companies, and white-collar Singaporeans in creating an IT industry in a newly independent and rapidly developing nation. This is a “people’s history” of computing in Singapore and one that demonstrates that, as in the United States, a wide variety of people, institutions, and practices were involved in making and remaking computing.

Item ID: 78656
Item Type: Book Chapter (Research - B1)
ISBN: 9781421444376
Copyright Information: Copyright © 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press. This material first appeared in Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society. Reprinted with permission by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Date Deposited: 31 May 2023 05:30
FoR Codes: 43 HISTORY, HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 4303 Historical studies > 430301 Asian history @ 50%
44 HUMAN SOCIETY > 4410 Sociology > 441007 Sociology and social studies of science and technology @ 50%
SEO Codes: 13 CULTURE AND SOCIETY > 1307 Understanding past societies > 130702 Understanding Asia’s past @ 100%
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