Science in Singapore--Riding the Knowledge Wave


Singapore--a small place with great aspirations--is an island city-state that is home to some 4 million people. From a little-known island to a vibrant technology, manufacturing, and financial center, Singapore has come a long way from where it was in the postindependence mid-1960s. Ranked the world's second-most competitive economy for seven consecutive years since 1994 by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), Singapore has long been a member of the league of great cities, but with a unique identity of its own.

Looking forward, it is gearing up to ride the knowledge wave by changing its science, technology, and economic landscapes to build a new global knowledge hub. With this emphasis come many new opportunities for scientists, engineers, biologists, technologists, businesspeople, and even venture capitalists.

Official Singapore Facts*

  • Island city-state located at the southern-most tip of the Malay peninsula

  • Was founded on 6 February 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles

  • Became part of the new Malaysia on 16 September 1963

  • Became independent from Malaysia on 9 August 1965

  • Land area: 682.7 sq. km, including the islands (42 km east to west; 23 km north to south)

  • Average daily temperature: 26.8°C (Minimum, 23.9°C; maximum, 30.9°C)

  • Average daily humidity: 84.3%

  • Population (as of June 2000): 4,017,700

* Singapore 2001 The Official Year Book

The Commitment and the Initiatives

Singapore's government is known for its visionary style, unyielding determination, strong commitments, and readiness to embrace change. It has always placed itself to take the lead in the delivery of national initiatives that position the nation to attract foreign talents, innovation, and investments. To foster a favourable environment for the new economy, it has committed billions of dollars to develop education, technology, and infrastructures, including the creation of a world-class center for scientific research and development (R&D). Notably, it has set up a plan costing about US$4 billion to develop capabilities for science and technology. Of this, it has allocated US$35 million for "manpower development" in the life sciences. A concerted effort is expected to draw more international partners to Singapore to set up R&D enterprises, as well as manufacturing facilities that will collectively provide much-needed expertise and capabilities to the nation.

Excellent Supporting Infrastructures and Facilities

Making it all happen for this "intelligent city" is a world-class logistics environment, supported by an equally distinctive physical and technological infrastructure. As one of the most wired nations in the world, Singapore boasts a broadband network and Internet connectivity that are unparalleled in the region. Recently, Newsweek magazine rated Singapore among the top 10 "hot new tech cities." A high-tech business facility committed to innovation--the Singapore Science Park--supports science and technology. With some 250 tenants, including the prestigious Johns Hopkins, Singapore, and the Schering-Plough Research Institute, the science park is a state-of-the-art facility. Singapore also has close to 30 public R&D centers, which include universities, research institutes, hospitals, and specialty centers. Collectively, they facilitate hundreds of research projects in science, engineering, and technology, many in cutting-edge areas.

In anticipation of accelerated growth, particularly in the biomedical sciences, an additional facility, the 176-hectare Buona Vista Science Hub, is being developed. To be completed in 2003, this "biopolis" will house educational institutes; info-communication technology organizations; media and bioscience firms, including a new US$20 million multinational biomedical laboratory; and venture capital firms. Upwards of 150,000 people will be employed when it is fully completed. There are also plans along the same lines to build a pharma park that would house multinational pharmaceutical companies moving in to establish their regional manufacturing and R&D operations.

Preparing a New Generation

For obvious reasons, Singapore is investing heavily in educating and training its young people. Knowledge provides the intellectual capital to drive the economy. As Philip Yeo, Chairman of Singapore's lead science and technology agency, the National Science and Technology Board * (NSTB), puts it, "Human capital is the most valuable form of intellectual property. New corporate directions and missions can only be effected by the best and the brightest" ( The Straits Times, 13 July 2001). To encourage students to take an interest in science from early on, the government has begun equipping high schools with biotech laboratories. In July this year, it announced an unprecedented incentive of about US$285 million to financially support talented undergraduate science scholars throughout their doctorates. The purpose is to ensure a steady supply of local research scientists to fuel growth in engineering and the sciences.

Singapore's universities, too, are bracing for the new economy. They are rapidly implementing strategic changes in the educational curriculum to facilitate creativity and innovation. In fact, the whole education system is being revamped to groom a new generation of highly versatile scholars and innovators tailored for the new economy. Tertiary institutions are introducing more multidisciplinary programs to produce scholars who can relate to ideas across disciplines and adapt to the new era of rapid technological changes.

Supporting R&D

Complementing the new education are additional funds to facilitate more innovative, interdisciplinary research projects, particularly in new and rapidly evolving areas such as genomics, proteomics, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, bioinformatics, and biomedical engineering. Postgraduate education has also been strengthened with increased funding for both scholarships and research projects. In addition, there are plans for more collaborative partnerships with world-class research organizations and institutions.

Main Research Funding Agencies

Capitalizing on Scientific Innovations

Knowledge and discoveries make a nation great, but new knowledge alone makes no economic impact. It's enterprise that propels an economy. Translation of the new knowledge and technical know-how to new capabilities is essential in order to reap the full benefit of research. So, Singapore also needs entrepreneurs. Says Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, "In the next phase of our development, Singaporeans have to be more entrepreneurial ... [and] to foster a culture of innovation. ... Innovation and imagination give an economy or a company that extra edge. Today, wealth is generated by new ideas, more than by improving the ideas of others."

Aggressive initiatives aimed at cultivating local "technopreneurship" have been on for quite some time now. The authorities are actively encouraging the use of venture capital funds to launch local technologies. Earlier last year, the PharmBio Growth fund--which is managed by the Economic Development Board * (EDB)--Chiron Corporation (USA), and Blue Dot Capital Pte Ltd jointly started the nation's first drug discovery company, S'Bio. On a smaller scale, EDB is providing equity funds for enterprising scientists to set up their own companies. In addition to generous tax incentives, processes and systems to support technology transfers from research laboratories have been reinforced. NSTB is spearheading capability development. Through continual innovation, Singapore hopes to have its own homegrown multinational corporations in the years to come.

Attracting Foreign Expertise and Talents

One immediate challenge arising from Singapore's ambitious plan is that the country is short-staffed. The existing critical mass is insufficient to fuel current R&D endeavors, much less drive the numerous new initiatives. Additional expertise and talents are needed. Most importantly, the country needs several established scientists of international acclaim to provide leadership role in emerging areas.

The government's two lead agencies, EDB and NSTB, are on active recruitment drives worldwide. Contact-Singapore, an information and resource center set up at strategic international locations, actively promotes Singapore's education and employment opportunities to international talents. It has branches in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Toronto, London, Perth, and Sydney. EDB is also on a bigger mission to court multinational corporations and hi-tech businesses to use Singapore as their regional bases. Among its objectives is attracting 10 world-class tertiary institutions and 15 pharmaceutical companies to the city-state.

Opportunities and Niche Areas

Opportunities are aplenty, but to avoid the dilution of efforts, Singapore must appropriately identify some of the most promising areas in which to work and tap them to the fullest. With the given environment, Singapore's niche areas might include information technology, telecommunications, software solutions, education, technology innovations, environmental management, and biomedical sciences. An emerging area with tremendous potential for cross-disciplinary innovation is biomedical sciences and engineering. High-tech biomedical nanoprobe development would place Singapore at the frontier of technology. Other prospective areas are tissue engineering and bioinformatics. In clinical sciences, pharmacogenetics, with a particular emphasis on Asian populations, would represent another niche area. Singapore has a diverse ethnic composition, world-class clinical facilities, and excellent clinical data management. With good foresight and strategic planning, it could develop into a premier regional center for the study of drug response in Asians--a timely development toward better therapeutics for at least a third of the world's population.

Toward the Future: Prospects and Challenges

A world of promises awaits Singapore. The same driving forces that have transformed many economies--technology, information, Internet connectivity, and globalization--would make Singapore another great global knowledge hub. The knowledge wave is gaining momentum by the day. By combining an excellent base, good planning, and knowledge, Singapore should emerge successfully, but not without facing some challenges.

First, competition from emerging Asian economies is imminent. In an increasingly borderless world, a new magnetism in the region could quickly lure away investors and talents. Singapore recognizes the need to maintain a strong, cutting-edge environment to stay in the forefront.

Second, technology transfer from research laboratories to enterprise still leaves much to be desired. Perhaps the ivory towers of education and research could open up more to allow more interactions across disciplines, as well as with the private sector and society at large, to constantly transfer, extend, and broaden new knowledge and technologies.

Finally, beyond the massive funding to which it is already committed, the Singapore government needs to continually monitor the projects it funds to make sure that they remain on the frontier of cutting-edge research. A wise policy on resource allocation will ensure good dividends. It is essential to have a more flexible research system that is responsive to changing opportunities and national needs. No one can predict which technology will define the future, so being versatile makes good economic sense. What is relevant for the nation today may not be so tomorrow. In this age of globalization, leadership in innovation belongs to those who capitalize best on change.

* Singapore's Economic Development Board and the National Science and Technology Board are sponsors of Next Wave Singapore.

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