Betting on Biomedical Science: The Nations Economy Has Evolved Rapidly in Just a Few Decades from Labor-Intensive Manufacturing to High-Tech Production and Now to Corporate Management and World-Class Research

By Poh, Lim Chuan | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Betting on Biomedical Science: The Nations Economy Has Evolved Rapidly in Just a Few Decades from Labor-Intensive Manufacturing to High-Tech Production and Now to Corporate Management and World-Class Research


Poh, Lim Chuan, Issues in Science and Technology


In an April 2009 report, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council noted that Singapore, an emerging biotech cluster, was "aiming to move up the value chain and position itself as a world-class center for R&D through significant government investment." Singapore's key strengths, the report said, are its educated and skilled workforce; its supportive government, business, and regulatory environment; and its government-supported research institutes.

About a decade ago, Singapore decided to put a major national focus on biomedical sciences. It did so in part because of changes in the global economic arena. But the decision also reflected the evolving ways of thinking and doing that corresponded with Singapore's rapid development since gaining nationhood in 1965.

In the 1960s, Singapore was a labor-intensive economy. In response to a poorly educated work force, labor strife, high unemployment, and a rapidly growing population, Singapore embarked on export-led industrialization and promoted foreign direct investment. It sought to develop its labor force by emphasizing technical and industrial training. The focus was on low-tech manufacturing.

The strategy worked well until the mid-1970s, when changes in the global economic environment prompted a new assessment. Singapore faced increasing competition from other developing countries in low-tech industries. Meanwhile, developed countries were moving into high-tech manufacturing. Singapore decided to phase out its labor-intensive industry and focus on skills-intensive, high-value-added, technology-intensive industries such as electronics manufacturing, data storage, and petrochemicals. To prepare its workforce for this new challenge, the country expanded engineering education while providing funding for older workers to upgrade their skills.

Singapore's first major recession in 1985 spurred the country to look for new areas of economic growth. Its new strategy marketed Singapore as a place to do business and encouraged multinational companies in Singapore to move beyond production and into areas such as supply chain management, R&D, and the like. Multinational companies were encouraged to establish operational headquarters in Singapore to support their regional operations.

As the global economy continued to evolve, Singapore by the early 1990s began to face greater competition in its traditional economic strengths, including electronics manufacturing and petrochemicals. The critical challenge was to find ways to differentiate the country from its economic competitors in the region and the world. As a country with a population of fewer than 4 million and few natural resources, the only resource available was its people. Singapore concluded that it must promote strong intellectual capital creation as a basis for developing knowledge-intensive companies and generating high-value-added jobs for Singaporeans. In short, government officials believed that if Singapore was to join the ranks of the world's leading industrialized countries, it must build a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy.

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In the late 1990s, Singapore identified the biomedical sciences as an area with tremendous growth potential. Between 2000 and 2005, it put in place the key building blocks to establish core scientific biomedical research capabilities by focusing on building up its human, intellectual, and industrial capital. In the second phase of the initiative (2006-2010), it focused on strengthening its capabilities in translational and clinical research in order to bring scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside, to improve human health and health care delivery, and ultimately to contribute to the economy and bring benefits to society.

Reasons for success

Singapore was able to implement its biomedical sciences initiative and reap its benefits because of five key strengths that the country has developed during recent decades, a government committed to R&D, an integrated and well-connected public sector, public-sector research institutes that engage in both basic and mission-oriented R&D to develop a spectrum of capabilities, an educated and skilled workforce, and a supportive business and regulatory environment. …

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