THE SINGAPORE RESEARCH STORY: edited by Hang Chang Chieh, Low Teck Seng, and Raj Thampuran; World Scientific Publishing, Inc. 2016
Reviewed by Don C. Reed
Disclaimer: World Scientific published one of my books, “STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond”, so I am perhaps biased on their behalf.
Question: could a small island nation, endowed with few natural resources or financial backing– become a world leader in biomedical research?
“In little more than a decade, Singapore established a thriving biomedical industry from scratch…In 2000, it started to invest in a Biomedical Sciences initiative… by 2012, this industry had grown to more than…$24 billion (US) dollars ….”
“Many leading …companies (including Pfizer, Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline, Lonza, MSD, Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis) have made Singapore their global manufacturing base…”
When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was a third world country with few advantages. It could easily have been a country with cheap labor as its only edge, taken advantage of by other nations. Instead, it became a prosperous country whose population is well-educated, and with an economy based on information, science–and jobs.
Today, Singapore’s unemployment rate is less than 2%.
In a series of densely-packed chapters, we see the transformation of a nation.
A key policy was a willingness to seek out information from outside experts first, and then adapt their suggestions to fit Singapore.
For instance, in 1970, an Israeli scientist, Dr. Meir Ben Zvi, offered a detailed plan to develop Singapore’s “qualified scientific… personnel” by sending students overseas to study.
A civil servant, Philip Yeo, developed that concept, which he called “guppies and whales”, sending out “guppies”, students to learn, and bringing in “whales”, international experts.
Yeo worked closely with the visionary Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, who gave him considerable leeway.
Look anywhere in Singapore’s research world, and you will see both men’s fingerprints. Yeo brought change, the Finance Minister backed him up. If anyone complained, Goh Keng Swee would say “What can I do? That’s Philip!”
A small but telling example: Yeo changed the name of Singapore’s biomedical division, from something people could not remember, the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) to Agency for Science, Technology and Research– A*STAR– because A*STAR is the top grade every student can achieve in a Singapore school.
One tragic but inspirational story concerned a brilliant young scientist, Tsao Chieh, who developed a life-threatening disease. Yeo arranged for therapy from outside Singapore to be brought in—but Tsao had an immunity to the cure itself, and died.
“Here I was, watching a young life die before my eyes,” said Philip Yeo, “And there was nothing I could do…”
In 1983, Nobel laureate Dr. Sydney Brenner gave a hugely influential series of lectures about biomedicine. Goh Keng Swee arranged for those lectures, and worked to make their message become real. Working with Dr. Brenner, Philip Yeo made a list of 100 top scientists and tried to bring them to Singapore.
“The first top scientist he attracted to Singapore to be Genome Institute of Singapore’s founding executive director was Dr. Edison Liu…
Remember the bird flu epidemic? Called SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, “It was a global epidemic…controlling the spread of this highly communicable disease became paramount.”
Dr. Liu mobilized the scientists.
“I am calling on everyone to drop what they are doing to work on this problem…. In the morning we met with the team leaders and said, ‘Okay, what are you going to do today?’ At the end of the day, we met with the team leaders again and said, ‘What happened today?’ The gene sequencing team worked 24/7. I mean, they slept in the hallway.”
Singapore developed a testing kit for SARS, and was “cited by the World Health Organization as an exemplary country in its response.
“…that experience made it obvious to all the decision-makers that their investment in the biomedical sciences was not just to get cash return in the stock market, it was (also) for national security…”
Hepatitis B? Thanks to Singaporean efforts, that condition can now be diagnosed in two days instead of two weeks.
Another biomed champion is A*STAR Chairman Lim Chuan Poh, formerly a Lieutenant General in the Singapore military.
At the agency’s 20th anniversary, he said:
“…In the biomedical effort, we (built) capabilities for one big industry cluster. This was a new approach, a new strategy. That was how the research landscape changed…conceptually.”
The visual reality of the “one big industry cluster” was a series of 13 incredible buildings, Biopolis and Fusionopolis, designed by one of the world’s greatest architects, the late Iraqi-Brit designer Zaha Hadid.
Two million square feet of shining steel, seeming to touch the sky, but designed to both meet the needs of science and to be inviting as a living space; so that scientists could get up in the morning, have breakfast, kiss the family goodbye—and be at work in 30 minutes!
Like Biopolis, “The Singapore Research Story” is both practical and visionary: it belongs on the shelves of college, governmental, and public libraries, wherever students want to know: what can happen to a country, when science is respected.
Don C. Reed is the author of “STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease—with a Posthumous Foreword by Christopher Reeve”.