Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Progress of biomedical sciences in Singapore 

Channel NewsAsia reports on the progress of the biomedical industry in Singapore. Excerpt:

Singapore’s bet on biomedical sciences paying off
Singapore’s bold move into the biomedical sciences industry five years ago is paying off handsomely, with several of the world’s top scientists and pharmaceutical firms setting up base in the city-state. Companies have invested millions of dollars in laboratories carrying out leading-edge research at the Biopolis, a futuristic, seven-building complex linked by skybridges located in the southwestern part of the island...
While I would agree that the numbers reported look encouraging, to say that Singapore’s move into the biomedical sciences is “paying off handsomely” based on just those numbers looks like hyperbole to me.

The article reminds me of an earlier post of mine on the innovation movement in the civil service, where civil service chiefs were criticising civil servants for a “numbers mentality”. As I pointed out then, I think it is actually good to use numbers to measure success, but it is important to use the right numbers for the right purposes. Some numbers are useful only in indicating that some elements are in place or are moving in the right direction, but cannot, by themselves, indicate the success of the whole programme.

While the amount of money invested in the biomedical industry and the projected manufacturing output may appear impressive, a more complete picture of the success of Singapore’s move into the industry must include the number of patents and the value of products developed in Singapore -- in other words, the output of intellectual property. It is such numbers that will show whether the industry is a success in leveraging on the country’s intellectual capacity and providing high-paying jobs to Singaporeans, and is not just another manufacturing activity which will remain vulnerable to competition by lower-cost countries.


Since our country is a net importer of IP, we have effectively cut our own legs under by implementing stronger IP laws.

Innovation, especially in science, is sequential and iterative in nature. That means all innovation is built upon previous works, and requires repeated trial and error.

The USSGFTA was a raw deal for Singapore because our leaders did no research and did not seem to have an understanding of how changing the law would impact innovation.


Stronger IP laws only create a greater barrier to entry, effectively becoming a subsidy to industry incumbents, and increase monopoly rents for the incumbents.

I think it would be safe to say, there will be no Singaporean version of Pharmacia or GSK. The best we can hope for is to be the lab of Pharmacia or GSK, and even those jobs will go to China or India before the end of the decade.

Cultivating local entrepreneurs just does not seem to be the priority, as opposed to luring foreign companies.

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