After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the government recognised that science and technology capabilities would be invaluable in overcoming the country’s limited size and lack of natural resources. The late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew reiterated this belief in 1966, saying: “It is of the utmost importance that, in the field of science and technology, we should lead the field in this part of the world.”

Since then, the government has steadily ramped up investment in R&D, starting with the first five-year National Technology Plan in 1991 that saw S$2 billion being pumped into the public R&D budget. The sixth and most recent five-year plan – the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan (RIE2020) – boasts a budget of S$19 billion; nearly a 10-fold increase. With the recent slowing of Singapore’s economic growth, the government has increased investment in R&D and introduced new economic measures, including partnerships with industry players on sectoral transformation.

Benchmarking the Red Dot: Global Ranking for Innovation
Why the need for so much investment?

Simply put, R&D innovation helps Singapore to remain competitive in a world buffeted by economic and political uncertainties, and shaped by urbanisation, ageing, and climate change. For Singapore to maintain its growth and prosperity, it must create innovative and differentiated products and services – and these require an equally innovative workforce. The country therefore focuses on attracting first-rate talent, to assist existing enterprises to diversify into new growth sectors, and anchor top international enterprises in these sectors. This approach has given Singapore a sterling reputation in innovation – in fact, the Global Innovation Index ranks the nation as the most innovative country in Asia and sixth in the world.

From Third to First World: Steered by Innovation

One of the earliest innovations arose in the water industry, out of a pressing national need for a robust, diversified and sustainable water supply. 50 years ago, the nation’s rivers were heavily polluted, and citizens often had to ration water. Today, Singapore collects rainwater on two-thirds of its land, recycles used water, and is developing less energy-intensive desalination technology based on the mechanism of human kidneys. This ongoing success was made possible by breakthroughs in water purification during the late 1990s, namely membrane technology and reverse osmosis. In fact, reverse osmosis was such a radical advancement at the time that it disrupted the water industry, long before “disruptive technology” became a buzzword! A key driver behind these achievements – Mr Tan Gee Paw, Chairman of PUB, the national water agency – was awarded the President’s Science and Technology Medal (PSTM) in 2015 for his contributions to Singapore’s water and environmental R&D ecosystem, and most importantly, for his leadership and stewardship in developing Singapore’s sustainable water supply.

Singapore has since moved beyond R&D innovation for survival, and now leverages it to bring the nation up the value chain.

One area where this is taking place is Financial Technology (FinTech). Traditionally, the economic system has revolved around banks, brokerages, and trading houses, but disruptive technology has begun to change that – as evidenced by companies such as PayPal and Kickstarter. Their systems have redefined the flow of money, allowing individuals to bypass the banking system in favour of direct person-to-person transfers. This is particularly beneficial for entrepreneurs and small enterprises as it allows them to compete with larger corporations.

Spurred by this changing industry, Singapore has recently committed greater investments to the local FinTech space; most notably through the Financial Sector Technology and Innovation (FSTI) scheme. This initiative injects S$168 million over the course of five years to foster collaboration between financial institutions and FinTech start-ups. To encourage experimentation, the government has also introduced “sandboxes”, which provide safe and controlled environments for the testing of innovative financial products. Joint labs between banks and government research institutes have also been created to draw on Singapore’s rich talent pool of researchers, innovators, and experts, with the aim of developing innovative solutions – for instance, using new analytic methods to solve issues such as financial fraud.

Another exciting area for R&D innovation is the development of Autonomous Vehicles (AV). AV technology promises to be a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly transport system. This is in line with the government’s vision of a car-lite future where a new system of shared mobility-on-demand services powered by Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs) will complement existing public transport.

To achieve this, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) introduced the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI), which provides a technical platform for R&D and test-bedding of AV technology, applications, and solutions, with routes in the one-north test-site. LTA has also partnered with companies such as Delphi Automotive Systems and nuTonomy to test their shared, on-demand, door-to-door, first-and-last-mile, and intra-town self-driving transportation concepts at one-north. AV-enabled mobility can be expanded to full-scale mobility solutions for towns across Singapore, and be a key consideration in future town-planning. Commuters will then have access to an even wider range of public transport options – particularly for first and last-mile travel to reduce the need for private vehicles.

R&D Excellence: Recognising and Celebrating the Innovations of Government Agencies

Singapore has certainly made great strides in its innovation journey over the last half-century. Each year, we celebrate R&D excellence through the President’s Science and Technology Awards (PSTA). As the inspiring case studies have shown, innovation is not just limited to the scientific research community, but also incorporates the wider ecosystem of government agencies continually searching for better solutions powered by new and emerging technology.

If you know of a government agency project that pushes the boundaries of R&D innovation, nominate them now for the PSTA at Who knows – they may just be the next winner!

More information about the award categories and the nomination process can be found at

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