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
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.
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.
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.
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 https://app.a-star.edu.sg/psta/NewNomination.aspx. Who knows – they
may just be the next winner!
More information about the award categories and the nomination process can be found