Imtiaz Ibne Alam
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Reasons behind the Booming Biotech Sector in Singapore

Last year the respected science magazine Scientific American ranked Singapore as the world’s third most innovative country for biotechnology, beaten only by the United States and Denmark. The magazine's report cited government investment and a stable and predictable regulatory regime as the main draws, attracting the world’s top biotech companies to the city-state. Singapore’s high proportion of life sciences graduates, its intellectual property framework, its world-leading public hospitals, and its general ease of doing business are also highly prized. However, this doesn’t mean tax incentives, high salaries and world-class infrastructure: unlike the United States, the Singaporean government has also taken a liberal approach to funding human stem cell research.

A Singaporean government report says that the nation’s biopharmaceutical industry grew by a third in 2011. More than 30 of the world’s top pharmaceutical and medical R&D companies (including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Takeda) are now based in the country, and the biomedical industries are thought to account for 5% of the country’s GDP. Biomedical manufacturing output is now worth $29.4 billion to Singapore’s economy, and the sector employs around 15,700 people.

Much of this recent growth can be put down to the success of Singapore’s Biopolis R&D complex, launched in 2003 as a unified group of research facilities in an urban setting. This is the physical result of the strategy adopted by the government in 2000 to make the country a global hub for pharma and biotech. The strategy focused this sector as important, for the country’s economic future, as finance, tourism, and trade. The park is located in Buona Vista and is now home to many world-class public and private research teams working on pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Researchers are conducting their first supported research into the development of new drugs; they are now using Biopolis’s links with public hospitals to focus their attentions on fields such as medical technology, personal care, and food and nutrition.

Famous for its sky bridges, underground tunnels, and 250,000 laboratory mice, the Biopolis now boasts around 40 corporate research labs. Many of these labs are running under a public-private partnership, and millions of dollars have been privately invested in recent years. The researchers in these facilities are now performing the key responsibility to the global fight against cancer and infectious diseases. They are also contributing to the rapidly expanding neuroscience field and to the new efforts to tackle the infectious perennial problems.

When the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus appeared in late 2002, Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) worked with Roche Diagnostics to develop antibody-based tests for the disease from just one drop of a suspected patient’s blood. More recently, a team from A*STAR’s Experimental Therapeutics Centre has developed a vaccine for the H1N1 flu virus which is now in the first phase of clinical trials. Other pharmaceutical companies based in Singapore are responding to challenges that aren’t necessarily immediate concerns for Singaporeans: for instance, Novartis has opened a centre for research into tuberculosis and dengue fever.

As the country ages — with a higher percentage of its population at retirement age and with relatively fewer people of working age to support them — many Singaporeans see it as critical that Singapore remains at the forefront of dealing with these challenges. To do this, the country and its government will have to:
  • Continue investing in research and development to tackle the diseases themselves,
  • Maintain a business-friendly environment to keep Singapore attractive to the world’s top biotech companies, and
  • Keep funding the healthcare delivery system to make sure Singapore’s citizens benefit from the latest breakthroughs.
Since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the Government has therefore adopted a broader policy to build Singapore into a knowledge and education hub. The policy involves supporting industry-relevant research and attracting a highly educated workforce of students, academics, and researchers.

With the success of the broader policy, Singapore's economy has emerged into a booming economy in the world. The healthcare and biotech sectors are clearly growing — and they're set to expand further. With high levels of both public and private investment, it’s clear that these industries will require highly skilled employees now and in the years to come.


Axel Gelfert (2013). Before Biopolis: Representations of the Biotechnology Discourse in Singapore East Asian Science, Technology and Society , 7 (1), 103-123 DOI: 10.1215/18752160-2075527

Ravinder Sidhu, Kong-Chong Ho, & Brenda S. A. Yeoh (2014). Singapore: Building a Knowledge and Education Hub International Education Hubs. Springer Netherlands, 121-143 DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-7025-6_8