Singapore’s science and technology transformation over 50 years mirrors her remarkable leap from survival to excellence.
Fifty years ago, technology served a functional role, today it is the central engine powering an ambitious economy.
Singapore's water technology, port management capability and petrochemical ecosystem are noteworthy.
With the increasingly competitive global technology landscape, it is crucial that Singapore constantly adopts innovative technologies to sustain and bolster economic competitiveness.
This requires a hands-on approach in creating a culture of innovation, and paradoxically a somewhat hands-off approach to allow intellectual germination especially through entrepreneurship and research.
Against this background, policies designed to establish operational transparency enable agencies to ensure responsible implementation, instill accountability as well as legal and constitutional compliance.
We review Singapore’s Science and Technology (S&T) journey in the context of its 50-year transformation from a developing nation to a thriving first world metropolis.
The Singapore Context - The Pursuit of Knowledge, or Plain Survival?
In the years leading up to and after independence in 1965, entrepôt trade was the mainstay of the Singapore economy. The fledgling nation, in order to survive, had to find means to leapfrog technologically to make up for the constraints of its physical and resource limitations.
With people as Singapore’s most valuable resource, it was recognized early on that leading in the field of science and technology will set it apart.
The Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) and the Science Council of Singapore (SCS) were established in the late 1960s to lead and implement science and technology policies, as well as to build research and development (R&D) capabilities.
Whilst the need for S&T was anticipated and the intentions good, the timing and environment were not conducive for Singapore.
The Human Resource Struggle
Firstly, there was a dearth of able and knowledgeable citizens who could pursue S&T as researchers; many Singaporeans then were traders or unskilled laborers.
Secondly, the pressing need for Singapore in the 1960s was to create jobs and industrialize the economy. The 1961 Winsemius Report and the subsequent State Development Plan
However, Singapore continued to struggle in building a critical mass of scientists and engineers who were willing to pursue R&D.
Acknowledging that more had to be done to be a true knowledge-based economy, Singapore forged ahead to create a conducive climate for R&D within S&T.
The National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) succeeded in 1991 with a clear blueprint “to develop Singapore into a centre-of-excellence in selected fields within S&T so as to enhance our national competitiveness in the industrial and services sectors”.
The first National Technology Plan (NTP) outlined Singapore’s R&D policy in 1990s to cultivate a rich research ecosystem and culture, augment funding, train researchers, and build infrastructure.
NSTB subsequently restructured to become A*STAR in 2001. SISIR also merged with the National Productivity Board (NPB) to form the Singapore Productivity and Standards Board (PSB).
In April 2002, PSB was renamed SPRING Singapore to signify the shift towards an innovation-driven economy, and its new role in promoting creativity and raising the productivity of the domestic sector to sustain growth for Singapore and Singaporeans.
With the repurposed statutory boards imbued with a clear purpose, direction and mandate, the following decades saw five bold masterplans to power Singapore’s ambitions in science and technology.
Singapore’s Six Masterplans for Science and Technology
1. National Technology Plan 1995
Focusing on economically driven R&D, the NTP’s execution was spearheaded by the NSTB with the injection of S$2 billion for its fulfilment.
The five-year plan served as the blueprint for R&D development in nine sectors: information technology; microelectronics; electronic systems; manufacturing technology; materials technology; energy, water, environment and resources; food and agro technology; biotechnology; and medical sciences.
2. National Science and Technology Plan 2000
The second five-year plan doubled the budget to $4 billion to build on the much-needed efforts to develop Singapore’s S&T infrastructure.
The nine sectors earmarked as part of the Singapore’s Strategic Economic Plan continued to benefit from the focus of strengthening the local labour force and indigenous R&D capability as well as a greater support for industry R&D.
In 2003, Singapore was struck by one of the worst crisis in living memory: the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. It is with extraordinary prescience that Singapore has the ready biomedical infrastructure in place to meet with this calamity.
3. Science and Technology Plan 2005
Another S$1m was added to the original budget to S$7 billion, where S$5 billion was managed by NSTB with the remaining allocated EDB. NSTB worked to develop the nation’s human and intellectual capital, whilst EDB pursued industrial capital development. 
It was during this phase that NSTB was renamed as The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). It also marked the start of Singapore’s pursuit of Biomedical Sciences (BMS) as its fourth pillar of the manufacturing economy (alongside Electronics, Engineering and Chemicals).
Of note was the establishment of the Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) resulted in achievements such as genetic engineering techniques for stem-cell cancer therapy.
These years saw the attraction of many renowned scientists like Professors Edison Liu and Sir David Lane, as well as the forging of many international collaboration and partnerships.
Biopolis, an iconic biomedical R&D centre that houses leading companies and diverse talents in the field, deepened Singapore’s knowledge based. It took less than three years from concept-to-opening—the breathtaking pace signalled Singapore’s commitment to S&T.
Over the three national S&T plans, Singapore’s Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP increased from 0.85% in 1990 to 2.25% in 2004, comparable with advanced economies like the US and Japan.
The number of Research Scientists and Engineers in Singapore grew significantly, from 28 in 1990 to 87 per 10,000 labour force in 2004.
4. Science and Technology Plan 2010
Set up in 2006, the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) is represented by high level government officials, prominent industry captains, and internationally renowned individuals from the scientific and academic community. National Research Foundation (NRF) was also formed to support the RIEC through policy formulation and implementation.
$13.55 billion was earmarked to different agencies to promote R&D - $5 billion allocated to the NRF for longer-term strategic programmes, $7.5 billion to the MTI for economic-oriented R&D and related investment promotion activities, and $1.05 billion to the Ministry of Education (MOE) for academic research.
The goal is to achieve a GERD of 3% of GDP by 2010. Alongside, there is continued emphasis that research should translate to technologies that power industry growth.
Environmental and Water Technologies sector and the Interactive and Digital Media sector were identified as rapid growth areas for development.
Fusionpolis, a focal point for the physical sciences and engineering clusters, was modelled after Biopolis and opened in 2008.
5. Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2015 (RIE2015) Plan
The RIE2015 plan built on the momentum set in the 2010 plan with 6 key thrusts highlighted by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean:
- Continued emphasis on basic science and knowledge as basis of future innovations.
- Focus on talent attraction and development, positioning Singapore as choice location for researchers
- Greater emphasis on competitive funding as a selection means for the best ideas for optimal resource allocation
- Fostering greater synergies between private and public and more funding for multi-disciplinary breakthrough science
- Heavier weighting of R&D to promote positive economic outcomes
- Strengthen support for commercialization to encourage development of products and services
6. Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) Plan
In its largest R&D investment to date, Singapore renewed its commitment in R&D in the form of a S$19 billion fund “to be a knowledge-based economy which thrives on innovation and enterprise”.
Singapore’s strong scientific based is underpinned by growing numbers of Research and Engineers (RSEs) in the workforce. Its university rankings as well as their field-weighted citation impact (FWCI) have trended higher over the years – a testament to the country’s focus on S&T excellence.
Singapore’s pragmatism continues to align R&D efforts with industry demand, creating more jobs and generating higher value products and services.
Industry-science linkages deepen with continued tie-ups in a variety of sectors e.g. SingHealth/Duke-NUS Joint Strategic Research Masterplan and A*STAR Aerospace Research Consortium.
This strategy extends the value chain of research beyond publications and patents to products and solutions.
An emergent start-up ecosystem is evident in the recent years, leading to new economic activity. Singapore commits to building a conducive climate for idea incubation with incentives to nudge potential entrepreneurs towards Singapore’s priority sectors of tomorrow.
Staying Ahead in a Competitive World
Essentially, RIE2020 builds on RIE2015 by establishing a framework to prioritise funding for four strategic technology domains, underpinned by three cross cutting programmes.
With the inevitable influence of information technology in our lives, the four technology domains are also threaded together with a digital focus to revolutionize the way citizens live their lives.
RIE2020 is part of the broader Smart Nation strategy: Leveraging research funding and findings to create innovative solutions that benefit Singapore and Singaporeans.
On the policy front, Singapore’s latest innovation leverages on a whole-of-government approach as evident by recent initiatives:
1. Centralizing regulatory agencies: Merging of Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and Media Development Authority (MDA) to form Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)
2. Launch of SGInnovate dedicated to support Singapore’s start-up ecosystem
3. Bringing strategy and implementation under one agency: Integrating the Smart Nation Program Office (strategy) and GovTech (implementation) to form the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO).
In conclusion, it is remarkable that a small country in 50 years could transform rapidly—economically and technologically.
Looking ahead, Singapore would do well to forge closer integration along and across value chains.
Specifically, structuring funding for academia to collaborate with industry nudges collaboration along the value chain where prototypes have a better chance for commercialization.
 Lee Soo Ann, Industrialization in Singapore (Camberwell, Australia:Longman, 1973), p.112
 National Technology Plan 1991 (Singapore: National Science and Technology Board, 1992), p. ii.
 Wee, Jane (29 May 2003). "SPRING Singapore (Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board)". National Library Board.
 S&T Plan 2010. (n.d.). Retrieved fromhttps://www.mti.gov.sg/ResearchRoom/Documents/app.mti.gov.sg/data/pages/885/doc/S And T Plan 2010.pdf
 Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2015. Retrieved from https://www.mti.gov.sg/ResearchRoom/Pages/Research,-Innovation-and-Enterprise-(RIE)-2015.aspx
 Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nrf.gov.sg/rie2020