AMID the gloomy bout of job shedding, post-industrial Singapore is beginning to reap some successes from its move towards a high-tech future.
The republic is in the process of establishing a new base for its next economic phase that is based on services, especially in research and development.
During the past few years as it was losing out competitiveness to lower-cost China and neighbouring countries, Singapore’s strategy of high-tech services has gathered pace. Some S$3.2bil was invested in it in 2001.
Several science parks have been built, including a large area allocated for life sciences. Thousands of foreign scientists, including biotechnology researchers, have been recruited.
So while the government faces criticism for under-estimating the downturn and its failure to reduce business costs, it is scoring high marks for its high-tech achievements.
In a quiet sort of way, these efforts are bearing fruit over a wide range of public and social life and business.
They score high in healthcare, defence, procreation, food, public utilities and biomedical science.
For the present, the restructuring will be painful for the lower-educated workers above 40 whose jobs are under threat. For the next few years, structural unemployment will continue to rise.
The biggest improvement is in education, which is rapidly changing from rote-learning of data to producing creative students.
From secondary schools to university, the emphasis is on thinking skill and project work. The results have been stark even in the less-renowned institutions.
At Jurong Junior College, for example, Adib Azad, 18, created a meter that helps cost-conscious homeowners know how much they are spending on water and electricity.
Then two telecommunications students at Temasek Polytechnic devised a way for residents of high-rise public flats to check if they’ve got mail, without leaving their living room.
It’s a mail detector device that is tied to the television. All they have to do is to turn on their TV set and if the S$1,000 detector senses mail, they will be told.
Two years ago, a team of Singaporean engineers developed the world’s first compact unmanned underwater robot that can inspect and repair undersea structures and telecom cables.
Some technology is imported.
A Singapore company is using specially-cultivated bacteria from the US to eat up food waste that blocks kitchen pipes. There are plans to use similar bugs for drains. It has more than 200 clients, mainly restaurants and hotels.
Another is using a space-age trash collection system for high-rise housing estates. Households throw trash into their rubbish chutes.
The rubbish goes straight to a big vacuum-sealed pipe underground. During collection time, pneumatic trucks suck up all the trash in seconds.
The whole society – from schoolchildren to businessmen, from civil servants to householders – is geared toward a new mindset of creating or sourcing for high-tech, value-added products.
In the past 12 months, machines that make water out of thin air have sprung up for sale in the water-short market here.
Sesdaq-listed company Hyflux recently brought a stake in a US firm that holds the original patent for it. The machine can make up to 20 litres of water from the air.
The machine sucks in humid air and puts it through a patented filter system and an ultraviolet treatment system to remove bacteria.
Water vapour in the air is cooled and the condensed water passed through more filters.
This is Singapore’s third economic evolution. The first since independence in 1965 was manufacturing, textile, air-conditioners, umbrellas and shoes.
But faced with competition from cheaper Asian producers, a second was needed. The government began to force low-skilled manufacturers to relocate to neighbouring countries, especially the Growth Triangle (Batam and Johor).
From 1978, Singapore started moving into value-added production, including chemicals, ships, chips and other computer-related equipment – and services.
During an investment-attracting tour of Europe in the earlier 80s, a top Singaporean leader explained to several newspaper editors (I was among them) the rationale of the change.
The emergence of low-cost countries like China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia would deal a fatal blow to Jurong (industrial estate).
“It was a matter of time. We have to move out,” he said.
Besides, the world was becoming more protectionist, he said. When Singapore was poor, it had the sympathy of the West; now as it was being upgraded into a developed country, this sympathy was dissipating.
The solution? Move into value-added services, become a business and financial hub for the region, concentrate on consultancy or turnkey engineering projects.
Trading partners could erect barriers against Singapore’s manufactured goods but they could not stop us exporting our services.
“Turnkey projects are in our brains. They can’t keep people out. And even if their immigration were to try to keep our professionals out, we can use the fax or the phone (no Internet then) to do business,” he said.
Today, it calls for a different game. Labs are replacing factories.
The biggest area is biomedical service, including the cloning of human and animal embryos to harvest stem cells to cure diseases.
Recently a Singaporean scientist patented a genetically modified mouse that can mimic human disease symptoms; it will help reduce costs and shorten testing times for developing new drugs.
Anil K. Ratty, a 43-year-old with a PhD in biochemistry, patented the mouse that shows symptoms of mental disorders like schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and hyperactivity.
The creature spins when stressed, the result of a genetic mutation to produce this trait as a way of measuring the effectiveness of any tested drug.
Ratty plans to grab a bite of the worldwide pharmaceutical market by offering screening services to companies that need tests for drug discoveries conducted at the molecular level.
High-tech Singapore is also fast becoming a leader in Asia for cochlear implants, a high-tech device termed a “bionic ear” for deaf children.
More than 100 cochlear implants have been performed since it was introduced here in 1989.
From cancer research to separating conjoined Siamese twins, from a brain bypass to discovering a painless way to treat piles, doctors and researchers here are extending the boundaries of Singapore’s future.
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