Back on track and set to forge ahead

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 09 Nov 2003

By Seah Chiang Nee

TWO days ago, a couple of unusual players popped up near the small residential centre that seemed bent on proving that Singapore’s middle class was not in decline. 

One is a daytime aromatic spa which caters to young professionals. Bouquets of flowers – meaning it had just opened for business – lined its shopfront when I walked by. 

Next to it is another start-up, a pets’ clinic. If you walk in, you’d probably think you had stumbled into a mini-hospital; it had state-of-the-art equipment for our four-legged friends. 

While Singaporeans are fiercely complaining about the high cost of hospital care for humans, others are making sure their sick pets get the best treatment, no matter the cost. 

Behind these establishments are two other trendy shops. One calls itself Happy Daze, a “pop culture retro cafe” (don’t ask me what it sells). The other sells exotic fish as “good luck” pets that probably cost more than an average worker’s monthly salary. 

These are not businesses for a society in decline. Smack in the middle of a residential area, these luxury items are for young professionals who can afford to spend. 

These shops probably wouldn’t have opened a year ago. They reflect a recovery in confidence. 

During the last few weeks, the sentiment of Singaporeans has distinctly turned rosier, a contrast to the doom and gloom in recent years. 

Singapore is a land of public polls. A recent one shows young Singaporeans becoming more optimistic about their future; another says the majority of businessmen predict an improvement in the next six months. 

One case in point is Singapore Airlines. Barely five months after retrenching 600 workers, including flight staff, SARS-devastated SIA is starting to recruit pilots and cabin crew. 

Stealing a line from Arnold Schwarzenegger, its chief executive – with a surprising S$305mil quarterly profit under his belt – exuberantly proclaimed: “We’re back!” 

In a way, so is Singapore Inc. Hardly a day passes without a fresh report showing an economy in rebound. 

Hard disc-maker Seagate announced it was pumping S$300mil into its Singapore operations; Singapore’s trade union movement said it would invest in a S$50mil Sentosa beach club. 

The GDP grew by a huge 15% in the September period and manufacturing expanded in October for the fifth month running. 

People are buying more, tourism is soaring and the stock market is up 40% this year with large companies reporting higher profits (many due to foreign trade, especially with China). 

But behind these glowing signs lies a deepening woe – unemployment has risen from 5.4% to 5.9%, a 17-year high and still counting. 

The economy is still in painful transition from an industrial to a high-value services base. As companies migrate to China and other large countries, manufacturing (and construction) remains in the doldrums. 

The number of workers in the manufacturing sector has declined steadily from 429,000 (28.2% of the workforce) in 1991 to 367,000 (18.2%) last year. 

The conversion is steaming ahead with priority given to seeking new avenues for survival and prosperity. One area is biotech research. 

Recently, Singapore opened the S$500mil Biopolis, seven gleaming glass structures, to spearhead a brave – some would say foolhardy – entry into the world of biomedical sciences. 

At the same time, more than 500 scientists, including some world-class names, gathered here to discuss stem cells and how to harness them to cure diseases such as diabetes, quadriplegia and Parkinson's. 

Built across Buona Vista MRT Station, the project is reminiscent of the pioneering 60s when a large swampland in Jurong was transformed into a thriving industrial city. 

While Jurong industrial estate launched the manufacturing age, the Biopolis marks its decline and the start of a new Singapore. 

Life sciences are, of course, only one major field; others are to provide top-class financial, education, healthcare and business hub services. 

Like Jurong, Biopolis also depends on foreign workers, albeit a different breed that Singapore is desperately short of. They are the PhDs, the scientists and medical researchers. 

At the forefront of Biopolis is Philip Teo, who says Biopolis embodies a “lot of hope” for the young.  

“There will be a new economic future for young people,” he said at its opening. 

The project is expensive and not without risk. Some are asking if it would be a white elephant, especially since it cannot resolve Singapore’s fundamental problem of long-term unemployment. 

What has become a strong safety net for this city in recent years when things were really down is its accumulated cash. 

It’s a big help to alleviate suffering of the jobless and financially troubled, and enough left over to spend on building the future. 

The government is throwing at least US$2.3bil in investments, grants and other incentives behind its effort to become an integrated biotechnology hub. 

Since 2000, it had already spent US$570mil to establish three new research institutes. 

Being close to the Equator, it believes, makes it ideal for the study of tropical diseases endemic to the region like malaria, while its own population grapples with illnesses of affluence like cancer and heart disease. 

For stem-cell researchers, Singapore offers one of the world's most liberal legal atmospheres. 

It allows stem cells to be taken from aborted foetuses, and human embryos to be cloned and kept for up to 14 days to produce stem cells. 

The welcoming climate lured Alan Colman here last year. Colman helped clone Dolly, the history-making sheep, in Scotland in 1996. 

When financing for his diabetes research grew scarce in Europe, he moved to ES Cell International, a venture between Australian investors and Singapore's Economic Development Board. 

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research is offering US$286mil in scholarships for students to pursue doctorates in biomedical sciences at home and abroad – on condition that they work in Singapore for up to eight years. 

Adding value to Singapore is its past success in attracting drug makers with tax holidays and other incentives. Among those with factories here are Merck, Pfizer and Schering-Plough. 

Pharmaceutical production swelled by about 50% last year, to US$5.56bil, and is well on track to reach the government's target of US$7bil by 2005. It explains why biomedical research has become a crucial “fourth” economic pillar. 

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website  

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