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UK could learn from Singapore's coordinated approach to industrial promotion

My first impression of Singapore during my trip here this week to meet alumni and industry leaders, was how well things worked. I was struck by thoughtfulness, by care and purpose.

As a scientist, I also knew of Singapore by reputation. My Oxford colleague, Professor Artur Eckert, is director of the Institute of Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore. The science and engineering now undertaken in Singapore is indeed world-class.

But it wasn't always this way. Singapore is a wonder because it chose to be so and set about making a plan to transform itself from port city to global trading hub, a Republic which would startle the world.

Connected by sea trade routes for almost two centuries, Singapore and the United Kingdom are now in the business of trading ideas. With Singapore facing similar economic challenges, there is ample opportunity to exchange solutions, and the Republic has a head start.

Leaders of growing economies can make strategic decisions that make a drastic difference to their future. But I am keen to understand what we in the UK should learn from Singapore. The differences between the two most recent Budget statements make one issue stand out: Singapore has a long-term plan for its national industries, while Britain does not.

The lack of a concerted long-term plan to deliver the industrial capabilities we need to build our own railways and energy-generating technologies can be very damaging... Letting the free market decide how much these capabilities should cost can put them out of our reach when we really need them, so we have to put the capabilities in place ourselves.

In Singapore's latest Budget statement, over 20 sectors were promised tailored industrial road maps to ensure they develop in line with the needs of the modern world. Plans will be put in place to deliver training and develop new technologies in tandem to ensure that staff, businesses and entire industries can compete globally, performing their duties as employers, research partners and engines of economic growth.

With such similar mountains to climb, the UK government could learn an enormous amount from Singapore's coordinated approach to meeting the needs of the nation's industries and society. In the UK, as in Singapore, we rely on hard-working and talented immigrants to fill huge gaps in our workforce where our skills, training and demographic qualities struggle to keep pace with the needs of our economy.

We are also under increasing pressure to lower pollution and carbon emissions, upgrade our infrastructure and safeguard the livelihood of an ageing population.

But we need more than one major global city in the UK. London and the south-east of England have typically driven the UK's economic productivity, generating the highest wages and quality of life, but there has always been a question over whether this has come at the cost of the rest of the British Isles.

With economic growth in the UK driven by the finance and business services sectors, our once globally leading manufacturing sector has shrunk gradually since the 1970s to the 10 per cent share of national gross domestic product it holds today. Investment in commercial research and development, an area where Britain still performs well, has also fallen over the same period. The lack of a concerted long-term plan to deliver the industrial capabilities we need to build our own railways and energy- generating technologies can be very damaging, and the smartest politicians and thinkers in the UK know it. They are the voices urgently reminding government that letting the free market decide how much these capabilities should cost can put them out of our reach when we really need them, so we have to put the capabilities in place ourselves.

In a city-state such as Singapore, a balanced and prosperous economy is a complex technological challenge, but success is more than possible. Singapore has been transformed in 50 years from a newly independent former colony to a thriving and industrious, purposeful city-state.

Singapore is proof that cities are a vital driver of economic growth.

The engineers and manufacturers who built the Chongqing-Chengdu megacity complex, and those architects and engineers (some of them graduates of my own university) who built and developed Singapore, have the kind of vision we need to develop to allow our northern cities and their economic capabilities to thrive. Indeed, our very first graduate from Singapore in 1956 was an architect. Just think what has been achieved since then.

Singapore reminds me that we should never stint on ambition. What we need is purpose and the people to deliver it.


  • Sir Keith Burnett is Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sheffield, a member of British Prime Minister David Cameron's advisory Council for Science and Technology, and an ambassador for the International Festival for Business 2016.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'UK could learn from S'pore's coordinated approach to industrial promotion'. Print Edition | Subscribe