Singapore and France: Breaking barriers through innovation

The world is witnessing an unprecedented confluence of political, economic and technological trends that will lead to major changes in the way we work, live and play.

Technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are disrupting traditional business models and transforming the nature of jobs, potentially adding to existing anti-globalisation and protectionist trends. Rising concerns about the impact of climate change have forced countries to factor in environmental and sustainability issues in decision-making.

It cannot be business as usual as we look for solutions to these complex and interconnected global challenges. Bold and innovative solutions are needed. As these challenges are transboundary and multi-faceted in nature, it would be difficult for any single individual, company or country to try to tackle them. Instead, a concerted effort to exchange knowledge and ideas across research institutes, companies and countries in an open ecosystem is required.

Oftentimes, the best solutions arise at the intersections of different disciplines of study, industry sectors and in collaboration with other countries, each bringing its own strengths to the endeavour.

Joint efforts and the cross-pollination of ideas can be rewarding. The innovations that arise not only offers solutions to today's problems, but also opens up exciting opportunities for our economies and societies of tomorrow.

Both France and Singapore recognise the importance of working together and investing in the necessary resources to nurture an environment conducive to innovation. Both know that even as we tend to our individual capacities, for innovation to truly flourish, we must continue to welcome the flow of talent and ideas across languages, cultures and geographies.


France and Singapore are like-minded partners with a long history and a rich network of cooperative ventures.

Airbus Helicopters' Skyways unmanned air vehicle completed its first flight demonstration at the National University of Singapore in February last year. (From left) Thales Singapore CEO Kevin Chow, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Thal
(From left) Thales Singapore CEO Kevin Chow, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Thales senior executive V-P (international development) Pascale Sourisse, EDB executive director Tan Kong Hwee, Thales executive V-P (ground transportation systems) Millar Crawford, and Thales V-P (digital transformation & digital factory) Olivier Flous watching a presentation by the company's Brice Meyrieux (offset and project manager) during the opening of the French company's digital factory in Singapore last year. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Today, Singapore plays host to more than 2,000 French companies, the second highest number of companies from an EU member state. A community of an estimated 20,000 French people live in Singapore, the second largest in Asia.

An increasing number of French companies are working with Singapore partners to develop emerging and cutting-edge technologies. One example is the collaboration between the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and Airbus in the area of unmanned aircraft systems. Through the Skyways project, Airbus aims to develop a system that will support airborne parcel delivery services in large urban environments. While still in its early stages of development, such projects offer potentially promising building blocks in creating smart cities of the future.

Another significant partnership is the establishment in November last year of a "digital factory" in Singapore by French defence electronics giant Thales; it is its third such research lab in the world, after France and Canada, and the first in Asia.

The research lab works at providing digital solutions using technologies such as big data, AI and cloud computing for customers in the aerospace, ground transportation, defence and security domains. The governments of France and Singapore are committed to supporting and strengthening our mutually beneficial joint efforts.

In March 2017, both countries issued the France-Singapore Joint Declaration of Innovation to express our commitment to intensify cooperation in innovation. 2018 was designated the France-Singapore Year of Innovation, during which a total of 60 events were held with strong support from our embassies, businesses, universities and research institutes.

We also saw an increase in the exchange of bilateral visits between France and Singapore. These include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's attendance at the French National Day celebrations in Paris last July 14, at the invitation of France's President Emmanuel Macron. During the visit, Mr Lee and Mr Macron adopted a joint road map on digital innovation, Internet governance and cyber security - an effort aimed at harnessing technology to create economic opportunity, build closer communities and improve people's lives.

Looking ahead, there are many more areas that offer opportunities for both countries to explore and work together.

Recognising the important role that start-ups play in the economy of the future, Singapore launched the Global Innovation Alliance programme in Paris, the first in Europe, to better connect our innovation ecosystems and enhance cross-border market access of our start-ups.

Similarly, France officially added Singapore to its global French Tech network in September last year. With its inclusion, the French Tech Singapore community - comprising over 600 French entrepreneurs working in Singapore's tech industry - gets a boost through the array of events and initiatives being organised to connect it better with local and regional business networks.

Beyond enhancing flows between our start-up ecosystems, both countries also agreed to forge ahead with collaboration in new technological frontiers. We signed over 20 Memorandums of Understanding to expand our research cooperation in new fields such as AI, small satellite and space research, synthetic biology and bioprocesses and the circular economy. These are emerging areas that will position our economies for future growth and benefit our people with a more sustainable, smarter living environment.


Airbus Helicopters' Skyways unmanned air vehicle completed its first flight demonstration at the National University of Singapore in February last year. (From left) Thales Singapore CEO Kevin Chow, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Thal
Airbus Helicopters' Skyways unmanned air vehicle completed its first flight demonstration at the National University of Singapore in February last year. ST FILE PHOTO

Relations between France and Singapore go a long way back. France was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Singapore upon its independence.

Generations of Singaporeans have benefited from France's early engagement in Singapore through being schooled in renowned education institutions started by French Christian missionaries such as St Joseph's Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

While L'Oreal and Louis Vuitton are French brands well known to most Singaporeans, many may not know that Ayam Brand, a familiar household name, was founded by Frenchman Alfred Clouet in Singapore back in 1892.

The French presence in Singapore is both extensive and enduring, and continues in many innovative and cutting-edge areas. French companies in the energy and biopharmaceutical industries, including Schneider Electric, Roquette and Engie, are choosing to anchor their global or regional innovation centres in Singapore.

With the European Parliament having approved the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and Investment Protection Agreement just last month, we can expect more cross-border research and development activities and new business opportunities for companies in the EU, France and Singapore in the future.

But French-Singapore ties go beyond enhancing trade and tech. Both countries have benefited greatly from regional integration and value the peace and stability that come from an international order based on the rule of law. We believe that growing linkages between regions and countries as well as an open and inclusive system of innovation can benefit not just the participants but the world as well.

How well we do in meeting the complex challenges ahead and seizing the opportunities for more collaboration in innovation and other areas is limited only by our imagination and resourcefulness.

• Chan Chun Sing is the Minister for Trade and Industry. Frederique Vidal is the French Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2019, with the headline Singapore and France: Breaking barriers through innovation. Subscribe