Singapore's economic strategy of boosting science and tech producing results, says Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said the results are showing, with Singapore able to attract big names, such as Rolls- Royce, Alibaba and Google, to set up corporate labs and innovation centres here, and using Singapore as a testbed for new technology
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said the results are showing, with Singapore able to attract big names, such as Rolls- Royce, Alibaba and Google, to set up corporate labs and innovation centres here, and using Singapore as a testbed for new technology.ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

SINGAPORE - Singapore's economic strategy of boosting the science and technology sector and driving innovation is on the cusp of a new wave of results, with start-ups growing and making their marks overseas.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said this at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) Scholarship Awards Ceremony on Tuesday (July 24).

"Some are doing very well. They are in a range of areas, such as consumer services, fintech, and biomedical, and we're seeing them creating employment, raising funds, venturing overseas, and setting up overseas operations," he told the 112 scholarship recipients.

He said the development was the outcome of decades of effort to drive progress in the field.

"We have been working on this for a long time, using science and tech to break new grounds, grow new industries, create new companies, disrupt ourselves, and really raise competitiveness and productivity in a significant way," the minister said.

Mr Ong explained that the National Science and Technology Board was started in 1991 and changed its name to A*Star in 2002, before a change in strategy four years later led to the Science and Technology 2010 plan.

The 2006 move coincided with local universities becoming autonomous, which allows them to retain their own research agenda and invest in their own research. This has seen them climbing global rankings in the past few years.

"Rankings are not everything, but they are indicative of the kind of research effort that's been going into our universities, especially in the Stem area," said Mr Ong. Stem refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

He said the results are showing, with Singapore able to attract big names, such as Rolls- Royce, Alibaba and Google, to set up corporate labs and innovation centres here, and using Singapore as a testbed for new technology.

However, he urged the recipients not to be focused just on the science and technology area.

"To do well and be creative and be innovative, Stem people need to know humanities, and humanities people must understand technology," he said. "It is at the intersections of disciplines that we have innovation and creativity."

Mr Ong also shared how receiving a scholarship led him on a path to where he is today. He said while he left for the private sector for a period of time, he returned to the public service as it was where he feels "most fulfilled doing what I feel makes a difference to Singapore".

Mr Ong took a Public Service Commission scholarship to study Econometrics and Mathematical Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, completing his degree in 1991.

"I hope the scholarship will change your life, as it did for me. Do your best for Singapore, and Singapore too will support you to fulfill your aspirations."

Professor Ng Huck Hui, Executive Director of the A*Star Graduate Academy, which promotes scholarships and helps develop individuals in the science and research field, said that A*Star scholars are highly trained and sought after.

About 40 per cent of scholars stay on with A*Star after completing their bonds. Of those who left, about 30 per cent are engaged in research, teaching and research and development (R&D) planning with local universities, while over 15 per cent are involved in R&D-related work in the public sector, such as hospitals.

Another 40 per cent of those who left after serving their bonds entered the private sector.

In an open market, only when the scholars are attractive to the companies will the companies come calling, said Dr Ng, which shows the high level of training A*Star scholars receive.

He added that just because they leave A*Star after serving their bonds does not mean the agency's investment has gone to waste, as they still contribute to the institutes of higher learning and the wider RIE ecosystem.

Among the scholarship recipients on Tuesday was Mr Muzammil Arif Din Abdul Jabbar, 18, who will study medicine at Cambridge University on a National Science Scholarship.

Mr Arif said he is delighted to have the opportunity to give back to society. He will study six years for his degree, and another three for his PhD. He will then return to serve a six-year bond, preferably as an oncologist.

He said that science and technology has a bigger role to play for Singapore. "From an economic perspective, Singapore can't increase its productivity through manpower, so we have to rely on advancements in technology."

He added that in the medical field, new methods of treatment need to be discovered to cope with developments such as diseases slowly becoming immune to existing antibiotics, and that he hopes to find the cure for cancer one day.