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Speech at A*Star Scholarship Awards Ceremony 2007

Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Defence , The Biopolis

Your Excellency, Paul Madden, British High Commissioner

Mr Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman, A*STAR

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1.   I am very pleased to join you today for the 2007 A*STAR Scholarship Awards Presentation Ceremony. Let me first congratulate all the A*STAR scholars who will be receiving their awards today and also your parents, who proudly witness this moment.

R&D Has Become an Important Driver for Economic Growth

2.   The ceremony today highlights our efforts in building up and investing in our most valuable asset – our human capital and resource. While the specific programmes vary across time to respond to changing demands and prevailing challenges, the broad strategy remains the same and should be viewed as a continuum of an overarching policy that first began in the 70's, nearly four decades ago.

3.   When manufacturing formed 24% of our GDP in the 70's and 80's, those drivers created the fore-runners of our ITEs and Polytechnics and strengthened our engineering, science and IT focus within Universities. The business and economic model then was driven by efficiency, responsiveness, dependability and reproducibility. Because we were able to produce skilled manpower that could meet these demands and remained relevant to industry, 25 years of growth and prosperity followed. We must now add new qualities to respond to the world around us.

4.   As others catch up with our traditional strengths, Singapore needs to move up the value chain and now competes on an entirely different level – the “Creative Industries”. It's not “one thing in your pocket, as the Nokia ad goes – but many things”. Sometimes, it's a relentless search for something that people need – like a cure for cancer, ageing or plain old acne; or in the financial sector, a better tool to hedge longevity risks – a problem that all developed countries are grappling with. It need not always be complex – as Amazon or eBay exemplified of simple concepts using available technology. Often, success will mean creating needs where none existed, and the markets will follow. Think of Starbucks and the millions of coffee drinkers it created – who did not know that they needed their mochas and frappuccinos to start the day right.

5.   I have not forgotten that this is an A*STAR ceremony in using examples from the services industries – it was to specifically remind us all to avoid being pigeon holed or adopt myopic vistas. You must begin as subject experts in your fields of study in the field of Science & Technology. That is a given. But increasingly, it will be those who can use their expertise and technological know-how to provide solutions in diverse areas, including even those outside the traditional S&T sectors, that great opportunities await.

6.   In this rarefied atmosphere that we have now entered, costs of investments are much higher, greater risks exist with longer gestation periods. But rewards will be great for winning ideas and solutions. Let me illustrate. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) spends S$11 billion a year on R&D, and has 15,500 research scientists globally. Samsung spends about S$9 billion a year on R&D and employs more than 2,700 PhDs in R&D. But these investments have yielded successes – GlaxoSmithKline, with an estimated 7% share of the global pharmaceutical market is one of the key market leaders. Their highest revenue derived from a single drug, Avandia, amounted to S$4 billion. Samsung Electronics is established as the world's third largest manufacturer of mobile phones with a 13% market share and net sales of S$34 billion in 2005.

7.   Can small countries like Singapore play in the big league and compete to win? Finland, and Switzerland, both small countries with populations ranging from 5 to 10 million, assure us that it is possible. They rank amongst the top 10 OECD countries in terms of per capita GDP. They invest heavily in knowledge and talent. In Singapore, our national R&D spending increased from 1.9% of GDP in 2000 to 2.4% in 2005. But we need to do more. By 2010, we aim to raise our R&D spending to 3% of GDP, a level comparable to that in Finland (3.5%) and Switzerland (2.9%).

8.   But because absolute size and budgets matter, we must compete effectively and stretch every dollar of our investments. As we have done previously, we will need to produce superior systems and people. At the systems level, we have been investing in better infrastructure. A*STAR plays a central role in this transformation and has mapped out the future R&D strategies for the economy under the Science and Technology Plan 2010. It has organised its 14 Research Institutes and 5 research consortia to adopt an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to R&D, working closely with industry on projects and knowledge transfer. With over 350,000 square metres of gross floor area, the Biopolis and soon-to be-completed Fusionopolis aim to provide a high concentration of research talent to push the frontiers of science and create new technologies that will spark innovation and growth.

9.   But at the heart of the winning strategy in this creative industry must be people – the ideas factories. Upon you, success for Singapore's efforts in a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy depends. We must expand our pool of PhD-level research scientists and engineers. Of the 4,600 PhD research scientists and engineers in the country, less than a third (31.5%) are Singaporeans. While we welcome foreign PhD researchers to Singapore because they contribute immensely to the talent tapestry, we must also make sure we train enough Singaporean PhDs to generate a good flow of local talent into the research labs. In the longer term, we must encourage Singaporeans to become leaders in their fields, influence policy-formulation, and direct world-renowned research labs.

10.   It is the nature of this creative industry that seminal contributions emanate from a smaller pool of highly trained scientists, engineers and researchers, but only when strongly supported by competent and efficient institutions. The demand for research scientists & engineers (RSEs), to support R&D expenditure at 3% of GDP is projected to increase by 10,000 from 2006 to 2010. The proportion of researchers with postgraduate qualifications is also expected to increase.

11.   Singapore was a relative “late-starter” compared to established world players in these creative fields. But our efforts thus far have been successful in branding Singapore as a knowledge hub. A*STAR and its Research Institutes and our local universities have gained notice as a major node for R&D. Our early successes must not induce complacency but instead drive us further to deepen our R&D foundation.

The Way Ahead – Investing in Talent

12.   While having state-of-the-art facilities and equipment is attractive, they are not sufficient. What will endure at the end of the day is a sustainable pipeline of talent that will develop into future generations of scientists and researchers. This is where the A*STAR Scholarship Programme plays a pivotal role. Since 2001, the National Science Scholarship (NSS) and A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS) programs have trained over 600 aspiring scientists. We have 246 scholars pursuing their PhDs at top local and overseas universities. Today, another 146 young people will receive the prestigious A*STAR scholarships. They will add to our growing pool of Singaporean PhDs.

13.   In addition, A*STAR is supporting 74 young ASEAN students for their upper secondary and pre-university studies in Singapore under the A*STAR Young Researchers' Attachment Programme this year. Another 100 outstanding Singaporean Junior College students will receive the A*STAR JC Science Awards.

14.   I am also pleased that A*STAR has expanded its PhD partnership with top international universities under the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship programme. Eight leading universities are now partners with A*STAR, the latest addition this year being the University of Cambridge in the UK.

15.   These partner universities have been carefully selected by A*STAR for the rigour of their PhD programmes, and world-class research and education, which complement the high-quality PhD training at A*STAR labs. Through these partnerships, we are providing young Singaporeans the best the world has to offer in their PhD training. As A*STAR Graduate Scholarship holders, you should also help us to build bridges for Singapore with the scientific communities in the UK, US and Sweden.

Exciting Times to Embark on a Scientific Career

16.   When you return at the end of your training, it will be your responsibility to bring Singapore's R&D expertise to a higher plane. You must add to the vibrant and dynamic research culture that exist in A*STAR's Research Institutes, the Universities and the private sector.

17.   Above all, some of you must succeed in producing ideas or discoveries that will gain recognition in business or academia. That is the final test. We are not producing scientists and engineers as an end in itself but to finally make an impact on lives and the world at large. This is the raison d'être and we should not lose sight of this. We do need successful examples, preferably soon, to motivate us all that we are on the right track in this new venture.

18.   A*STAR researchers are able to make a direct impact on the lives of Singaporeans. For example, some of them are working on developing the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. This is an automatic, identification method which relies on storing and retrieving data remotely using RFID tags. A*STAR began working on this back in 1995. From 1998, this technology has been used to tag books at over 40 public libraries. Library users now benefit from shorter waiting times when checking out items, as well as more accurate and faster access to library materials. RFID technology has also been adopted in the tracking of baggage at the airport. As depicted, A*STAR's research developments can be translated into new or improved applications that will bring about greater convenience, enhance our quality of life, and even open up new business opportunities.

19.   A*STAR researchers also have an impact on many industries. Another example is a partnership A*STAR has formed with four aerospace industry giants, under its Aerospace Program. The four companies will work with A*STAR's Research Institutes and other industry players to drive innovation in aerospace research in Singapore. The consortium will leverage on the strengths and capabilities of the partners to boost the capabilities of local aerospace companies, enabling them to move up the value chain.

20.   I sincerely wish these projects early success.

Exciting Careers Await Our Scholars

21.   Most of you will be gone for the next three to eight years and will return to an improved scientific environment. Some of your seniors have already returned and are developing new areas of scientific expertise. The $5 billion that Government has committed to three major research initiatives in Biomedical Sciences, Environmental and Water Technologies, and Interactive and Digital Media will spur developments in the Universities, Research Institutes and the private sector. More opportunities will exist to allow you to develop your ideas and pursue discoveries.

Advice to Scholars

22.   Each of you has been carefully selected to join our R&D community. We have invested heavily in you because you are the best hope for Singapore's success as we seek to expand, upgrade and diversify our economy. You will bring an added depth and dimension to help transform Singapore into a knowledge economy. We will be looking forward to your significant contributions.

23.   Finally, my congratulations to all the scholarship recipients as you embark on a new chapter in your journey of learning and discovery. Thank you.