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Speech at Combined Asian Breast Diseases Association / Breastscreen Singapore Update Conference 2007

Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Defence, Orchard Hotel, Singapore

Dr Daniel Makes
President, Asian Breast Diseases Association

Prof Wang Shih-Chang
Conference Committee Co-chairperson

Mr Lam Pin Woon
CEO, Health Promotion Board

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to join you this morning at the opening of the Combined Asian Breast Diseases Association and BreastScreen Singapore Update Conference 2007. I bid all overseas delegates a warm welcome and an enjoyable stay in Singapore.

2.   Singapore is privileged to host the 5th Asian Breast Diseases Association conference this year. I am happy to note the wide representation of delegates from both Singapore and overseas to share their experiences and expertise. These collaborative efforts are important to find more effective ways to detect breast cancer early and save lives.

Growing Singapore into a Healthcare Hub

3.   Singapore is committed to growing our healthcare sector. There are several reasons for this emphasis. Firstly, it is a natural preoccupation because local demand will increase as Singapore's population is ageing quite rapidly. In 2006, we had 307,000 residents aged 65 and above. But 20 years from now, this number will triple to almost 900,000, or 1 in every 5 residents. We may need up to twice the current number of healthcare workers to cater to anticipated healthcare needs. This is particularly so for the elderly, whether in the acute or step-down care sectors.

4.   Secondly, as living standards continue to improve in Asia and Southeast Asia, demand for quality healthcare services will also increase. In 2000, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked Singapore as having the best healthcare system in Asia, with excellent healthcare outcomes while maintaining affordability. Our healthcare facilities also account for one-third of all the facilities in Asia which are accredited by the Joint Commission International1 (JCI). With our high medical standards and caring medical professionals, we have been able to attract a significant number of foreign patients in the recent few years, and this number has been growing at approximately 20% annually2 .

5.   Thirdly, we are seeing the emergence of potent new communicable diseases, such as SARS, avian influenza and dengue. I am certain that many here among the medical community will never forget our tumultuous experiences during the SARS outbreak in 2003 – that took the lives of our courageous health workers and our dear friends. The potential for infectious diseases to spread across geographical and national boundaries is very real and is becoming ever more significant as more people travel. In the case of avian influenza, it would not be implausible for ground zero of an outbreak to be in this region.

6.   Being in the heart of Asia, we are well-positioned to work with partners to advance research in emerging infectious diseases. Our compactness and mix of Asian ethnic groups also offer clinical researchers opportunities to develop new treatments and technologies that are relevant to Asian populations. For example, the Singapore Dengue Consortium has been expanded to involve more partners in the understanding of the dengue virus and to develop prevention, treatment and eradication strategies. Another example is the collaboration between MIT and our local universities and research institutes, through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre on a five-year research programme to study host-pathogen interactions in infectious diseases such as influenza, malaria and tuberculosis. The concentration of talent and efforts will provide a strong boost to attain research breakthroughs in these areas.

An Integrated Approach – SingaporeMedicine

7.   Under the SingaporeMedicine initiative, various government agencies work closely with the hospitals and other healthcare providers to develop Singapore into a leading destination for healthcare services in Asia. This is done through a three-pronged approach: first, by developing local industry and capability and promoting inward investments in healthcare; second, by attracting international patients to seek treatment here; and third, by facilitating Singapore-based healthcare providers to invest in the region.

8.   Not counting the growth in domestic healthcare services, we have set for ourselves an ambitious target under the SingaporeMedicine initiative of attracting 1 million international patients per year by 2012. This will generate an additional $3 billion to our GDP and add 13,000 new jobs.

Investing in Infrastructure, Manpower and Research

9.   I have listed broadly the motivations and trends that explain why the healthcare sector is expected to grow for the foreseeable future. But these reasons are in themselves not sufficient to make Singapore a leading medical hub for Asia, and indeed for the rest of the world. They are basically what economists would term demand factors. To be among the best, we have to address supply factors. To simplify, we must produce healthcare professionals with “high tech, high touch” qualities.

10.   First, high-tech. Medical science is inherently and intentionally unstable, because at any one time, you will have researchers searching for new and more effective cures. Today's insurgents are tomorrow's incumbents, and the cycle is perpetuated. To remain at the leading edge of medical science, we have to commit resources to discover tomorrow's solutions. We have embarked on the second phase of development of Singapore's biomedical sciences initiative. Government has set aside $1.55 billion over the next few years to build up a strong translational and clinical research capability that will enable new inventions to translate from benchside to bedside.

11.   We are seeing more renowned research institutions setting up branches in Singapore, such as the American Association for Cancer Research and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. They join many other prominent firms already here, to tap on the conducive research environment that we offer. Through the collaboration between our hospitals and specialty centres with the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical technology firms based here, patients will be able to get access to state-of-the-art medicine and new treatments, delivered in a safe and regulated environment.

12.   But high technology, as much as it is needed, will always be incomplete. High touch is critical to good healthcare delivery. All patients around the world want the same thing. They want the assurance that they are receiving the best and most effective treatment. And they want to be able to trust that their doctors, nurses, therapists, healthcare attendants feel and care for them. The healthcare profession is all about people and we need well-trained and competent staff with “high touch” qualities. Today, the healthcare sector employs over 50,000 workers across a diverse spectrum of occupations. Demand will grow and we should expand our educational capacity to train Singaporeans so that they can make full use of the opportunities in this field. The healthcare sector offers long and rewarding careers, as many of you here will testify.

13.   I have always believed that Singaporeans are particularly suited to be healthcare professionals. They are adept in scientific knowledge – we continue to top maths and science surveys internationally. It is in our nature to be attentive to detail, an important trait for healthcare workers. Our Asian heritage has a deep respect for traditional medicine men – whether Chinese, Indian or Malay. The public respect you in the healthcare sector, and parents are proud to say that their children work there.

14.   Recently in August this year, the newly-established Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School admitted its first batch of 26 students who will be trained to be clinician-scientists. This is a significant development and a much needed one that will position us well for the future.

15.   But I think more can also be done to expand opportunities for nurses and other allied health professions. A step in the right direction is the establishment of NUS's Nursing degree programme which enrolled its pioneer batch of 50 students last year. We also have other programs that allow mid-career entrants with higher level qualifications under the Professionals Conversion Programme (PCP) to become registered nurses. Among the initial batches of trainee nurses, I spoke to an architect and a lawyer who answered their inner yearnings to switch professions mid-stream. We are launching new PCP programmes in April next year for mid-career entrants to become occupational therapists and physiotherapists. The Health Management International (HMI) Limited also recently launched the HMI Institute of Health Sciences, dedicated to training nurses and healthcare assistants.

16.   Because the healthcare sector offers good career prospects for Singaporeans, I think it is time to consider if we should step up capacity. We should consider if we need an allied healthcare university faculty or campus. There is a global shortage of diploma and degree holders in healthcare professions such as nursing, physiotherapy, occupational and speech therapy, radiation therapy, and specialised optometrics, just to name a few of these professions. And this shortage will be further accentuated as populations in Europe, UK and the USA age, and healthcare needs rise. Singapore can help alleviate this shortage by training such professionals for our own needs, as well as for others. There are existing examples of universities that are world-renowned for their Health Science and Rehabilitation focus. Boston University, USC, University of Washington, Duke University and University of Sydney are some examples that quickly come to mind. I want to add a caveat that this is under the purview of MOE and MOH, and I have no authority to speak on their behalf. But I am throwing out this idea for the Committee under MOS Lui Tuck Yew that is currently reviewing the expansion of the university sector to consider.

17.   Whatever the form, we will have to invest even more in training for allied healthcare professionals and nurses to meet our own healthcare needs and to produce a medical workforce that is high tech and high touch.


18.   For all healthcare professionals, whether you are involved in clinical and/or research activities, it is an exciting time to be in Singapore. Research and medical activities are flourishing, and we will continue to press on with our efforts to be a leading healthcare services hub, supported by our investments in a first-class healthcare infrastructure, development of skilled medical professionals, and research that translates to useful bedside applications.

19.   On this note, I wish all of you a fruitful conference.



1The JCI opened its Asia Pacific office in Singapore in 2006. It sets the gold standard for patient safety and care.

2In 2006, Singapore received about 410,000 international patients.