Singapore bio drive misguided – Lee family member

Mia Shanley
1 Feb 07

Singapore should reassess its strategy for creating a biomedical industry after spending billions of dollars without achieving significant results, a member of the country’s top political family said.

Lee Wei Ling — whose brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is driving Singapore’s economic overhaul by moving into new areas such as scientific research, education and casinos — told Reuters that research resources had been spread too widely.

“We need to choose the few research areas that we think we may have a chance with. We cannot do everything. We have to be more focused, especially when you are a little red dot with a GDP our size,” Lee, a paediatrician who heads the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), told Reuters in her first interview with a foreign news organisation.

Lee says she does not have influence over policy.

But Lee said that she has raised her concerns about biomedical policy with her father, Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of independent Singapore. He remains a key member of his son’s cabinet with the title of “Minister Mentor”.

The 52-year-old Lee Wei Ling lives in her father’s house, where she meets the rest of her high-powered family most Sundays for dinner.

She said the country would be foolish if it failed to invest in niche areas of research such as Asian diseases and if it continued to compete with the scientific heavyweights of the west.

“Why should we want to compete with another 10, 20, 30 world-class centres chasing the same thing?” she said.

Is the government listening?

“All I can say is that maybe they are having a rethink,” she said, in her sparse office at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where a portrait of her mother and a childhood photo of her playing with her older brother Lee Hsien Loong hang above her desk.

Higher profile

A shift could have big implications for some foreign researchers in Singapore, and for the pharmaceutical companies and drug discovery firms which are keen on the wealthy country’s venture capital funds for their research projects.

Singapore’s famous foreign scientists include cancer researchers Sir David Lane and Edison Liu, as well as Alan Colman — a British scientist whose team cloned Dolly the sheep.

“How many of the foreign stars have made any major discoveries after coming to Singapore?” Lee asked rhetorically. She added, “Anyone who looks at Singapore’s size will wonder, why are we trying venture capitalism?”

Lee is hardly alone in taking a sceptical view of Singapore’s strategy. The World Bank late last year said Singapore had only a 50/50 chance of succeeding in its drive.

Meanwhile, change is afoot.

Philip Yeo, the chief architect of Singapore’s biomedical drive, is leaving the Agency for Science, Technology and Research after a five-year run to take up a job as an economic adviser to the prime minister in April.

Lee, who says she has been asked about her influence on Yeo’s move, says she had nothing to do with it.

“I am amused and astonished by the misperception of how much power I wield,” she said.

Lee suggested Singapore focus on specific areas of research, perhaps in hepatitis B and auto-immune diseases, much more common in the Chinese, or in other diseases common in Malays or Indians.

She says she would not be interested in heading a body that would direct such research.

“I see patients. I am running a hospital,” she said as staff casually popped in and out without knocking.

Despite her stance on policy issues, Lee stays out of the public eye and says she is the only member of the Lee family who is not instantly recognisable on Orchard Road, the country’s main shopping belt. She did not want to be photographed.

But inevitably, as a Lee family member, her views attract attention and some of her recent, sharply worded editorials in the local press — on everything from pre-school education to the sale of human organs — have raised her public profile.

Despite Lee’s complaints, there are many in the scientific community who say Singapore is going in the right direction.

“There is a level of buzz and excitement in Singapore that the U.S. hasn’t had for years,” said top U.S. cancer researcher Nancy Jenkins, who arrived last September at Singapore’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology.