Singapore’s elite in biomedical project row

February 16, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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John Burton
Financial Times
15 Feb 07

A rare public dispute among Singapore’s ruling elite has exposed simmering doubts about the direction of the city-state’s showcase project to become a leading biomedical hub.

The controversy has pitted Philip Yeo, the head of Singapore’s A*Star science agency and chief promoter of the project, against his main critic, Lee Wei Ling, the head of the National Neuroscience Institute and the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, the still influential founder of independent Singapore.

Singapore’s government has staked the city-state’s economic future on trying to improve its allure for advanced industries and to diversify its economy away from trade and traditional manufacturing.

The showcase project for this has been a push to develop Singapore’s biomed industry which has seen it spend at least S$3bn ($1.95bn, €1.5bn, £1bn) to build research facilities, hire prominent foreign scientists and educate local researchers at leading foreign universities. Last year, the output of Singapore’s biomedical industry grew by 30 per cent to S$23bn, a quarter of total manufacturing.

Mr Yeo, a former chairman of the powerful Economic Development Board, argues that Singapore can become a prominent research centre because it already serves as a key manufacturing site for foreign pharmaceutical companies.

But he and his strategy has come under fire in recent weeks from Dr Lee, who has called for a change in course and argues that a “scatter-shot” approach to drug research would spread resources too thinly. Instead, she wants Singapore to focus on a few key areas and develop drugs for hepatitis-B and other diseases common among Asians.

Mr Yeo has responded by calling Dr Lee’s criticism a “voice in the wilderness”. His supporters say that the research drive is more focused than alleged by Dr Lee, with the main emphasis on developing cancer drugs using stem cell research, where Singapore is emerging as a global leader.

Dr Lee retorted to this: “Mr Philip Yeo, having never practised as a doctor, is strategising about biomedical research directions in an ivory tower … We’re talking about billions of taxpayers’ money. I will not let this mistake continue.”

The exchange followed the release of a critical report last year by World Bank economists that concluded Singapore had only a 50 per cent chance of succeeding as a biotechnology research hub. It noted that Singapore was building a local research team from scratch in a country of only 4.5m people without an entrepreneurial culture and weak links between universities and business.

The report also criticised Singapore’s dependence on a “footloose group” of top scientists who could leave at short notice for better opportunities elsewhere.

The latter reflected a particular concern related to Dr Lee. She was involved in a controversy involving a prominent British researcher who formerly headed the National Neuroscience Institute. In 2003, Dr Lee, then the institute’s deputy head, accused Dr Simon Shorvon of ethics violations during research tests on patients. He was sacked after the Singapore Medical Council ruled he had engaged in unethical behaviour, a ruling later challenged by the UK’s General Medical Council.

The latest dispute comes as Mr Yeo is preparing to step down as A*Star head in April, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60, to become a science and technology adviser to the government of Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister and Dr Lee’s brother.

The government appears committed to Mr Yeo’s vision and A*Star said it believed there was little reason to change its policy. Nonetheless, there are worries at Biopolis, the main research facility, that Mr Yeo’s departure from A*Star could weaken the programme.