May 22, 2024


 Singapore is jockeying for a position as a world leader in stem cell research. Researchers disgruntled with meagre funding or restrictive regulation in their home countries are moving to the island state. Faced with declining returns in electronics, the Singaporean government declared a few years ago that biotechnology would become one of the pillars of its economy. It has invested S$500 million into a "biopolis", a huge biomedical complex with the latest equipment (including an underground facility for 250,000 mice). A stem cell bank is under way.

Giving Singapore a competitive edge in this field are extremely liberal regulations. Back in 2002, its Bioethics Advisory Council declared that "a human embryo has a special status as a potential human being, but is not of the same status as a living child or adult. Such respect is however, not absolute and may be weighed against the recognised benefits arising from the proposed research." The utilitarian stance of the government’s position would have provoked intense controversy elsewhere, but in Singapore there was little opposition.

Singapore offers many carrots to draw foreign expertise. Drug companies are attracted by a 30% subsidy of building costs. Talented stem cell researchers from the US, UK, Japan and Australia buzz over the honey pot of generous salaries and tiptop facilities. In return, however, Singapore demands results. It recently severed a link with prestigious Johns Hopkins because the US university had failed to achieve its agreed staff recruitment goals.

Singapore is also aiming to become a world leader in medical tourism. It recently engaged US consulting firm McKinsey to map out a plan for attracting 1 million medical tourists by 2012. Last year the figure was 374,000. Some patients will no doubt visit the two immense casinos which are also under way to strengthen another pillar of the economy, tourism.