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Phil O'Sullivan

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Biotechnology is the buzzword in Singapore business circles these days. The Island state is betting big on this science of the future to help rescue its stuttering economy.

The city-state of Singapore is banking on scientists in laboratories to replicate the success that made I one of Asia's tiger economies.

Singapore is attempting to lure major companies like those that conduct research into stem cells. With fewer restrictions on embryo cloning compared to the United States, it's becoming the world's capital for stem cell research.


Dr. Ang Peng Tiam is a co-founder of Stemcord International and he is upbeat but cautious.

"Nobody knows what the future holds. My business for example is something which could turn into a billion dollar business, if indeed the value of these stem cells is proven to be as great as what we can imagine it to be at this time."

Recently Singapore opened a shiny new complex to house biotech scientists and their companies. Biopolis is a three hundred million dollar symbol of Singapore's move away from the electronics sector, which helped catapult the island from third world to first in three decades.

This shift in emphasis is being driven by countries like China overtaking Singapore as a cheaper source of electronics goods. So the government is offering tax breaks, grants and other incentives worth up to one-point-three billion dollars. These incentives are all aimed at attracting the best and brightest of the biotech world.

"Biotechnology is a sector seen as having tremendous long-term potential," says Singaporean economist P.K. Basu.

"It's a sector that will be very knowledge intensive, perhaps somewhat capital intensive as well, and those are two areas where Singapore has a perceived advantage."

Singapore isn't the only country pouring money into biotech research, but it is seen as focusing its efforts more than any other country in the region.

The chairman of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research sums it up.

"We cannot compete with America," he says.

"We cannot compete with Europe. We must look for areas and the advantage is that we are in Asia, and we must look for diseases that are relevant to our domain and some areas of stem cells where some countries are not very keen in such things. So we must look for those areas to create a niche."

Succeeding with biotechnology is a big bet for Singapore. But choosing new industries and being successful with them is something it has done before. But with biotechnology, it is now trying to do it again.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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