Singapore's former economic tsar Philip Yeo on wooing talent and his Hong Kong 'hit list'

PHOTO: South China Morning Post
Over two decades ago, when Singapore’s former economic tsar Philip Yeo was spearheading the city state’s biomedical push, he had a Hong Kong talent “hit list”.

High on this list was world-renowned scientist Nancy Ip Yuk-yu, who is leading a landmark study in search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and is one of Hong Kong’s 36 deputies to the National People’s Congress.

But Yeo’s plan to “kidnap” Ip was foiled by his former classmate from Harvard Business School, Hong Kong businesswoman Marjorie Yang Mun-tak.

“I looked at Philip’s list and said my goodness, he’s going to go after all our people,” Yang, the chairwoman of one of the world’s largest shirt makers Esquel Group recounted on Thursday night, at a dinner talk organised by the Singapore Chamber of Commerce (Hong Kong).

“Nancy was at the top of his list but I stopped him. But Philip really goes relentlessly after these people,” Yang said, to the amusement of the 100-strong audience.

Scientist Nancy Ip Yuk-yu. Photo: South China Morning Post

Yeo’s dogged pursuit of talent has been part of his mandate to help transform Singapore’s economy.

Trusted by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Yeo was from the mid-1980s Singapore’s top economic planner. He led the charge to woo investors, set up high-value industries in electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals to create jobs and ensured the country stayed ahead of its competitors.

From 2000, Yeo, who began his career as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Defence, was chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), a research and development arm of the government.

There, he embarked on a long-term plan to build up the biomedical sector into a key economic pillar, focusing on growing research capabilities but also courting innovative firms to invent and produce drugs.

Among his efforts was to secure talent from neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, India, China and Malaysia. Youngsters aged 15 would be given scholarships and promised citizenship.

They would complete high school in Singapore, go on to the world’s foremost universities in Britain and the United States to complete postgraduate degrees and PhDs, then return to Singapore to work – as part of a plan to “grow guppies into whales” or eminent scientists who would contribute to the economy.

Former Hong Kong Science Park head Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, who was at the event, asked how Yeo would measure the success of his efforts.

Growing the science and technology sector and grooming the right talent required a long-term investment, the fast-thinking and fast-talking Yeo said.

He gave several examples, including how Singapore produces eight of the top 10 cancer drugs in the world. It also produces S$25 billion (US$18 billion) of proprietary drugs, medical devices and biomedical consumer products such as baby milk formula each year, despite having “no babies and no cows”, he quipped, referring to the country’s low birth rate.

Yet Singapore’s biomedical push has also been on the receiving end of brickbats, with critics – at one point even the World Bank – asking if the billions of taxpayers dollars spent had generated significant returns.

Philip Yeo (left) was from the mid-1980s Singapore’s top economic planner. Photo: AFP

Another area of scrutiny has been the money pumped into grooming foreign talent and whether their contributions have matched up to the amounts spent.

Yeo recounted numerous examples of foreign-born young men and women who took A*Star scholarships, earned the highest academic accolades, and are now Singapore citizens, working in different labs in the country’s research and development hub, the Biopolis.

Some of them have started families with Singaporean or foreign spouses – meaning that “I’ve added to the population”, Yeo remarked.

Asked about talent retention amid global competition, Yeo said Singapore now had a better chance of retaining top minds in science and technology. The country has a more vibrant start-up scene so engineers and scientists have options to pursue the commercialisation of their inventions.

“But the key challenge for them is to target the overseas market … our ideas, whatever we make, must have international appeal,” he said, noting with a measure of pride that AWAK Technologies, one of two medical technology firms he has supported in Singapore, was granted breakthrough device designation, a fast-track development and review programme through the American Food and Drug Administration.

On what keeps him up at night, Yeo, who now heads Economic Development Innovations Singapore, a privately-owned consultant on economic development, said it was how the government had put a squeeze on immigration.This came about after public opposition to liberal immigration policies.

“I’m no longer in government so I can speak freely… one key concern is if you want to compete, you must attract talent,” Yeo said.

He pointed to how Switzerland and Sweden, both small countries, had been able to remain dynamic and innovative.

In Basel, located in northern Switzerland and where pharmaceutical companies Novartis and Roche are headquartered, half of employees come from neighbouring France and Germany.

“They walk across the border, they live in France and Germany because it’s cheaper,” he said.

Singapore should also not be too nervous about the idea of losing out if its talented citizens move abroad, as long as it keeps its links to those people, he said.

“If you want to be a global city, you must have talent who can spread their wings everywhere.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.