Having bagged the title of Asia’s most innovative economy for seven years running, it’s hard to believe that Singapore’s research and development (R&D) journey began just a little over thirty years ago. After all, it was only in 1991 that the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB)—A*STAR’s predecessor—was formed. That same year, the first-ever National Technology Plan was launched.
Now known as the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plan, these strategies lay the groundwork for the country’s science and technology efforts every five years. As the nation faces its biggest crisis yet, capabilities built over the previous RIE plans have helped Singapore emerge stronger through the pandemic. Indeed, with one of the world’s lowest COVID-19 mortality rates, Singapore’s steady R&D investments have paid off.
Last December 2020, RIE2025 was launched with a S$25 billion budget—the largest sum so far dedicated to R&D in Singapore's history. Of this amount, 29 percent or S$7.3 billion will go towards strengthening Singapore’s core capabilities in universities and A*STAR’s research institutes, signifying the country’s sustained, long-term commitment to R&D through economic cycles.
This time around, RIE2025 will be organized across four domains, namely: manufacturing, trade and connectivity (MTC); human health and potential (HHP); urban solutions and sustainability (USS); and finally, Smart Nation and digital economy (SNDE). As the lead public sector R&D agency in Singapore, A*STAR remains one of the crucial drivers of RIE2025 efforts—as it has always been from its earliest days as NSTB.
The manufacturing makeover
While Singapore is popularly known as the 'little red dot,' it is actually the world’s fourth-largest exporter of high-tech goods. This remarkable feat was partly achieved through pioneering initiatives like the A*STAR Model Factories at the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech). Since its launch, the Model Factory Initiative has deployed close to 2,600 Industry 4.0 technologies to over 100 local companies in a never-ending quest for business efficiency.
To maintain its position as a global manufacturing hub, RIE2025 will see Singapore deepen its capabilities in MTC by tapping on frontier technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). At A*STAR, the Accelerated Materials Development for Manufacturing (AMDM) program is leading the way, by combining tools like AI with high performance computing and automation to optimize materials R&D.
Singapore’s success as a manufacturing hub can also be attributed to its strategic location along global major trade, shipping and aviation routes. But as COVID-19 has proven, even the most robust supply chains can be disrupted without adequate preparation. With the country hoping to become a regional node for vaccine distribution, A*STAR is developing technologies to make air traffic safer and more productive.
Collaborating with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, A*STAR researchers created a digital assistant that can recognize and transcribe voice conversations between air-traffic controllers and pilots for safety and training purposes. In-house researchers have also developed tools to better allocate assets on the ground and harvest energy from runway sensors. Together, these tools should enable air-traffic controllers to handle complex scenarios with ease and efficiency.
Beyond aviation, the maritime industry has also benefitted from A*STAR’s R&D expertise. Consider the VHF Data Exchange System, developed by A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research’s (I2R) Satellite Team and ST Engineering. By enabling communication regarding from ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore, the system prevents potential collisions and even facilitates search-and-rescue operations. With support from horizontal technology program offices like AI, Analytics and Informatics (AI3), more exciting innovations in the MTC domain are set to arise over the next five years.
Getting a headstart on health
The Republic’s bustling biomedical sector traces its origins to the year 2000, when the Biomedical Sciences initiative was launched to develop life sciences as a key economic pillar. Over twenty years later, A*STAR now counts milestones like homegrown cancer drug ETC-159 and the COVID-19 diagnostic kit Fortitude in its list of achievements.
Developed over mere weeks, Fortitude’s speedy deployment was made possible through the combined efforts of Tan Tock Seng Hospital along with A*STAR’s Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub, Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC). Together, these institutes comprise the Health and Medical Technologies (Medtech) horizontal technology program office, which aims to encourage innovation in biomedical companies with A*STAR’s expertise.
For RIE2025, the HHP domain will build upon existing biomedical capabilities, but with a focus on furthering human potential. As Singapore’s greatest resource is its people, ensuring that residents have healthy and meaningful lives is a national priority. In 2009, the Growing Up in Singapore Towards health Outcomes (GUSTO) study was launched to uncover how Singaporeans can get a good start in life and reach their highest potential.
Co-led by researchers from A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) along with the National University Health System and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, GUSTO tracks over 1,200 local mothers and their children from early pregnancy until the children reach the age of ten. Moving forward, a key priority for GUSTO will be to track children as they mature to better understand the links between early development and adolescence. Researchers will also study the effects of sleep and digital media use on cognitive development and growth.
Healthier and more meaningful lives can also be achieved through precision medicine, a key focus of Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). In 2019, GIS spearheaded the creation of the world's biggest Asian genetic database. Insights from the database could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses, as well as targeted treatments to improve patient quality of life. With these HHP initiatives in place, people in Singapore can truly exemplify living life to the fullest.
Sustainability takes the spotlight
Though COVID-19 may be the topic of the hour, a global climate crisis will still be imminent in the absence of decisive action. To ensure that Singapore is spared from the worst effects of climate change, the USS domain of RIE2025 will focus on reinforcing the city-state’s livability, resilience and sustainability.
The Integrated Environmental Modeler (IEM) is one notable A*STAR effort already being deployed. Developed by the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) and I2R researchers along with Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, the IEM is a ‘digital twin’ that simulates the effects of environmental factors on Singapore’s housing estates. Insights gained from the IEM will be used to design cooler and more livable estates with a reduced carbon footprint.
Novel decarbonization technologies and initiatives such as zero waste and building a circular economy are two other cornerstones of the USS domain. At A*STAR, the aptly-named Urban and Green Technology horizontal technology program office guides the development of solutions for energy efficiency to waste management. Meanwhile, to cultivate a circular economy, scientist at A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) are creating sustainable materials, extending the life cycle of various products and reducing waste. Over at A*STAR’s Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), a 2018 collaboration with local SME Westcom Solutions led to a microbial treatment that could break down one ton of food waste into organic fertilizer in 24 hours.
For Singapore to truly become resilient, however, it must lessen its near-total dependence on imported food. Hence, by 2030, Singapore intends to produce locally 30 percent of its nutritional needs—with the goal fittingly called '30 by 30.' In 2019, S$144 million Singapore Food Story R&D program was launched with the Singapore Food Agency to drive innovation in sustainable urban food production, future foods and food safety science. The following year, the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) was subsequently established to conduct studies on everything from food process engineering to food waste conversion.
The A*STAR Agritech and Aquaculture horizontal technology program office will also focus on building expertise in areas like the Internet of Things and smart lighting, to help farmers monitor crops in real-time and better detect contaminants. Continued research in these areas will surely help move the country towards a more climate- and food-resilient state.
Diving deep into digital
Echoing Singapore’s big biomedical bet, RIE efforts in the digital realm first took shape in the early 2000s, with the Smart Nation initiative following in 2014. While these efforts have since created a thriving tech ecosystem—with local unicorns like ride-hailing juggernaut Grab—it was only during the COVID-19 pandemic that the benefits of digitalization truly became apparent.
As digitalization accelerates across all sectors, the SNDE domain in RIE2025 will continue to drive digital adoption and support the development of emerging technologies. Doing so will allow Singapore to harness new opportunities in the digital economy—advancing its Smart Nation ambitions along the way. Indeed, previous RIE investments have already boosted the public sector’s digital capabilities.
Consider SG Translate, a machine learning-powered translation engine that specifically caters to Singapore’s unique linguistic context. Created by I2R in collaboration with the Ministry of Communications and Information, the engine has produced over 100,000 translations for government agencies. During COVID-19’s peak, SG Translate reduced the time needed to translate the government’s public WhatsApp messages by up to 50 percent.
Through program offices like AI3 and its capabilities across data analytics, computer vision and natural language technologies, among others, A*STAR will continue helping both the public sector and industry address their many needs. Frontier technologies like blockchain and AI are also being used by I2R to improve cybersecurity and detect threats. Meanwhile, researchers at IHPC and IMRE are exploring how quantum effects manifest in different materials, in hopes of building newer and more powerful quantum devices.
Finally, any conversation about the digital future would be incomplete without 5G, the next frontier of ultra-fast mobile wireless technology. With the ongoing nationwide 5G rollout, A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME) and I2R are teaming up with local semiconductor component supplier arQana Technologies to develop supporting infrastructure for 5G applications like drone detection radars and satellite communications.
Training top-tier talent
With RIE2025 underway, researchers at A*STAR and beyond can expect a flurry of research activities dedicated to advancing the four domains. Of course, fulfilling such an ambitious agenda is only possible with a robust manpower base as well as collaboration among the many local and international scientific players.
Accordingly, S$2.2 billion has been set aside in RIE2025 for dedicated talent development activities. Part of this amount will go into increasing the number of A*STAR postgraduate scholarships and traineeships, as well as introducing the Research Internship Awards for undergraduate students interested in interning at A*STAR’s research institutes. Focused initiatives like the Singapore Biodesign Program—jointly launched by A*STAR, the Singapore Economic Development Board and Stanford University—will also train the country’s next generation of medtech innovators.
In the lead up to 2025, A*STAR—and indeed, the entirety of Singapore’s scientific ecosystem—is set to be a hotbed for exciting research and innovation over the next five years. Stay tuned for more developments across the four domains!