Invited Speech

The following is a speech by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Singapore Innovation Award 2001 Presentation Ceremony at the Istana on Friday, 26 November 2001.

In the last forty years, Singapore economy has grown on the basis of an investment-driven strategy. We focused on improving the quality of capital investments. We built up the infrastructure for business. We increased our productivity and enhanced management efficiency.

To succeed in the future, however, we must go beyond all these. We have to be more innovative. We must use knowledge and ideas to create new products and services. In economic jargon, we need intellectual capital to generate new wealth.

Global business is now increasingly about the intangibles – the creation and ownership of intellectual property, like the knowledge in making medicine. The global economic downturn, which started at the beginning of this year and was made worse by the September terrorist attacks, has made it more urgent for us to restructure our economy. This recession is seeing many more Singaporeans at the professional and graduate level being retrenched. Is is not just another cyclical downturn. It is a shakeout associated with technological changes and structural adjustments.

For example, China is drawing many foreign investments away from our region, and will soon produce many of the products we now make. Globally, many companies are merging to consolidate their competitive position. Many of the jobs lost during this recession will not return after recovery.

In response, we have to find a new, additional basis for economic growth and job creation. We need to turn our economy into an innovation-based one. We have to draw from within us new energies and ideas, and marshal new inspirations and new ways of doing things. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. In many areas, we have shown ingenuity and innovativeness in overcoming considerable constraints. We have no oilfields, but we are the world’s third largest oil refining centre. We are land-scarce, but have reclaimed seven offshore islands to form a world-class chemical hub on Jurong Island. Our COEs is an innovative way of controlling vehicular population growth. The ERP system is an innovative application of technology. The Research and Development departments of many multinational companies based here have produced products which sell well.

National Innovation Council

How can we take a quantum leap forward to transform Singapore into a world-class innovative nation?

The US is the world’s foremost innovative nation. This is due in part to the American way of life, with its stress on individualism, personal choice, risk-taking and high incentives to succeed. It is also due to heavy investment in R&D and pro-innovation public policies. We should identify those elements that are critical to our own efforts to succeed, and use them to find our way forward based on our own circumstances and culture.

I would like to highlight five key elements of our strategy to create an innovative nation. The National Innovation Council will continue our efforts in these five areas. It will also devise other strategies to catalyse greater innovation nation-wide, and look at ways to nurture and develop an innovative culture in Singapore.


First, we must have talent. We need a critical mass of people, working in Singapore but well connected to and in tune with the world market and trends, to generate good ideas and bring them to fruition. Here, we can use Singapore’s small size to our advantage. Like Silicon Valley, we can host a critical mass of innovation talent – an innovation community – to achieve a self-sustaining level of creative energy. In fact, we have an advantage over Silicon Valley. We can draw on the financial infrastructure and other resources of an entire country in one easily accessible location.

To be able to attract and retain innovation talent, Singaporean and foreign, we will need to enhance the quality of life and entrepreneurial environment here. We need to make Singapore an exciting place for innovative people to work, live, play and dream, and realise these dreams. The National Innovation Council will have to work with other Ministries to create the most conducive environment for innovative talent.

Innovation mindset

Secondly, we need to develop a pervasive innovation mindset in Singapore. Everyone is capable of innovating. Innovative capacity is not confined to Nobel Prize winners, scientists or entrepreneurs. Innovation can be high-tech or low-tech, and can come from business executives, factory workers, teachers or students. What is important is to have a basic instinct of not being satisfied with the status quo, and to always look for new and better ways of doing things. But innovation is not just about improving things. It is also about creating new things and new opportunities. An innovative mind always looks for answers to two questions:

How can I do things differently and better?
How can I create now products, services and processes?

To develop this pervasive innovation mindset, we are revamping our education system – from primary schools to universities. Our “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” vision is a step in this direction. Our people must develop from young the confidence that there is always something new to be discovered and created, that there is always room for improvement.

Imagine where the US would be today if the nation had subscribed to the views of the Commissioner of the United States Office of Patents in 1899, when he proclaimed that “everything that can be invented has been invented!”

Attitude towards failure

Thirdly, our society needs to become more tolerant of failure. Unsuccessful innovations deserve our encouragement and a second chance – indeed, many chances – to try again. Failure is part and parcel of innovation. True innovators expect failures. They treat failures as a learning opportunity. They pick up the pieces and move on to the next innovation. Thomas Edison, for example, encountered 2,000 failures before he successfully invented the electric light bulb. He called his failures “steps in innovating the electric bulb”. Steps. Not failures.

In tune with the global market

Fourthly, we need to develop a deep understanding of global market needs and trends. Being a small nation, the big pay-offs from innovation come only when our products and services capture the imagination – and pockets – of customers around the world. A deep understanding of the global market enables us to better spot opportunities for innovation. The thousands of multinational corporations here are already well linked to their respective home markets. We should now give more emphasis to our small and medium enterprises, and nurture and support them, so that they too can expand globally. We will have to see how this can be done, how to help them build external links and set up a physical presence in key markets.

Role models

The last element is having inspiring role models. The objective of the Singapore Innovation Award should not only be to confer national recognition for exceptional achievements in innovation. It should also be about getting the winners to be an inspiration as well as a source of learning to other Singaporeans. The winners should make it a point to share their experiences widely.

(Reprinted with the permission of the Prime Ministers Department, Singapore)

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong