Balloons near Singapore’s Central Business District mark its celebration of 50 years of independence. (Wallace Woon/EPA)

Singapore consistently ranks as one of the world’s most innovative nations. The World Bank calls Singapore the easiest place in the world to do business. Singapore has even been the subject of a Harvard Business School innovation case study by strategy guru Michael Porter. Over its 50-year history as an independent city-state, Singapore has earned a reputation as an innovation hub at the cutting-edge of modern business, yet most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a single innovative company from Singapore other than maybe Singapore Airlines.

So what’s the secret to Singapore’s innovation success?

As Damian Chan, international director for the Americas at the Singapore Economic Development Board, its lead government agency for innovation strategy, told me during a conversation in New York, there’s not one “secret ingredient” to success. Instead, Singapore’s track record of excellence is the result of a guiding philosophy that a welcoming approach to business should be the basis for everything Singapore does.

When the development board was formed 50 years ago, it was mainly to create new jobs, attract multinational companies and stimulate the creation of export-oriented industries to help Singapore — a tiny nation-state with limited natural resources — get off its feet after becoming an independent nation. Over time, says Chan, as Singapore’s prosperity has increased, the mission of the development board has evolved to include more of a focus on innovation. That’s led to today’s tripartite “Home” strategy for Singapore: “Home for Business. Home for Innovation. Home for Talent.”

Singapore’s “Home for Business” strategy expands to every industry, not just the ones you’d expect from a modern innovation powerhouse. In other words, Singapore places as much emphasis on consumer goods, manufacturing, chemicals and energy as it does on IT, digital media or electronics. And to make it easy for multinationals to move operations to Singapore, the Singapore development board has become a “one-stop shop” that works to create the right conditions to attract talent and investment.

And when those conditions don’t exist, Singapore has taken great pains to create them. Take IT and the Internet technology space, for example. Even five years ago, the entrepreneurial scene in Singapore was barren. A vast new entrepreneurial ecosystem is being created in Singapore, which aspires to be the Silicon Valley of Southeast Asia. Now it claims to be filled with over 42,000 start-ups, and according to estimates provided by the development board, nearly 1 in 10 working-age people in Singapore is trying to start a company or has already started one.

While Singapore does not yet have any breakout start-up tech companies, incubators such as Block 71 are intended to produce them. The only Singapore company currently ranked in the Top 100 most innovative companies in the world by Forbes is ST Engineering.

In making Singapore a home for talent, one key has been adapting the nation’s innovation strategy to respond to broad macro-trends happening in global markets. Singapore has benefited mightily from its geographic location close to the rising giant, China. With China now poised to be the world’s No. 1 economy, Singapore has positioned itself as the place to go for Western companies who want exposure to China, but not necessarily the costs and complexity of setting up shop on the Chinese mainland.

As a result, you have P&G making Singapore a hub for consumer and beauty products or Nielsen making Singapore the location of an innovation hub. And huge U.S. multi-nationals such as DuPont, GM and ADM continue to make Singapore an important part of their global strategy, attracted by Singapore’s proximity to China and the ability to tap into Asia’s future growth.

A strong commitment to science and education within Singapore – typically cited by any innovation study on Singapore — means that there’s a constant influx of new talent for any multinational looking to expand to China. Such is Singapore’s allure for future knowledge workers that some top universities — including Yale University — are now developing separate overseas campuses in Singapore, in much the same way French business school INSEAD set up a Singapore campus back in 2000.


Singapore has always found a way to open itself to new innovative industries. Here, a robot handles a solar panel on the module production line at the REC Solar ASA manufacturing facility in Singapore. (Nicky Loh/Bloomberg)

In many ways, the history of modern Singapore – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as an independent nation-state – can be seen as a constantly evolving innovation trajectory, as Singapore constantly finds new ways to insert itself into the world’s economic growth cycles. In the mid-1960s and 1970s, it became a hub of low-cost manufacturing. Later, it moved up the value chain into electronics and semiconductors once other low-cost manufacturing centers in Asia began to emerge. And now, Singapore is moving into higher-margin, knowledge-intensive industries.

As Chan pointed out to me during our conversation, most of the cases of partnership involve big Western companies who view Singapore as a long-term partner rather than as just a quick way to cash in on growth. IBM, for example, has partnered with the National University of Singapore on big data and analytics. The reason these companies find Singapore so attractive, Chan says, is a result of Singapore’s goal of “always being relevant for companies that see Asia as the source of fastest growth.”

The showcase of this foreign know-how and expertise, of course, is the massive redevelopment of Jurong Island into an innovation showcase for the energy and chemicals industries. As part of a vast island reclamation project, Singapore has transformed Jurong Island into an integrated complex for 95 multinational companies – including Shell, ExxonMobil and DuPont. Singapore describes Jurong Island as a “plug-and-play” environment where downstream and upstream companies can be easily connected.

The big question, of course, is how well Singapore will respond to a slowdown in Chinese growth. As Chan sees it, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when growth in China starts to decline. As a result, Singapore is starting to seek out relationships with other nations of Southeast Asia that can maintain the region’s economic momentum. And as international director of the Americas, Chan is also open to the idea of partnerships with other countries in the Americas — not just the United States — including Brazil, Mexico and even Panama.

In terms of what’s next, continue to look for Singapore to expand into new innovation industries that are starting to gain momentum today. Ideas mentioned by Chan include big data and biomedicine. And look for Singapore to remain responsive to possible signs of a slowdown in Chinese growth. If all goes according to plan, the next 50 years may be just as successful as the last 50 years.