Singapore Rocks…

Somewhere Over the South China Sea – What a fascinating yet complicated time to be in Singapore. In addition to the great spectacle that is Formula 1 Grand Prix racing, the weekend Singapore Summit (Asia’s version of Davos) convened business and political leaders from around the world and also served as the set-up for SWITCH (Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology). A number of significant themes emerged over the three days, many of which were a function of dramatic advances in technology and healthcare.

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In addition to the obsession with the US political scene (I find myself apologizing to my guests whenever I travel overseas now) and whether the Fed will raise interest rates this week, of greatest concern at the Summit appeared to be the possible, no likely, turmoil due to the rapid pace of change and the immaturity of social systems. Inevitably workers will be displaced as legacy industries falter.

Notwithstanding Singapore’s 2.1% unemployment rate, the Singapore Strait Times Index has effectively been flat for the past 12 months which has generated some local investor concerns. There are 768 listed companies on the Singapore exchange with around $130 billion of total market value. Although it has struggled with a number of high profile trading outages, Singapore is quite clearly one of the leading financial centers of Asia, if not the world, a position bolstered just in the past few days with a handful of notable corporate announcements. Singapore Airlines disclosed that it would not extend its lease on its first Airbus 380 (the double decker plane) which caused ripples throughout the global aviation industry. Today, Singapore-based Grab announced that it raised $750 million to strengthen its lead as the “Uber of Southeast Asia” while nuTonomy, a Boston start-up, started to pilot its driverless taxis in Singapore.

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But there was some haze on the horizon – literally – but a lot less of it this year. Atmospheric modeling experts at Harvard this past weekend announced that over 100,000 people in the region in 2015 likely died prematurely (only 2,200 in Singapore) due to palm plantation fires in Indonesia. It was a significant issue at last year’s Grand Prix but fortunately, given the collective outrage (and rain), was not nearly as noticeable this year.

The new scourge this year is Zika, which was prominently discussed in every newspaper, every day. The call-to-action was the confirmation in late August of 41 locally transmitted Zika cases. The Ministry of Health this weekend came out with a “whole-of-society” approach to combat Zika and also indicated that it will provide free testing for pregnant women, an approach that the World Health Organization does not endorse for asymptomatic women. A number of local health insurance firms are now offering “Zika coverage.” There are 369 known cases in Singapore while the incidence of microcephaly has been between 5-12 per 10,000 live births over the past five years. Hopefully the Indonesian haze can keep down the mosquito populations.

The Singapore health system has a well-deserved reputation for delivering high quality and sophisticated care at reasonable costs. In 2012, Singapore spent 4.7% of its GDP on healthcare with dramatic outcomes: life expectancy is around 83 years which is greater than the US level of 79 years. At its core, the system drives personal accountability with significant co-pay models as well as a compulsory health savings program. Interestingly it is estimated that 80% of primary care is privately held while the inverse is true for secondary and specialist care. The government provides a strong guiding hand when it comes to healthcare priorities and appears to be very focused on the aging population and the importance of wellness as a core element of overall societal health.

A handful of recent announcements just this weekend captured both the level of innovation and the demands that a modern world place on Singapore’s sophisticated healthcare system.

  • Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, in partnership with IBM Watson, deployed robots to automate nurses monitoring ICU’s. The government announced that it will spend $450 million over the next three years to deploy robots.
  • The winner of the Most Promising Startup Award among all industries at the Emerging Enterprise Awards was Mirxes, a company developing cancer detection kits
  • Singapore celebrated World Morrow Donor Day this past Saturday and announced that it will focus it recruiting efforts on attracting donors from minority races. Currently there are 65,000 people registered as donors (80% are Chinese) with a goal to add another 50,000 by end of 2018. Apparently the chance for a random match is 1-in-20,000 and is greatly influenced by ethnicity.
  • The National Cancer Center Singapore (NCCS), through aggressive screening and development of advanced therapeutics, announced that male lung cancer rates were lowered from 61.2 per 100,000 in the late 1970’s to 33.7 in 2014. Current research is focused on why “never-smokers” are 3 of 10 Singaporean lung cancer cases.
  • The NCCS also announced new research focused on specific gene mutations which will add to Singapore’s strengths in the field of precision medicines.
  • Fertility is a big deal in Singapore. There were over 6,000 assisted production cycles in 2015, which was a significant jump from the 5,000 in 2012. In separate but related news, it was reported that “egg freezing” was experiencing rapid growth, which underscores the growing importance of women’s careers in this region.

And, oh, there was a race Sunday night. Notwithstanding that attendance dropped to 73,000 from the 87,000 last year, this race is often described as Formula 1’s crown jewel. Formula 1 – the company – was sold last week to Liberty Media for approximately $8 billion. Singapore has the second slowest track given that it meanders through 3.15 miles of downtown streets; the race is 61 laps or 192 miles. This year the first pile-up occurred just a few hundred feet into the race which admittedly made for great fun. And unlike the race drivers, Singapore certainly is not going round and round (ouch – too much?).

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