Lee Kuan Yew remembered for focused effort to build Singapore into a pharma, biotech center

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, who developed the small city-state into a vibrant manufacturing center for petrochemicals, shipping, electronics and a financial hub also leaves a legacy for the drug and biotech industry in Asia that will play out over decades.

Lee died March 23 at the age of 91.

In the past three years, Novartis ($NVS), Amgen ($AMGN) and AbbVie ($ABBV) as well as GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) have moved to build state-of-the-art biologics plants or upgrade existing operations while global drug companies increasingly use Singapore as a regional hub.

That's not an accident and Lee, even though he has been away formally from the halls of power for many years, remained a hand behind policies that see a mix of manufacturing and services as essential to continue rapid growth with his ability to woo major companies to Singapore's shores legendary.

In 2011, pharmaceuticals and medical technology made up 9.5% of the total manufacturing output for Singapore, moving to nearly one quarter of the total manufacturing value added by 2015, according to official data.

Also of note is that the government's own money has also flowed into research efforts that seek to jump start new technologies across the biomedical spectrum from drugs to devices through efforts such as the Agency for Science Technology and Research and related efforts such as the National University Health System and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School that feeds into early stage clinical work.

Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the Pharmaceutical Association's Exhibition in 1964. -- Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

But spontaneous generation of a biotech industry or a series of breakthrough medical devices is probably not going to happen. So for the multinational pharmaceutical industries that have bet chips on Singapore as a place to do business and find talent--it is the prospect of changes in risk culture that may be most important after Lee.

Lee co-founded the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since 1959, when the city-state gained full self-governance from the U.K. In 1965, he oversaw the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, which had been formed by merging Singapore and other former U.K. colonies.

He was instrumental in establishing Singapore as an Asian center for U.S. dollar-denominated transactions in the early 1970s, and as a hub for electronics manufacturing for companies such as Hewlett Packard ($HPQ) and homegrown hard-drive maker Seagate ($STX). But those manufacturing jobs are on the wane with many now in Malaysia or countries such as Vietnam and China.

But along with banking, pharmaceuticals were one of Lee's early bets on the future that linked progress to landing multinational firms in the country.

After Lee stepped down in 1990, key deputy Goh Chok Tong took the reins. Goh was succeeded by Lee's eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, 63, who just underwent successful prostate surgery. While he may seek one more term, his eventual departure would mark a real generational change.

The younger Lee's commitment to the pharmaceutical industry has been strong and expansive. But Singapore has changed significantly in no small part tied to top-down direction from the PAP-led governments that produced a highly educated generation. Now the test is for the country's unique mix of homegrown and imported talent to build their own version of an innovative pharma and biotech industry--a task even smart money from Boston and Silicon Valley to Cambridge and Oxford will tell you cannot be mandated.

- here's more from the Singapore Prime Minister's Office