Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Advanced Tomorrow Summit on 4 December 2023.
Dr Armen Sarkissian, Co-Founder of Advanced Tomorrow and fourth President of the Republic of Armenia,
Professor Tan Eng Chye, President, National University of Singapore,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning, and to our friends who have travelled from afar to join us here today, a warm welcome to Singapore! I am delighted to join you today to open the inaugural Advanced Tomorrow Summit.
I would like to join Dr Sarkissian in remembering Dr Henry Kissinger, who was supposed to join us at this Summit today. Dr Kissinger was an ardent advocate of Singapore and a close friend of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In fact, both Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger were born in the same year. Dr Kissinger spent his life advancing international relations to build a more peaceful world, and his passing is a loss to the global community.
Dr Sarkissian earlier touched on the lessons from COVID. One enduring lesson is that science, and especially collaborative science, is a critical enabler of a positive future. Scientific collaboration across borders – with the sharing of data and research insights – gave us diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines that saved millions of lives and livelihoods. COVID also brought to our collective attention, a broader definition of human health and wellness. Many countries enacted lockdowns and restricted social interactions to curb the spread of the virus. While these were necessary to protect our physical health, there was significant impact on mental health and well-being. So as we look to the future, the question we must ask ourselves is: how can we advance and build a healthier and happier tomorrow? Our starting point should be the key trends shaping our world today. Let me share three.
First, the world’s population is still growing, and at the same time, greying. Globally, we crossed the 8 billion milestone in November 2022. Asia alone accounts for around 60%. It took us just 12 years, from 2010, to add one billion to our global population. We are growing in numbers, and also in years. An ageing population is one of the defining demographic trends of our time. The UN estimates that by 2050, there will be more than double the number of seniors aged 65 and above, than children aged below 5. Here in Singapore, we are preparing to become a super-aged society. 20% of our population is expected to be aged 65 or older by 2026. Global life expectancy is also growing. From 66.8 years in 2000, it is expected to rise to around 77.2 years in 2050. In Singapore today, we have around 1,500 centenarians, up from 500 about 15 years ago. These trends will require us to plan for a rather different future. For example, how do we redesign jobs and workplaces to enable productive longevity? How should our communities and social support be organised? In addition, how can we increase health span so that seniors spend more years in good health rather than illness? The NUS Centre for Healthy Longevity, in partnership with the US National Academy of Medicine, is doing important work on precisely this issue.
Besides ageing demographics, we also see technological advances reshaping our lives including in healthcare and the way we take care of ourselves. This is the second trend I would like to highlight. Today, everyday devices like our phones, watches and wristbands can help us keep track of our activity levels, food intake, sleep patterns and other health indicators. Advances in medical science are breaking new frontiers and enabling a more personalised approach to healthcare. Medical professionals are increasingly using robotics to assist seniors and those dealing with mobility issues. And new evolving technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are steadily transforming healthcare to be more effective and efficient. In Singapore, for example, clinicians and scientists are using AI and deep learning to detect diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration. Our National University Hospital is also using AI to better forecast hospital stay durations and waiting times, enabling better right-siting of patients and a more optimal use of hospital beds and resources.
These two developments, an ageing population and rapid technological advances, are unfolding against the backdrop of a third trend – we are entering an increasingly fragile world. The state of the world, as I mentioned earlier, has a tangible bearing on health, healthcare, and well-being. Polarised geopolitics could risk inhibiting international cooperation at moments when it is needed most, for example during global health crises like the pandemic. Geopolitical tensions and flashpoints, as we have seen in Europe and most recently in the Middle East, could disrupt supply chains for food, medical items and critical pharmaceutical ingredients.
Conflicts bring suffering and hardship to the affected communities, and also create knock-on effects for the rest of the world. Deepening domestic divisions could also impair the effectiveness of healthcare systems in the 21st century. There is growing recognition that socio-economic factors like income and education are critical in shaping health outcomes. These social determinants influence lifestyle choices like diet and levels of activity, which could give rise to health conditions later in life. And widening levels of inequality in a society can also lead to differential access to medical care and resources. Overlaying these are emerging global challenges that have the potential to further destabilise human health. Climate change is a key example – planetary health is closely interlinked with human health. Left unchecked, a changing climate will give rise to more frequent extreme weather occurrences like heatwaves and flooding. This, in turn, could increase disease burdens, change the biosphere and vectors that transmit disease, and exacerbate rising healthcare costs.
I have laid out three key trends – an ageing population, new technologies, and an increasingly fragile world. Against this backdrop, we must endeavour to build a better world that takes a more holistic view of health and well-being. The Summit’s theme: “Revolutionising Healthcare, Wellness and Longevity in the 21st Century” encapsulates this well. Effective healthcare can no longer just be about medical responses to combat diseases or manage ailments. It should be about facilitating and fostering healthful lives and healthy longevity. In this audience today, we have medical professionals, clinicians, scientists, and medical entrepreneurs. The future of healthcare will require all of us to work together – across expertise and borders – to forge new solutions and create new impact.
I earlier mentioned the ongoing impact of new technologies in healthcare. There is still much work to be done on this front – we should tap emerging technologies to better understand the human body. This could open new frontiers for innovation in health and biotechnology. Precision medicine, for example, enhances healthcare effectiveness by giving a deeper and more detailed understanding of each patient. Sequencing and analysing individual genomes can help predict the likelihood of disease onset, and design customised treatment regimens. In Singapore, our National Precision Medicine Programme seeks to unlock new insights into the Asian genome that can lead to data-driven, scalable healthcare solutions. PRECISE-SG100K aims to be a leading multi-ethnic, Asian reference genome database of 100,000 Singaporeans. This will help us identify the genetic, social, environmental and lifestyle factors associated with disease onset, and pave the way for better prediction and prevention of chronic diseases as well as better selection of treatment methods.
Equally as important, a more holistic view of health and well-being also means taking a more collaborative approach to make healthcare more resilient, effective and inclusive. Partnering the community, by empowering individuals and families to take greater ownership of their health, is key to building greater healthcare system resilience. Upstream interventions to encourage behavioural change – such as more exercise and better diets – will help our people remain healthy and active for longer. This way, we empower longer health spans, happier lives, and manage the cost burden on healthcare. For example, we launched HealthierSG in July this year as a national preventive health programme to empower Singaporeans, especially those above 60, to live healthier lifestyles. They work with their preferred family doctors on personalised health plans – including regular health screenings, lifestyle adjustments, and appropriate vaccinations.
Just as we partner with and empower our communities, this same spirit of collaboration, applied across borders and regions, can help amplify the positive impact from future healthcare and medical innovation. As Eng Chye mentioned earlier, finding solutions to problems in today’s hyperconnected world requires global action.Health is, after all, a global public good. COVID taught us that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Geopolitical differences should not impede the progress we can potentially achieve at scale if we work together. Singapore is always happy to play a part in facilitating collaboration and welcomes all to tap on our position as a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise. Over the years, we have built up our research, innovation and enterprise capabilities in the healthcare and biomedical space. Today, around 500 biomedical startups call Singapore home and they have attracted more than US$3 billion in venture funding in recent years Much of our efforts are geared towards test-bedding solutions in Singapore that can be scaled up for wider impact in the region and beyond. We welcome like-minded partners to collaborate with us on projects that can yield strong outcomes for a better, healthier Asia and world.
Let me conclude. As we look to transform healthcare and wellbeing to be more effective and fit-for-purpose in the 21st century, it is critical for us to embrace a more holistic understanding of human health, and the multi-stakeholder approach needed to reach our goals. Implementing this holistic approach will require expertise across multiple domains, including medicine, biotechnology, public health, data science, engineering and social and behavioural sciences. I am pleased to see that NUS and Advanced Tomorrow have assembled a wide range of stakeholders and experts to address issues ranging from geopolitics and scientific advancements, to issues of cost and healthcare access. These are all critical issues for the coming years.
At the end of his 2014 book “World Order”, Dr Kissinger wrote, and I quote, “each generation will be judged by whether the greatest, most consequential issues of the human condition have been faced”. Indeed, generation after generation, we are faced with the mission of building a better world to hand over to those who come after us. This collaboration between NUS and Advanced Tomorrow is therefore most appropriate. I encourage all of you to make the most of this opportunity to exchange perspectives and explore partnerships with one another in how we can best advance a better, more effective healthcare future for the benefit of all. I wish you all a fruitful and memorable conference, and I look forward to hearing from Dr Sarkissian and his fellow panellists on the opening panel shortly.
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