DPM Heng Swee Keat at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 17 September 2021

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress on 17 September 2021.


Mr Cheng Wai Keung, Chairman, SingHealth

Mr Goh Yew Lin, Chairman, Duke-NUS Governing Board

Members of the SingHealth and Duke-NUS Boards

Professor Ivy Ng, Group CEO, SingHealth

Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean, Duke-NUS Medical School

Ladies and gentlemen

It is my pleasure to join you this morning at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021. 

This is the 6th Congress since it was first convened in 2010. Over the years, it has become an important platform for the healthcare and scientific community to exchange ideas and forge collaborations. While we are unable to meet physically this year because of the ongoing pandemic, I am glad that more than 1,800 delegates will participate virtually. You can look forward to an exciting line-up of 170 local and international speakers on a range of cutting-edge topics that seek to transform healthcare, including AI, genomics, digital strategies, health services research and many others. 

COVID-19 & Science 

One of the topics that will be discussed this year is COVID-19. This has been one of the greatest challenges that modern medicine has ever faced. The human toll has been tragic, with more than 4.5 million deaths globally so far. But one silver lining is that the crisis brought about an unprecedented level of scientific collaboration globally. The full genome of the virus was published barely a month after the first patient was admitted. The open sharing of the viral genomic sequences enabled the development of vaccines at unprecedented speed, a remarkable achievement that has saved countless lives. 

In Singapore, our scientific community has also been at the forefront of this fight. One example is the cPass test kit developed by Duke-NUS, in partnership with A*STAR and biotech company GenScript. This was the first serological test for neutralising antibodies to be authorised for emergency use by the US FDA. This is just one example of the good work that Duke-NUS has done in contributing to the development of biomedical sciences in Singapore, and the fight against COVID-19. Singapore also worked with partners around the world to set up and maintain the genomic database for COVID-19 under GISAID, the global initiative for the sharing of virus genetic data. This helped inform the global response towards the crisis. 

Moving beyond the crisis mode

COVID-19 has shown us what can be achieved when there is a concerted and determined global effort to tackle a serious public health issue. The acute phase of this pandemic will eventually fade. But there are many other long-term healthcare challenges that will not. As COVID-19 turns endemic, we must refocus our attention on these longer-term healthcare issues. One long-term issue is the rapidly ageing population in many countries, including Singapore. Healthcare systems everywhere will have to rethink how to deliver holistic and quality care in a sustainable manner. Another important challenge is the rising burden of chronic diseases. This is no less a crisis than COVID-19, with an estimated 40 million deaths globally each year due to chronic diseases. 

The challenge is how we can ride on the momentum catalysed by COVID-19 – to galvanise the same dedication and commitment to push new frontiers and revolutionise medicine. This will not be straightforward. Longer term, structural challenges are by their nature less gripping than an acute crisis like COVID-19. Many healthcare challenges also require sustained behavioural changes. During the pandemic, we saw how the simple act of wearing a mask when outside the home took some getting used to so you can imagine the difficulty in inculcating a lifetime of healthy living and regular exercise to lower the risk of chronic diseases. But COVID-19 has also given us a unique opportunity. The pandemic has put issues of health and wellness at the forefront of public consciousness. There is now greater awareness of underlying chronic diseases, which often worsened the severity of COVID-19 cases. Some have termed this an “acute-on-chronic” crisis. Given the stresses of the pandemic, there is also greater recognition of individual well-being and mental health issues. We now have a window of opportunity to build on the good momentum of scientific innovation and collaboration that the crisis has catalysed. By riding on this momentum, we can revolutionise medicine for the future, which the theme of this year’s Congress aptly describes. 

Revolutionising Medicine for the Future

Let me share some thoughts on some of the new approaches that we can take, to tackle our challenges ahead. 

First, go upstream. Interventions are more effective and cost less, when they are made earlier. This is not a new insight - the well-known proverb “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is more than 150 years old! But while everyone knows that prevention is better than cure, the challenge is two-fold: early detection of those who are at risk, and making effective interventions. 

One example is how we are going upstream to tackle chronic conditions, which the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on. Through the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes study, or GUSTO, we found that one in five Singaporean pregnant women developed gestational diabetes. This is one of the highest incidences in the world. If not detected or managed properly, gestational diabetes will lead to adverse consequences, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes for both mother and child. To address this, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital has partnered our Polyclinics to develop the Integrated Platform for Research in Advancing Metabolic Health Outcomes in Women and Children. This Platform has supported the development of initiatives to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, such as guidelines on physical exercise for pregnant women. The Platform also leveraged technology to trial lifestyle interventions, through the use of wearable continuous glucose monitoring in pregnancy. I look forward to more contributions by this initiative in the years ahead. 

Second, being more precise in our interventions.There is growing recognition around the world that medicine should not be one-size-fits-all.  Any intervention must take into account a patient’s individual attributes – their genetics, lifestyle, and other environmental factors. This awareness has been strengthened by COVID-19. Studies have found that severe COVID-19 infections are associated with certain genetic variations. Many countries have initiated national genomics programmes to understand how to better deploy precision medicine. However, most programmes have primarily focused on Caucasian populations. With a multi-ethnic population that captures 80 per cent of Asia’s genetic diversity, Singapore is well-placed to complement these efforts.

We launched our National Precision Medicine Strategy in 2017. We have since put together the world’s largest genetic databank for multi-ethnic Asian populations. Under our Research, Innovation, and Enterprise 2025 plans, precision medicine will continue to be a key focus to ensure that our healthcare delivery system remains future-ready and can keep pace with evolving healthcare demands and challenges. In this next phase of our precision medicine strategy, we will redouble our efforts to further research into the Asian phenotype, with the ultimate objective of improving patient outcomes.

I am glad to see that this is one of the key topics in this year’s Congress, and that Professor Geoffrey Ginsburg will be speaking on this. 

Third, innovate by harnessing ideas across different domains. 

I am delighted that we are launching the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine today, or BD-MED. The basic premise is that nature and biodiversity can contribute significantly to human health and wellness. 25 per cent of drugs used in modern medicine come from rainforest plants, while 70 per cent of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature.  In Singapore, we are in a unique position to explore Biodiversity Medicine. Our biodiversity is rich, with over 4,000 local flora species and cultivars. We also have a long history of imbuing the city with nature, and have carefully nurtured a biophilic “City in a Garden”. 

BD-MED will have three signature programmes. First, its Herbal Biodiversity and Medicine programme will use cutting-edge technologies to extract plant components that can help fight common diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. The programme will also develop essential oils from regional scented plants and flowers, which may be helpful for patients suffering from anxiety and insomnia. The second programme, Food Biodiversity and Nutrition, will study using “food as medicine” to manage diseases alongside conventional treatment.  Lastly, under its Urban Biodiversity and Wellness programme, BD-MED will study how biodiversity can enhance our living environment and promote wellness, including mental health. 

To support its work, BD-MED will develop 12,000 square metres of garden space spread across four of SingHealth’s hospitals. These will house herbal gardens and aquaponic systems, and double up as spaces that can bring respite for patients and staff. I am also heartened to know that the Verdant Foundation has made a generous donation of $5 million to kick-start and fund BD-MED’s research initiatives. 

I wish the Institute every success in its endeavours. 


What I have shared today represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the new possibilities in science and healthcare. Over the next two days, I encourage all of you to share your ideas, make new friends, and forge fresh collaborations. Let us channel the can-do spirit that COVID-19 has sparked within the scientific community, to tackle our longer-term, structural challenges.  

It is now my pleasure to declare the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021 open. I wish everyone a fruitful and stimulating learning experience.

Thank you.