SINGAPORE is hoping that building expertise in high-tech niches such as 3D printing and robotics will let it sustain a large manufacturing sector despite the exit of many labour-intensive industries to cheaper bases elsewhere in Asia.
In line with government efforts to lift productivity and cut reliance on foreign workers, the Economic Development Board (EDB) no longer courts multinationals that want to hire many low-cost employees. But it keenly wants to pull in more companies for cutting-edge production.
The economic planning agency is hoping more firms will follow Rolls-Royce and Procter & Gamble to take advantage of new technologies it is trying to promote, as well as Singapore's low tax rates and other incentives.
Last week, P&G opened a $250 million research centre here and has signed an agreement with Singapore's science and technology agency giving it access to universities and hospital research facilities here. Rolls-Royce signed a $75 million deal with one university last year to do research into computational engineering and other areas.
EDB lured technology companies in the late 1960s and 1970s with incentives and low-cost labour. Operations to assemble television sets and components have since gone to Asian countries with much lower wages.
However, manufacturing still accounts for about 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product, and the Government wants the level to remain at 20-25 per cent.
In rival financial centre Hong Kong, manufacturing makes up about 2 per cent of the economy.
Singapore is focused on developing a regional manufacturing supply chain, where firms can base labour-intensive work in nearby countries, while engineering and design work is done at home. And it hosts sophisticated manufacturing. About one-third of the world's hearing aids are made in Singapore, many by German engineering giant Siemens.
But for manufacturing in general, "it's not possible for us to do everything in Singapore", said Mr Yeoh. "Activities which are much more labour-intensive and can't be sustained in Singapore will need to move out."
He is hoping higher-paid work in sectors such as 3D printing and biologics - making drugs from proteins in cell cultures rather than synthetically - can expand.
In the service sector, Singapore wants to develop technologies for e-commerce and big
data. It has a target of 2,500 data analytics professionals by 2017. Already, about half of South-east Asia's data centre capacity is in Singapore.
"That's not because we have low-cost energy, we don't, or because our weather is cool, it's not, but because companies feel very confident about the security of the data residing in Singapore," said Mr Yeoh, who has led EDB since 2012.
Singapore's shipyard industry is one that may have to shrink as part of the productivity drive.
While it currently employs 120,000 of Singapore's 5.3 million people, the number of foreign workers versus local is five to one, a ratio the Government wants at 3.5 to one by 2018.
One set of foreigners the Government is keen to maintain are top-level executives, as it tries to get more multinationals to set up regional or international headquarters here.
Last year, it received a boost when General Motors said it would shift a unit that oversees much of its international operations to Singapore from Shanghai, a decade after the company left the island.
Singapore's low taxes and high living standards make it a popular choice. A study by the Frontier strategy group in 2010 found 44 per cent of global firms' Asian headquarters were in Singapore, compared to 17 per cent in Hong Kong and 13 per cent in Shanghai.
BASF and IBM are among corporates that have moved global units to Singapore.
"These are top calibre leaders - the question for us is whether we can see Singaporeans eventually taking on these positions," said Mr Yeoh.