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Tan Yih San, IP Office of Singapore: The brigadier

Singapore wants to become an IP hub. And new IPOS CEO Tan Yih San believes he is the man to build it

Tan is intent on building an IP hub in Singapore

It's an unusual career move, but for Tan Yih San a logical one. On June 1 last year, he became chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, retiring from the Singapore Armed Forces, following a 26-year career that took him to the rank of brigadier. With a bachelor of science degree in physics, Tan was always interested in new technologies and immediately before joining IPOS worked in developing emerging technologies and investing in start-up companies, with a view to boosting the defence budget.

It meant, he says, that he saw IP "from the customer's angle". Now he is putting that to use as he seeks to reorient the IP system in Singapore – and beyond – and in particular to build what the government calls an "IP hub" in the country. "IP is the means to an innovative and inventive economy," he tells Managing IP, adding that the country can build on its history as a trading and financial centre to promote research and IP knowledge.

That meant taking "a fundamental look" at the office when he arrived, and then setting out three tasks: strengthening the IP regime, building linkages and developing a marketplace for transactions. A year on, work is underway on all three tasks. First, registration will become more efficient and cheaper with Singapore introducing what it calls a positive-grant system for patents. Accompanying this will be an emphasis on the quality of search and examination, which will require some expansion in the Office's resources. Tan also draws on his previous experiences to emphasise the importance of patent mapping in identifying R&D gaps.

Second, Singapore is building links internationally, with pilot patent-prosecution highways with countries including Japan and the US. It has also said that it will allow overseas patent agents to act in Singapore.

"The government has an important role to play to "bridge the gap" where the private sector cannot deliver in creating marketplaces"

But the third task is the most interesting. Tan says the government has an important role to play to "bridge the gap" where the private sector cannot deliver in creating marketplaces. This includes work on IP valuation and creating incentives, such as through taxation. "Singapore is already a trading hub, with a trusted legal system and a very efficient financial system. We want to see how we can add value to that from an IP perspective," he says. That means identifying the needs of the various consumers, from individual inventors to the 7,000 and growing multinational companies that have a presence in Singapore. "The world of innovation is rapidly evolving," says Tan, pointing specifically to the growth of technology licensing and cross-licensing.

To get the word out about its various initiatives, IPOS is hosting a range of events and discussions. This month, for example, saw IP Week @ SG, comprising two complementary events with a range of speakers. Other events take place throughout the year, aimed at businesses, professionals and the general public, and cover both IP strategy and awareness. In a speech last year, Tan said that "demystifying IP" is a core task for IP offices, and highlighted three emerging trends: "The first is to create buy-in for an increasingly buoyant youth. The second is to enthuse the preoccupied working populace. And third is to capitalise on the great flow of information through cyberspace in which the assignment of property rights is non-territorial and the duplicative effort is near zero."

With all this activity, Tan is a busy man. So busy, in fact, that he confesses he has not had time lately to practise his golf swing, despite being chairman of one of Singapore's clubs. The consequence is that his handicap has risen from 10 to "about 18". Getting it back down again might have to wait a few years, until this ambitious programme to build a new IP hub in Asia is complete.

Further reading:

Interview: From the army to IPOS
Why due diligence matters in Asia – conference report
IPOS appoints new head

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