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OPINION

Will Singapore stay ahead of the IP game?

Republic needs to step up to challenges and threats regarding use and abuse of intellectual property rights emerging around the world

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Singapore came in 9th in a recent global IP index, ahead of Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, and second to Japan in the Asia-Pacific. The ranking was carried out by the US Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Centre.

THE votes have been cast and Singapore has been identified as having the world's best airport, the world's most powerful passport, and having a couple of the world's top universities. The Singapore brand strives to be No 1. The country punches above its weight and stays at the top of minds, having also been chosen to host the Xi-Ma meeting as well as the recent Trump-Kim summit.

And in the realm of Intellectual Property (IP), Singapore has also aimed to set the gold standard.

It has been highly ranked in the global intellectual property index released by the US Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Centre (GIPC). On Feb 8, the GIPC released its IP Index, Create, in which Singapore came in 9th, ahead of Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, and second to Japan in the Asia-Pacific.

Singapore ranks best in Asia and fourth in the world for having the best IP protection, according to the latest 2017/2018 World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report.

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The results show Singapore's commitment to and reputation in the sphere of IP innovation and creativity. The country was recently chosen as the venue for the 2020 International Trademark Association (INTA) Annual Meeting, which is the world's largest trademark conference attended by well over 11,000 trademark attorneys, service providers and brand owners from more than 150 countries.

It will be the first time that the INTA Annual Meeting will be held in South-east Asia. Singapore is certainly well positioned and suited to be the next venue outside the US for this prestigious event.

Becoming the IP hub of Asia

Getting to where Singapore is in the world of IP has not been an easy feat.

The government has long recognised that a strong IP environment is an important pillar of its economic policy. Substantial and consistent investments have been made by the government in this effort.

The results show: leading global companies, such as Procter & Gamble, have selected Singapore as their location of choice for investments in business and research and development, citing the country's protection of IP rights as a factor in their decision.

Confidence in Singapore's IP services and infrastructure has led to many foreign companies choosing the Republic as the forum for holding and protecting its IP, and as the gateway to secure IP protection in key markets all over the world.

Singapore's legal system has an international reputation for its neutrality, efficiency and transparency. Its Supreme Court has a specialised IP Court to handle increasingly complex IP cases.

The IP Academy, the education and training arm of the IP Office of Singapore (IPOS), offers training programmes to build up a "globally competitive IP workforce".

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Arbitration and Mediation Centre established its Singapore in Singapore, its only centre outside Geneva, Switzerland, to offer and make available its expertise and services in IP dispute resolution in Asia.

Continued and emerging challenges to IP

The achievements made by Singapore do not immunise it from the challenges and threats emerging around the world.

One, China's alleged unfair IP practices and forced technology transfers have been at the heart of what has prompted US President Donald Trump's threat of a trade war in response.

Two, Australia's "plain packaging" law, which requires tobacco companies to sell their products in drab olive packets with brand names in small standardised fonts, has been endorsed and upheld by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in its recently-issued decision. The WTO rejected the argument that Australia had unjustifiably violated IP rights in the trade marks of tobacco companies.

Brand restrictions are a rather disconcerting development in the world of IP law as they may open the floodgates for public health legislation to be rolled out which introduce tighter packaging rules for alcohol, snacks, confectionery and sweet drinks. The significant potential economic impact - of curbs on the freedom to use one's brands - on businesses has been highlighted in a 2017 study made by Brand Finance.

One will have to look into the crystal ball to discern what the future holds for certain categories of trade marks in Singapore.

Three, we see in India a level of scepticism among Indian policymakers towards IP rights, which adds to the prevailing instability and inconsistency in its rule-making.

Despite producing many leaders in innovations and inventors, a lack of clearly-defined and enforceable IP rights and rigid policies have presented stumbling blocks in the protection of innovations in the life sciences and biotechnology.

Maintaining Singapore's position

As a well-regarded pioneer on many fronts (from water innovation and management, to smart city technology solutions) and as a thought leader in Asia in the world of IP, Singapore has to be resilient in tackling and responding to new issues and challenges and to guard against an erosion of all it has achieved.

Government agency leaders and representatives from the industry from countries far and wide including the Cook Islands, Mongolia and Myanmar have visited Singapore's shores to learn about IP administration, protection and its importance to the economy.

They appreciate there is an economic value in protecting brands and IP, which translates to jobs and tax dollars.

Trademark-intensive industries directly contribute half of Singapore's GDP, and indirectly contribute to 55 per cent of GDP, according to an analysis by economics consultancy firm Frontier Economics in 2017.

Such industries account for 60 per cent of Singapore's exports and 29 per cent of employment.

It is thus critical that the authorities, various stakeholders and IP thought leaders in Singapore continue to interact in a synergistic and collaborative manner, with a view to fostering an environment for thoughtful and considered IP discourse, regulation, enforcement and administration. Much is at stake and it is hoped that Singapore will take the lead in the discussion.

  • The writer is an intellectual property (IP) lawyer in Singapore, and managing director of Francine Tan Law Corporation.