In the 1960s, Singapore had a per capita GDP less than US$320. Now, it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with a per capita GDP of US$60,000. Despite it being a small country with few natural resources, Singapore is an economic powerhouse. By embracing globalisation, free-market capitalism, education, and pragmatic policies, the country has met its geographic disadvantages and become a leader in global commerce.

As a testament to the strength of its economy and political stability, Singapore is often referred to as the “Switzerland of the east”. Indeed in June 2018, US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un selected Singapore as the venue for their historic first-ever meeting.

Patent system modernisation

Initially, Singapore operated a self-assessment patent system. In this system, patent applications that did not satisfy the patentability requirements could still be granted. The applicant decided to proceed to obtain a patent. As the Singapore economy has globalised, so too has its patent system.

On 14 February 2014, Singapore took the first step towards modernising its patent system by introducing legislation whereby only patent applications that satisfied patentability requirements could proceed to grant.

Overview of the patent system

An application for a standard patent with a term of 20 years may be filed under the Paris Convention and/or the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The deadline for National Phase Entry is 30 months from the earliest claimed priority date. There is a 12 month grace period for prior disclosure or sale of the invention by the inventor/applicant.

Methods of treatment of the human or animal body by surgery or therapy or of diagnosis or an Invention that may encourage offensive, immoral or anti-social behaviour is not patentable subject matter in Singapore.

Once filed, the patent application will undergo a formality examination and be published. The deadline to request search and/or examination is 36 months from the earliest claimed priority date. Currently, substantive examination by a Singaporean Patent Office examiner is optional and applicants may rely on search and examination reports established in other countries for corresponding applications that have already been allowed or granted. Deadlines to respond to office actions are non-extendible.

Payment of grant fees are due before 54 months have expired from the earliest claimed priority date. Renewals are subsequently due on the fifth anniversary of filing, and each anniversary thereafter.

ASPEC (ASEAN Patent Examination Cooperation)

ASPEC is a regional work sharing program amongst nine ASEAN member states - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It is a fast-track process to achieve grant with cost savings being achieved by reduction of work amongst the IP offices and conduct of all proceedings in English. As an English speaking country and with a well-developed IP office, Singapore plays a prominent role in ASPEC prosecutions.

Singapore’s approach to the digital economy

To foster innovative growth in its already strong financial sector, a Fintech Fast Track initiative has been in place since April 2018. This program is designed expedite the patent application to patent grant process as a means to support commercialisation of underlying financial technology. This initiative was recently complemented with the launch in April 2019 of the Accelerated Initiative for Artificial Intelligence.

Further modernisation

It has already been legislated that from 1 January 2020, it will no longer be possible to base examination and prosecution on the foreign route. That is, to directly rely on the allowance of a corresponding application in another country. An IPOS examiner will conduct all examination. Given that IPOS is a member of the GPPH program, it will still be possible to expedite examination based on the allowance of a corresponding foreign application.

It has been further proposed that the Patents Act be amended to positively allow the filing of third-party observations. Under these amendments, an examiner must consider such observations. By contrast, the current informal process carries no such obligation. Whilst such features already exist in many jurisdictions, we see this as evidence that Singapore is committed to ensuring the validity of granted patents.

Next steps

As a member state of ASEAN and with the modernisation of its patent system, Singapore is well positioned to take a preeminent role in the management and potential integration of the other ASEAN member states. Indeed, we foresee the possibility of Singapore becoming the ASEAN equivalent of the European Patent Office (EPO). Such an outcome would not conflict with existing arrangements, for example, as and between the EPO and Cambodia whereby a European patent may be validated in Cambodia.

Noting the existence of ASPEC, it would seem an ideal platform for Singapore to develop an EPO style examination and grant process.