Hi Chamira, what do you do and what brought you to Asia?

In September 2019, I arrived in Singapore to head the Science and Higher Education Section in the Department of Science, Culture and Education of the Embassy of France based in Singapore. I’ve worked in the science and technology field for almost 15 years. In the last decade, Asia’s technology advances have been phenomenal. I’ve always felt a personal attraction and a particular affinity for Asia, partly due to my Indian origins, and was looking for opportunities to live in this region.
My previous position as Deputy Director for Asia of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), the largest research organisation in Europe, led me to discover Singapore, since I had contributed to the creation of CNRS’ subsidiary in the city state, the first of its kind for a French public research organisation. (https://www.create.edu.sg/about-create/research-centres/cnrs@create)
I really enjoyed this experience, so when this job opportunity at the French Embassy opened up, I felt it was made just for me!

What is the mission of the Science and Higher Education Section of the Department of Culture, Education and Science at the Embassy?

The Embassy of France aims to support and enhance bilateral relations between France and Singapore in science and education.This includes higher education to scientific research, covering student mobility and the exchange of researchers. We want to:
– Bring greater clarity about the French scientific and higher education ecosystem to our Singaporean partners, touting France’s premium quality, assets, strengths to create bilateral links and networks between France and Singapore.
– Report on scientific innovation and topics of interest to the scientific community (new priorities for research areas, funding opportunities, educational programmes, etc). We do this through the publication of a newsletter every two months (https://sg.ambafrance.org/Cooperation-scientifique)
– Connect and create more links between French scientists working in Singapore, whether in universities, agencies or private companies, through the FrenchLab Singapore network (https://frenchlab.sg/). Among the objectives of this network states an enhanced connexion with the French Tech Singapore community, (through thematic networking sessions, such as AI or sustainable development)
– Act as a facilitator and go between: assist in meeting the political objectives and strategies of both countries at the operational level, link the best way possible, put a light on activities or cooperation that may benefit from an institutional visibility (diplomatic high level visits, scientific conferences, etc). 

Two examples:
1 – The Embassy of France launched the organisation of the “Cercles de l’Innovation” (Innovation Circles), a serie of meetings focusing on innovation, with the objective of providing a platform for interaction, sharing and exchange on a given theme between academic, institutional and industrial experts from Singapore and France (Cloud computing, Aging, Circular economy, New space…).
2 – Regarding artificial intelligence:  its use and its applications are the subject of a large consultation at the global level, with a goal to establish a governmental forum to enforce its main principles (the Global Partnership on AI). For several months, the Embassy has been working on a bilateral roadmap to develop an operational cooperation in AI between France and Singapore, taking into account both the interests of local partners and the political priorities. The endorsement of such a roadmap at the institutional level – perfectly timed with the launch of the Global Partnership on AIwill facilitate the work of the stakeholders here and accelerate the implementation of projects.   

All these activities form a part of the larger cooperation that also encompasses culture. The French government strongly believes that science and education contribute to French soft power and thus must be integrated into the wider diplomatic policy. In Singapore, the emphasis on education and the vibrant ecosystem of research and innovation make my job very exciting and is a great motivating force.

Why is it necessary to have a strong link between startups and universities?

Science leads to innovation and technology transfer: many new processes, devices, and systems are based on prior scientific discoveries. As such, each country needs to have strong research capabilities that lead to new discoveries, to ensure international competitiveness. Very often, the critical point is innovation, such as the way that scientific discoveries are translated into applications that bring value from an economic point of view. More and more, countries develop a very efficient ecosystem through close cooperation between academia and industry, and more recently, between academia and startups.
The Embassy of France in Singapore has several programmes and initiatives in place to enhance the awareness of French entrepreneurship and innovation:
– French Science Journey https://www.voilah.sg/voilah-events/french-science-journey/
– France Excellence programme, providing internship opportunities in French companies to students from Singapore https://www.voilah.sg/france-excellence-programme
– Young Enterprise Initiative for Singaporean startups to discover the French innovation ecosystem in partnership with Hello Tomorrow https://www.yeifrance.com/

Do France and Singapore hold the same approach?

France and Singapore have very complementary approaches. Singapore is a relatively young country which has chosen to invest heavily in education. The city state has six universities, all very successful and among the best in the world, owing to a strong policy of attracting talents, among other factors.

In the last two decades, Singapore invested massively to set up a dynamic and integrated ecosystem for innovation with each university strongly encouraging the entrepreneurial mindset right from the outset. They do this through incubation and mentorship programmes, like SMU’s BIG Incubation Programme (Singapore Management University) or NUS BLOCK71 Global Incubation (National University of Singapore), or through a dedicated curriculum like SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design). In addition, the ties between the government, academia and industry are very strong. Singapore is always on the lookout for external expertise and international cooperation.

France has a tradition of excellence in teaching and training many outstanding scientists every year. A number of them live in Singapore, working for R&D organisations, and do very well here.
France’s expertise in science and research relating to innovation and entrepreneurship is found across diverse domains and is well considered in the world: France is placed respectively 2nd and 3rd in the World’s Most Innovative Research Institutions and Universities Rankings by Reuters in 2019 (https://www.reuters.com/innovation/most-innovative-institutions-2019) (https://www.reuters.com/innovative-universities-2019). These areas have evolved exponentially in recent years, and Singapore is sitting up and taking notice. For example, Singapore is the first country to request visits to Station F in Paris, the largest business incubator for startups in the world, and to Ecole 42, the famous coding school created by Xavier Niel.

How do you connect with industrial counterparts?

We help French stakeholders gain more visibility here in Singapore: many French startups or SMEs want to connect with academic partners in Singapore for R&D.
The Embassy can be that bridge, since I am in daily contact with the universities here. Hence, at every opportunity, we create networking opportunities and connect people from different agencies, institutions and organisations. Giving these French entities an access to the relevant government agencies or universities is the best way to enter the ecosystem in an effective way.For example, a few months ago, I introduced a French company developing VR and AR tools for training to the universities here. My experience, gleaned from the knowledge of the two ecosystems convinced me that this company – which already offers training solutions in France – may be of great interest to Singapore in its push into lifelong learning. Initial discussions were held, but had to be temporarily suspended because of the Covid-19 crisis.

How do you “dare to” be a woman in Science Diplomacy?

Even if things are rapidly changing in the world, French diplomacy is still rather conservative: diversity and gender equality are not yet endemic. I am still frequently the only woman in technical or institutional meetings. But I was pleased to discover several female colleagues working in tech and innovation at the Embassy. This is also true for academia and sciences, although there is a great trend to take better account of the obstacles to women’s scientific careers.

In my job, I deal with people from all walks of life, from eminent scientists to ministerial chiefs of staff. I have to handle these relations delicately within diplomatic constraints or balance out conflicting interests. As a woman, I feel less hampered by ego issues, thus I can focus on the primary objective, be aware of the underlying power play and have a softer leadership style to achieve my goals. 

I strongly believe that education is the first step towards gender equality and there needs to have a mindset change. I try to instil this in my own daughters, by telling them that no job is out of a woman’s reach. I also aim to show them that a good balance between work and family life is possible.

How do you add diversity to the mix?

My multi-cultural background gives me the scope to consider the various angles of a situation and the openness to different ways of thinking. I am convinced that diversity is one of the strongest strengths a team could possess, and this has always been my guiding principle when choosing my collaborators.

Asia, with its multitude of countries and cultural social mores, may be very challenging for Europeans. Having Indian roots, with parents born in Africa and myself brought up in France, I feel comfortable in different cultures, which is a very effective asset in diplomacy. For me, Singapore, which is a melting pot of cultures, is fascinating.

If you’d like to contact Chamira Lessigny, you can find her on LinkedIn.
Get in touch with us @ womenfrenchtech at gmail dot com
In collaboration with Amel Rigneau & Emily Fang

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