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Singapore needs more engineers, less short-term planning

February 21st, 2016 | by Alfred Siew
Singapore needs more engineers, less short-term planning
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Source: iStockphoto

Source: iStockphoto

During his visit to Silicon Valley this past week, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with the who’s who of the technology world.

As he shook hands with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook, he made a call for Singapore to focus on engineering as a key skill in fuelling the country’s ambitions to be a smart nation.

That’s a timely call, as Singapore seeks to promote a hands-on approach from young, to learn coding in school and to have a “maker’s mentality” to solving problems. Those are all good things.

Indeed, the recent move to start early is a change from the government’s often short-term targets for quick-fire success, whether when setting itself up as a startup capital or attracting foreign talent to these shores.

So, engineering is cool again. You wonder, however, what happened to all the engineers from the 1980s and 1990s. These people are in the 40s, 50s or 60s now, having lived through the original PC wave and then the dot.com boom and bust.

These people were trained to fill the factory floors of the biggest hard disk makers here – at one point, Singapore made more hard disks than anywhere else. Others had the skills to build the first websites and e-commerce systems.

For them, many things went south in the 2000s. With competition from emerging economies in Asia, engineering – IT engineering, anyway – was outsourced bit by bit to the lowest bidder.

In 2006, Singapore’s leaders sought to produce “techno-strategists” and “technologists” when it formed a vision of the infocomm sector.

You should be a project manager with business acumen or a researcher seeking answers to deep-lying issues. Coding wasn’t one such skill that had a future, it seemed then.

Today, the latest flavour is in areas like Internet of Things, where engineers are called upon to connect up anything from smartphones to smoke sensors and make the mountain of data they collect useful.

Engineers are needed too to solve one of the biggest issues today – cyber security. And Singapore is scrambling to build this area up now because it had dumped so much of its technical skills by outsourcing seemingly mundane tasks during the 2000s (read our commentary on this).

Sure, you can outsource even security to the experts where feasible, but you need a local core of skilled practitioners to be able to handle the sensitive jobs, say, in defending the country’s key infrastructure.

Which brings us back to this renewed focus on engineering. You wonder if it’s the latest flavour of the month. Okay, or the decade.

In seeking to be a smart nation, Singapore now needs engineers. So, let’s focus on engineering and make it an attractive profession again. Attract Singaporeans overseas to come back.

What happens when this next big thing is over? Will these engineers then face the same issues that older engineers before them faced?

For a country’s planners, there seems nothing wrong in riding a rising wave. However, for those in the industry, this becomes their career, their livelihood. They don’t just move on to a new sector at the snap of a finger.

To be sure, the smart nation project is an ambitious one that won’t just create jobs or build wealth for those involved. It’s also aimed at improving the lives of citizens in a way that’s far-reaching.

You just hope that at the end of it, when the buzz is over, there’s something left for those who spent a good chunk of their career building things up.

Just ask those who spent years in a hard disk factory and found they were out of a job when firms left Singapore one by one to lower cost countries such as China. Some could retrain and “move up the value chain”; others could not.

It’s true, in a competitive world, you have to shape up or ship out. Nobody owes you a living, certainly not the government.

So, for the young who are heeding this call to join the cool-again engineering field, go on. Just be sure to build up your other skills and your network at the same time.

That’s one way of keeping afloat after the latest wave comes crashing down.

7 Comments

  1. Jason Lim says:

    I belong to the first generation Singaporean (born in 1963). Singapore never had an engineering culture. We have engineering management culture. Everyone wants to be a manager after 5 years on the job. Many US tech companies have dual track career where a top level engineer can be paid as much as a Vice President (annual salary ranging from USD $250K and up. We have been talking about focus on engineer for 30 years! Start paying engineers to be engineers and keep them in R&D.

  2. Darren72 says:

    I have worked for more than 10 years in the local tech industry and there is one common thread about the treatment of software engineers and that is, they are just expandable cost items.

    Little did most local IT companies CEOs realise, engineers are usually the main innovation force in a tech company or country.

    Without a doubt, innovation drives Silicon Valley and to give a concrete example of an engineering guru; Steve Jobs is a technical guru and when he took up the role of Apple CEO again, he introduced new innovative products that took the marketplace by storm.

    Another example is Germany. Germany values its engineers a lot, their technical education is second to none and their cars and engineering expertise tend to be at the forefront of innovation.

    Compared that to the current sad state of engineering skills we have in Singapore, we can’t even fix our own trains due to …..the lack of engineering skills.

    Why is it so? Because engineering is no longer cool. And new grads from unis and polys are not keen to work on IT or engineering jobs because local tech companies here don’t treat them with respect; i.e. expandable items

    It has gotten so bad that I had to outsource development work to India and Taiwan where engineers are more highly valued.

    As a parting shot, I hope most of these local IT companies go bust. Because you people don’t deserve the title of a CEO or director of an IT company. You rely on sales and outsourced technology to survive. You can’t innovate for your own survival

    • Alfred Siew says:

      I forgot to mention it also takes years to train up as an IT engineer. Starting at the bottom, where competition is rife, is tough. I am not an IT engineer myself but have spoken to many in the past. To be honest, I’m glad there is renewed interest in pushing for engineering skills. I think everyone just needs to remember there’s a need to plan for the future, when the buzz is over.

      • Nello says:

        The problem, Alfred, is that local companies look at IT stuff as restaurants look at dishwashers. They think that are a “cost” (therefore trying to cut on salaries) and that are “replaceable” (hence using technologies old but that produce monkey-for-peanuts).

        Obviously this approach has serious consequences and the immediate one is that Singapore (sadly) can’t be in the forefront of any technology and innovation any longer.

    • Nello says:

      Just a small note: Steve Jobs did not even know how do hold a screwdriver. The IT brain has always been the Woz, Steve Wozniak. Steve Jobs was a visionary marketing guru for sure. 🙂

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