SINGAPORE: Singapore needs more technology talent and a newly announced work pass hopes to help the country attract “highly accomplished” individuals in this field, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Nov 17) night.
Delivering a keynote speech at the Singapore Tech Forum 2020, Mr Lee said the Tech.Pass, launched last week by the Economic Development Board, is targeted at “the movers and shakers of the tech world”.
He described these as individuals who usually play different roles at once – founder, investor, employee, consultant and academic – and can contribute to multiple parts of the ecosystem with their capital, networks and knowledge.
Unlike the Employment Pass that is tied to a particular job or employer, the new work pass “will be personal to the holder”, giving them flexibility to move between roles and employers, he added.
Five hundred passes will be made available from January 2021 when applications open.
“This will be something I hope to make people sit up and take notice, and will help us to attract talent to Singapore,” said the Prime Minister.
Mr Lee, who delivered his speech via a Facebook livestream, said talent is key as Singapore develops its technology ecosystem.
The country already has an environment that supports science and technology, with a tech-literate population and the presence of good infrastructure such as a high-speed nationwide broadband network.
The Government is building up its own IT engineering capabilities through the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), while developing the entire tech eco-system and digital industry.
“Many major tech companies are now based here and they are doing engineering work, not just sales and marketing,” he said, citing tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon. This has created a vibrant industry cluster and good jobs for Singaporeans, he added.
“So the pieces are all gradually coming into place but the key thing which makes it all work is talent,” said Mr Lee.
“We need more tech talent to grow the industry and to tackle the urgent problems that we have and that tech can help us to solve.”
The Prime Minister noted a growing pipeline of talent in the local universities and polytechnics. Companies also bring in foreign talent, including experienced professionals at the mid-to senior-levels which Singapore lacks.
But he acknowledged the possibility of social issues arising when there are “large numbers of foreign professionals” in an industry. In particular, Singaporeans in the same field may feel a sense of competition and discomfort.
Such anxieties also tend to “rise up to the surface” during economic downturns when people are worried about their jobs, he added.
This is not unique to Singapore but the country acknowledges these issues “candidly” and does its best to address them, said Mr Lee.
“It requires both sides to work at it. The non-Singaporeans have to make the effort to fit in, both at work and socially, when they are in Singapore.
“And the Singaporeans on their part have to be able to understand that this is how new jobs and more jobs will be created in Singapore, and have to feel assured that they will be fairly treated and not be discriminated against,” he said.
Further, Singaporeans must see the tech companies as bringing in expertise and experience, as well as building up the industry and capabilities.
“So that our own people can learn from them, upgrade themselves and eventually build up our own talent pool,” he added.
“And this is how our policies work. This is how we work our work passes in Singapore.”
SINGAPORE’S VALUE PROPOSITION
Mr Lee was asked about Singapore’s value proposition to talents from around the world during a question-and-answer segment after his keynote speech.
The moderator – Ms Karen Tay, Smart Nation director in the Prime Minister’s Office – named several factors that talents look out for when deciding on a job, namely the breadth of opportunities and livability of a city, as well as the culture of a city and company.
She added that some have said Singapore may be different from other major tech hubs in terms of its sociopolitical culture, stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues, as well as a workplace culture that remains hierarchical.
In his reply, Mr Lee noted that Singapore presents plenty of challenges, such as bringing Government systems up to speed given how it encompasses engineering, organisational and social difficulties.
Meanwhile, a range of tech companies are growing and doing engineering work here. “Really, the constraint is a chicken and egg problem. If there’s more talent, then they’ll be able to do more of these engineering work but they are looking to do it in Singapore,” he said.
On workplace culture, Mr Lee said this depends on individual companies. Existing organisations may find it difficult to change, although some have set up “skunk works” teams to develop new styles of working, he said. Such teams typically operate outside the company’s normal procedures so they can help develop new ideas and products.
Singapore also wants to develop new organisations with “fresh cultures” and these are under way.
Turning to other cultural aspects, he said Singapore used to be called a “cultural desert” but it has become a vibrant city for arts, music, dance and theatre.
Mr Lee also noted that Singapore has been open to the LGBTQ community.
“We welcome them, we really appreciate their contributions,” he said. “And it’s no reason why if you’re a member of this community, you should not fit in in Singapore.”
He pointed out that while Singapore may not have the same “extremely liberal” social norms as San Francisco, which is home to Silicon Valley, there are differences even within the United States.
In multi-racial and multi-religious Southeast Asia, issues like homosexuality “will be sensitive for a long time” but attitudes “are not fixed in stone”. The younger generation, for instance, have more liberal views than their older counterparts.
“So these things shift but we have to give them time to shift and I think it is unwise to force it because there will be a push back and you will end up with polarisation,” said Mr Lee.
TECH CRUCIAL IN SINGAPORE’S COVID-19 RESPONSE
In his keynote speech, the Prime Minister also touched on the role of technology in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The situation in Singapore is now “stable” with “better defences” in testing, contact tracing and safe distancing measures in place. These have allowed a gradual resumption of economic and social activities, including some overseas travel, as it awaits the confirmation of a safe and effective vaccine.
Technology has been “a crucial part” of this journey, said Mr Lee.
For one, biomedical science has played a big part in analysing the genome of the novel coronavirus, understanding disease patterns and trends, as well as developing tests and treatments.
Infotech has also been crucial in various ways. These include the tracking of the status, well-being and location of large numbers of cases, the collecting and analysing of COVID-19 data for locating hotspots, patterns and trends, as well as ensuring compliance with stay-home notices.
When it comes to contact tracing, technology enabled the development of various solutions such as Bluetooth-based tool TraceTogether, national check-in system SafeEntry and databases like VISION, which integrates existing databases to speed up contact tracing and issue quarantine orders promptly.
This is in contrast to how contract tracing was a “manual and labour-intensive business” in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, said Mr Lee.
But Singapore’s response “was not flawless” and many blind spots were discovered.
For instance, not all of the Government’s IT systems were using up-to-date techniques like APIs or cloud systems, and working seamlessly together.
“And when cases are multiplying, all these delays and inefficiencies make a difference,” said Mr Lee.
As a result, new products like VISION had to be developed “in a hurry”.
“(They are) more than minimum viable products, but they are far from polished versions and still work in progress. But they showed we had some in-house capability… Most importantly through building them, we learned … the importance of ‘Ops-tech’,” he said.
“That means the operations have to be enmeshed with the technology requirements right from the start and the tech people have to be involved early and have to work closely with the (operations) people to understand the operating conditions, to understand the requirements (and) to be able to meet the requirements.”
Going beyond COVID-19, technology is a “command function” in a lot of Government activities, from healthcare to public housing, Mr Lee said, adding: “Without tech, you are stuck.”
Senior leaders will have to understand that tech is “central to their role (in) governing Singapore and doing public administration”.
More will need to understand and appreciate technology, and there must be enough public service leaders who can provide technical leadership on complex engineering projects while taking into account the social and policy aspects, added the Prime Minister.
RCEP “A MAJOR STEP FORWARD”
Among the other topics raised during the question-and-answer segment, Mr Lee was asked how the newly signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will affect the tech scene in Singapore and the opportunities it has for start-ups.
Launched in 2012, RCEP is a trade pact between the 10-member ASEAN bloc, along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Dubbed the world’s biggest trade agreement, it was signed over the weekend after eight years of wrangling over details.
In his response Mr Lee said the RCEP is a “major step forward on economic cooperation in Asia”.
For Singapore, it is also a “significant improvement” that will benefit a “whole range of traders” including those in the IT, manufacturing and services industries.