Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan: To ask the Minister for Trade and Industry in light of the current economic conditions and our focus on hiring, developing and strengthening the Singaporean Core, whether there is a need for the Tech@SG programme which facilitates technology firms in the hiring of foreign talent.
Oral Answer (to be attributed to Minister for Trade & Industry Mr Chan Chun Sing)
1. Deep tech industries and companies are the linchpin for the future economy. Digital technologies have transformed the way we work and live. Technology companies are among the fastest growing in the world, and occupy an increasing share of the Fortune 500 list. Singapore must develop our tech ecosystem and ride this growth, to create more opportunities for Singaporeans.
2. Talent is critical in this effort. Tech companies require experts with specialised skills. Increasingly, companies are basing their investment decisions on the availability of talent instead of traditional factors such as the cost and availability of land. Unfortunately, there is a global shortage of tech talent, and competition is intense. France overhauled its French Tech Visa six months ago to make it easier for tech talent to work in France. Closer to home, Thailand introduced a SMART visa program early this year to attract highly skilled tech professionals.
3. If Singapore sits back and does nothing, we will almost certainly be left behind. We have only a small window to build a critical mass of high-end professionals, start-ups and companies. There will only be a few such nodes globally. How we do today will decide whether we make it as a tech hub, or not. We must move now, and move fast.
4. It is not only companies which are facing a shortage of tech talent. Our Government is also using technology to transform our public services, and serve businesses and citizens better. The Government is therefore tapping on the same limited pool of local tech professionals as our companies. We need to expand this pool urgently.
5. We are accelerating our efforts to develop our tech talent while ensuring that Singaporeans remain at the core of our efforts. The first prong of our talent strategy, ever since we achieved independence, has been to develop our local workforce. Our people are our most important resource and we spare no effort in nurturing them. In our efforts to widen our tech talent pool, we have been rapidly scaling up our local pipeline of tech professionals. Today, more than 74,000 training places have been taken up or committed under the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA), and this will amount to about one third of our ICT professionals across the economy. Our Institutes of Higher Learning offer around 200 full-time tech-related courses today. In Academic Year 2018, there was an enrolment of more than 63,000 locals in these tech-related courses, which received about $1.1 billion in Government funding. We are also investing significantly in building new capabilities such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Together, these efforts will increase our baseline of tech skills and capabilities.
6. As we develop our base, we must also stretch the top of our Singaporean crop. We have connected Singapore to the world to secure frontier opportunities for Singaporeans through programmes such as the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA). The GIA is a global network connecting Singapore to leading innovation ecosystems and key markets around the world. Singaporeans and businesses will be able to gain overseas experience, and connect and collaborate with their overseas counterparts through the GIA.
7. But even these efforts are insufficient because the demand for tech talent is far outstripping the local supply. This is not just a Singapore issue. It is a global challenge. The Straits Times reported recently that recruiting firm Michael Page said that the demand for technology jobs in Singapore rose by 20 percent in the last 12 months but there is a shortage of supply. Companies have also given our agencies feedback that we lack experienced software engineers and product managers. They are looking for people who can take charge of the development and rollout of digital products at a global scale, instead of only working on specific components of the product. These are often people that can marry both technical leadership and commercial acumen, manage larger tech teams in the 100s and 1000s, and are highly valued because they are in short supply.
8. This is the reality which we will have to face or we risk diminishing our competitive edge. We need to complement our local pipeline with skilled workers from all around the world to meet the surging demand from companies that are already in Singapore, and companies that we want to bring to Singapore. The presence of workers from other countries and nationalities also provides opportunities for Singaporeans to work in globally competitive teams and advance the frontiers of innovation together. In a world where multi-sectoral, cross-discipline and cross-cultural teams are increasingly common, Singaporeans must learn how to work with people from all around the world. This will increase their competitiveness as individual employees and make them more attractive to employers.
9. Alibaba, Grab, SAP and Taiger are examples of some companies which have plans to expand significantly in Singapore. Many of these companies have shared that the ability to complement their local workforce with global talent is essential for them to quickly scale their operations in accordance to their plans.
10. This is why we launched Tech@SG to help fast-growth tech companies, both local and foreign, to grow in Singapore. This programme is intended for companies with the commitment and ability to build teams and products in Singapore. They will have to be incorporated in Singapore, have a digital or technology offering or have a business model built around proprietary technologies, research or hardware. Companies would also need to have secured more than US$10 million in Venture Capital (VC) funding cumulatively, and have received funding from a Programme-recognised VC in the past 36 months. This will ensure the companies would have sufficient resources and readiness to internationalise and compete.
11. Tech@SG will enable such companies to put together globally competitive teams to develop their products and internationalise quickly. In addition, Tech@SG will raise the quality of tech talent in Singapore, and create more opportunities for our tech experts to team up with the best from around the world.
12. We must be prepared for these fast-growth companies to recruit the skills they most require. In the short-term, these skills may come from global professionals. But, we must take a strategic view on this to reap the long-term rewards for Singaporeans. We did so for the semiconductors industry in the 1960s. At that time, many multinationals in the industry came here and set up their core team which comprised mainly foreigners. Over time, as these companies anchor themselves in Singapore, they began to rapidly grow their local pool of employees. In a span of just three years, the first three semiconductor companies in Singapore – National Semiconductor, Fairchild, and Texas Instruments – created more than 7,000 jobs. They have also grown an entire generation of specialists and professionals in this area that enable the semiconductor industry of Singapore. Today, we have a similar opportunity to create a vibrant and dynamic tech sector, generating new and exciting job opportunities for yet another generation of Singaporeans – but time is running out.
13. I would like to highlight some examples where we can already see the benefits to Singaporeans. Visenze, an AI and image recognition company founded by four Singaporeans, now hires more than 60 tech professionals to form multinational teams that develop and improve their AI technology. Abel Lim, a recent graduate from NUS's School of Computing, learns about applying machine learning to real-life problems from colleagues in his team who come from around the world. Together, their team makes improvements to Visenze’s algorithms.
14. Another example would be Mastercard. Mastercard is an MNC currently spearheading the creation of new digital technologies in payment solutions and smart mobility in Singapore, powered by artificial intelligence. These innovative activities require new capabilities that would need to be built up in the Singapore team. To that end, the company introduced the Mastercard Graduate Programme that offers Singaporean employees a structured programme of rotations, international work experience and mentorship opportunities. This equips them with new skills and allow them to work alongside senior experts from around the world. Seliyan Silvarajoo is one such Singaporean who has undergone the programme. He started out as an intern at Mastercard and is now a senior digital product specialist. Seliyan counts his experience learning from and working with a global and diverse team as critical to preparing him for his role in developing new and exciting products.
15. Besides companies like Mastercard and Visenze, we have a good stable of companies like the digital giants Google and Facebook that create good opportunities for Singaporeans. We need to be able to create an environment for Singaporeans to learn from the world’s best and thrive. We need to grow our tech ecosystem and create exciting job opportunities for Singaporeans. This is what Tech@SG is about.
16. Mr Speaker Sir, I would like to assure the House that we are deeply cognisant of the fact that this topic can be easily stirred up because of the emotions involved and because it concerns jobs and the kind of society we want to build in Singapore. At the same time, this is a Government that has always sought to be honest with Singaporeans and has never shied away from explaining our challenges and sharing what needs to be done in order for us to grow and adjust to changing realities. We will never stop putting Singaporeans at the heart of everything we do and will continue to develop every Singaporean to their fullest potential so that they can fulfil their aspirations and seize opportunities in Singapore and beyond. However, we must not go down the path of other countries who have started to put up barriers and take an inward-looking, protectionist approach not just to trade but including talent. Doing so will only hurt Singapore whose success over the last 54 years has been built on our openness and courage to do what is necessary for our country. To this end, we will continue to do our best for each and every Singaporean while continuously building on our efforts to take Singapore into the next lap with the world as our hinterland for trade and talent.
 For more information on the Tech@SG programme and the qualifying company criteria, please visit https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/news-and-events/news/pilot-programme-to-facilitate-access-to-talent-and-support-growth-of-singapore-technology-ecosystem.html