SINGAPORE (Sept 2): From this month, tech firms in Singapore can look forward to an expansion of their ranks, as a government scheme to facilitate global hiring takes effect. The Tech @ SG scheme, launched at end-July and scheduled to start in the coming months, is aimed at helping companies find talent in deep tech sectors, including medtech, cleantech, fintech, agritech and biotech. The scheme will facilitate the application of employment passes for foreigners who are equipped with the desired skills at companies that are considered to have high potential for growth, including start-ups with a good funding track record.

On the face of it, the scheme is a timely boost for Singapore, as its small, export-oriented economy struggles under the pressures of disruptions to businesses and supply chains ­owing to, among other issues, technological advancement and the protracted US-China trade war.

Yet, it also underscores the situation that Singapore has persistently found itself in since it had had to strike out on its own in 1965. It is one that the late Goh Keng Swee, a former deputy prime minister and widely regarded as the architect of Singapore’s economy, highlighted in 1972.

“The high dependence on external markets and foreign entrepreneurship in the form of MNCs implies that our fortunes are sensitive to world trading conditions,” Goh said in a speech in March that year at the University of Singapore, as the National University of Singapore was then known. “Should something go badly wrong with world trade, the rapid growth we have been enjoying in recent years can come to a grinding stop.”

Goh put his finger on what he called a fundamental matter of policy: “At what point do we stop importing foreign workers and cease to encourage foreign entrepreneurs and capital to come into Singapore?”

During the earlier years of Singapore’s economic development, the government opened its doors to foreign entrepreneurs and professionals, in particular from the MNCs that dominated global industry then. In addition, there was a continuous supply of lower-skilled foreign workers to sustain growth. Over the last few decades, major industries — from petrochemicals to semiconductor manufacturing and, most recently, financial services — have flourished and become key drivers of economic growth and prosperity.

At a certain point, it was expected that the MNCs and their expatriate management would transfer knowledge and expertise to local managers and staff. Yet, industry observers whom The Edge Singapore spoke to for this week’s issue have expressed doubt that much of such transfers took place. As one pointed out, the foreign recruits’ job descriptions are not necessarily to train locals. Separately, foreign companies could reject mandatory skills transfer as onerous or, in the context of intellectual property rights protection, anathema.

To be sure, there are schemes to cultivate local talent in deep tech, such as the Capability Transfer Programme, which funds the wages and training of local and foreign trainers; the TechSkills Accelerator; and SGInnovate-backed Entrepreneur First, a deep tech incubator that has built more than 50 start-ups here.

On its part, the government maintains that the new Tech @ SG scheme gives Singaporeans the opportunity to work with top global talent and the exposure would help develop the local workforce. Yet, skills transfer will not going happen by osmosis but more likely, through deliberate policy.

There is no doubt that attracting global talent here has been valuable in the development of the city state’s economy. And, as a comparatively small economy, Singapore needs to remain open to global business and talent in order to thrive or survive. But it could also do more to cultivate its own skilled workforce, particularly one that complements its economic growth goals.

Indeed, as the government pushes ahead with its ambitious Smart Nation initiative, it needs to consider whether it has the necessary resources to support it on a long-term basis. A “smart nation” is envisioned as one where technology is applied systematically and extensively with the aim of improving the lives of people here. A big part of this involves artificial intelligence (AI) as well as technologies in various sectors such as biotech, fintech and agritech. The people required to support such sectors include data scientists, computer scientists and engineers.

Our story this week looks at the university programmes that could support the nation’s direction. Course directors tell our writers that enrolment has tripled since 2014. But even as the first cohort of students with the relevant training graduate and are snapped up by companies, they are unlikely to supply all that the industry needs. As one manager says, most of the deep tech professionals here are still foreigners. Moreover, what companies need are people with some experience and business acumen, in order to properly develop solutions in what is still a competitive sector. And these such skills are not picked up at school but through sufficient exposure to industry.

Opinion leaders The Edge Singapore spoke to say the industry also needs to play its part in nurturing local talent equipped for jobs in the field. And indeed, major players such as SAP, Alibaba Group Holding and Hewlett Packard Enterprise have stepped up. The German enterprise software company runs training programmes in AI and the Internet of Things in partnership with SkillsFuture Singapore. The Chinese internet giant runs a doctorate programme with Nanyang Technological University that offers the opportunity to work in its labs in Singapore and China; HPE regularly takes in interns, and about half of them obtain full-time employment at the US firm.

Ultimately, Singapore has benefited from its open-door policy towards global enterprise and talent, particularly when its economy was trying to establish itself. But as the city state develops, as part of its long-term economic strategy, it must pay serious attention to developing its educated and skilled workforce to its fullest potential.

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore (Issue 897, week of Sept 2) which is on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here