RANCHO MIRAGE (California) — Engineers should not be regarded as people who merely provide “support function” or help fix computer problems, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as he wrapped up a working visit to the United States where he toured the premises of several technology giants.
In many of these highly admired tech companies in Silicon Valley, such as Apple and Facebook, engineers are at the valued core of their business. But in Singapore, Mr Lee noted that “people may not always see engineering like that”.
“They see it as a support function — my computer is broken, call an engineer and fix it,” he added. “We really need to reposition our conception of what engineering is about, and how important engineering is to us.”
Mr Lee was speaking to Singaporean reporters on Tuesday, California time, (early Wednesday, Singapore time) after the conclusion of a special summit between the US and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Sunnylands, California. He toured the premises of the technology firms before the summit.
During his visits to the tech giants, Mr Lee said he heard repeatedly from engineers that “in Silicon Valley, engineers are valued”.
Singapore ought to adopt a similar mindset, as the country needs stronger engineering capability to meet many of its goals under the Smart Nation initiative, he added.
Another takeaway from his visit to Silicon Valley: The need for organisations and societies to reorganise themselves to enable new ideas to flourish.
Information technology (IT) is not just about automating the old way of doing things, Mr Lee said. Due to new technology, “the workflow has to change, the way you analyse problems has to change, the way you define your mission has to change”, he added.
As a result, some companies and institutions may have to become flatter and more open.
“So, these are issues we’ve got to think and rethink. And in the private sector in Silicon Valley, as the companies grow, they have to make these decisions repeatedly, because technology moves them in progress, their scale expands, and they do it rapidly,” said Mr Lee.
The Government must learn to be as spry as Silicon Valley even if it does not move at the same pace as the tech companies, he added.
While in California, Mr Lee also met a number of Silicon Valley-based Singaporeans whom he hoped would return home one day to launch new projects or initiatives in Singapore.
However, getting them back will not be easy, he acknowledged.
Singapore must offer the same kind of exciting and challenging jobs found in Silicon Valley if it wanted to convince the Singaporeans there to return.
“It’s not just a matter of pay or having a job — they can find jobs. But to have the same challenge, same excitement, the same kind of technical demand on the person so he feels he is stretching the envelope and doing something meaningful.”
According to Mr Lee, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is working on a new scheme to attract these Singaporeans back home to work for six months or a year, perhaps on a project basis.
“And we need to work at that. We need companies who can absorb them — engineering companies, companies which put engineering at the core of their business,” he added. “If it works out and they want to stay on and they’re hooked, that’s good. If not, they come back to Silicon Valley, we have a contact there and they know us a little better.”
TODAY understands IDA will be releasing more details on the scheme.
Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced that engineers in the public sector can look forward to better pay, with opportunities to develop their skills and move up the career ladder. Speaking at the official opening of a new building at the Institution of Engineers Singapore, Mr Teo said these measures were part of efforts to build up the talent pool and grow capabilities in the engineering field within the public service.