DPM Heng Swee Keat at the World Engineers Summit 2021 Opening Ceremony

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 10 November 2021

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the World Engineers Summit 2021 Opening Ceremony on 10 November 2021.


Dr Richard Kwok, President of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore 

Mr Dalson Chung and Professor Lim Kok Hwa, Co-chairmen of the World Engineers Summit 2021

Ladies and gentlemen, including those who are joining us virtually, from Singapore and around the world.  

Good morning

It is my pleasure to join all of you today at the opening ceremony of the World Engineers Summit. 

This is the fifth edition of this biennial Summit. Over the years, the Summit has been valuable for engineering professionals, researchers, and business leaders to exchange views and forge collaborations. Despite COVID-19, I am glad that the Institution of Engineers and its partners have put together a rich programme with many distinguished speakers. 

New Renaissance for Engineering 

Engineering is a key locomotive for the progress of human societies. It is remarkable that some ancient engineering marvels are still standing today after thousands of years - such as the Giza Pyramids, the Roman Aqueducts, and Dujiangyan in China. Over the centuries, the world has been transformed by successive breakthroughs. During the current pandemic, the value of engineering has also come to the fore – from contact tracing apps, to machines that can automate the extraction of vaccines from their vials, to the 3D printing of critical components. 

We are now at the cusp of yet another engineering renaissance. The first three industrial revolutions led to exponential growth. The 4th Industrial Revolution will do the same and more. It will be far more pervasive, fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds. A host of transformative technologies - AI, robotics, IOT, quantum computing – will fundamentally change the way we work, live and play. But technology is ultimately just a tool. The critical question is how we can harness its potential to engineer solutions to improve lives.  

In the years ahead, there will be many complex challenges facing the world. Thinking long-term, one clear challenge that we must tackle is sustainability. Climate change and its impact on biodiversity are critical issues. The ongoing COP-26 has put an added spotlight on the urgency of tackling global emissions. There are many other global challenges, as captured by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And we are far from achieving the 2030 targets. The theme of this Summit – “engineering towards a post-pandemic sustainable world” – is particularly apt. 

I was almost an engineer. I had intended to study engineering. But when I received a government scholarship, they preferred that I study economics! But at the core of it, economics and engineering share a common purpose – to improve the human condition, while dealing with constraints. And I believe that the coming years will be a golden era for engineers to make major contributions to the world as we go through a period of rapid innovation. 

Over the years, I have worn many hats - driving innovation as Coordinating Minister of Economic Policies and Chairman of our National Research Foundation, allocating resources in the Finance Ministry, and nurturing our people as former Education Minister. Allow  me to share with you some of my thoughts on what could enable this era of engineering to flourish, from the perspective of each of my previous roles. 


My first point is from an innovation perspective – how a more integrated and inter-disciplinary approach is required to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. The term “engineering” was derived from “military engineering” in the 14th century, or the building of military machines. Over time, various branches of engineering developed, each with its own deep specialisation – mechanical, electrical, civil, computer, environmental, and so on. These deep specialisations have also resulted in deep innovation. But the boundaries around these various disciplines are blurring. 

As challenges are becoming much more complex, to tackle them effectively, we need a much more holistic and inter-disciplinary approach. Take the modern car. In the past, a car was primarily a mechanical engineering challenge. But the modern car is a computer on wheels, with up to 100 million lines of code – more than in some jet fighters. With autonomous vehicles, we can expect even more computing power and technologies packed into a vehicle. Building cars of the future will be an integrated and inter-disciplinary endeavor.

This is also how we are approaching our national challenges under our Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 plans. As part of these plans, we have committed S$25 billion over the next five years. Beyond funding basic research, we have also organized our efforts around key domains – such as advanced manufacturing, health and human potential, and urban solutions. Sustainability is also a key area of focus, as we work towards making new technologies such as carbon capture and low-carbon hydrogen more feasible for scaling and adoption. 
In our universities, we are encouraging our academics to take an inter-disciplinary approach to teaching and research. Increasingly, it is not just about inter-weaving the various STEM disciplines, but also integrating the arts and humanities in our work. Globally, we are seeing a growing interest in moving from STEM to STEAM. We are also encouraging our researchers to collaborate with their peers from other institutions, within Singapore and globally. I am very happy to see many of you online, joining from different parts of the world. To better translate research into outcomes, we are also strengthening the linkages between industry, academia, and government. 

By working together, we make the most of our effort and resources. I encourage all of you, including our friends from abroad, to be part of this collective innovation journey, as we engineer new solutions in a post-pandemic world. 


My second point is about resources.  The hard truth is that needs and wants are unlimited, but resources are finite. In a market-based economy, resources and attention gravitate towards where the greatest returns are. This is how we achieve the greatest efficiency. In engineering, this often means developing cutting-edge products or building new infrastructure. Existing products and infrastructure that keep us going tend to draw less attention, until it is too late. Maintenance is not glamorous. But as we build new skyscrapers, we must not forget the plumbing and the utilities network that keeps it functional. 

Keeping existing infrastructure going is often more complex than we give our engineers credit for. Even as we build more and greener data servers to meet the growing appetite for data, we must also remember that some of the most critical systems around the world are still on mainframe. This means that some engineers would need to know COBOL, as this is the computing language that mainframes are coded in. Beyond understanding the new possibilities of cloud computing, we must also know the limitations of mainframes.  

Unlike data servers, most of the physical infrastructure that we live in today have been built over many decades. In many countries, the lack of maintenance over the years has led to major problems. In the US, President Joe Biden described some of the existing infrastructure as “crumbling”. Climate change is also accelerating the erosion of existing infrastructure. Melting permafrost due to global warming is damaging roads and buildings. Singapore is a relatively young nation. Most of our infrastructure is only a few decades old. But some of the infrastructure is starting to age, and we too will have to devote more resources and attention to them. 

We must renew our efforts to think about our infrastructure on a lifecycle basis. Design for maintainability is an approach that we must give much more weight to for new projects. Maintenance is not just an afterthought, but a critical aspect for owning an asset. We must also design our infrastructure and capital assets to minimize our carbon footprint, and future-proof designs. Designing for the long-term will lead to higher upfront cost, but this could well be more economical over the entire life cycle. 

What I have just set out relates to new projects, but there are many existing infrastructure that will be with us for a long time. Let me take this opportunity to commend our engineers who are maintaining our existing infrastructure. Thank you for keeping the lightbulbs going and the pipes flowing. I also commend your efforts to place greater emphasis on designing for safety, as we saw in your Vision Zero pledge earlier. The work that you do is important, although it is sometimes underappreciated. It is important for us to recognize our engineers’ contributions. I hope too that our engineers will continue to raise their skills level, so that they can make the most of the assets that they are operating. 


This brings me to my third point – our people. We must continue to inspire the next generation of engineers to pursue their passion.

This starts from a young age, by providing our next generation with a strong foundation in STEM education, and to encourage them to pursue their interest in the wide range of STEM disciplines. To inspire the next generation of engineers, it is important to go beyond the classroom. I am glad that schools are offering applied learning programmes in STEM, and we can pique students’ interest through maker fairs and other activities. There are also many competitions that encourage our students to develop peaks of excellence, including the Science and Engineering Fair, National Robotics Competition, and the Engineering Innovation Challenge. For many, concepts like robotics, AI or materials engineering are not as relatable. By exposing them to these fields in their schooling years, we can evoke a sense of curiosity, and spark an interest in these areas from an early age.  

We must also make a concerted effort to empower women to pursue STEM careers. Around the world, there remains a persistent gender gap in STEM participation. In Singapore, the situation has improved over time, but a disparity remains. In addition, fewer women who graduated in STEM pursue a career in a related field compared to men. We are doing more to encourage women participation. President Halimah Yacob launched the POWERS Programme earlier this year, to create a supportive eco-system to build the next generation of women leaders in STEM.  There are also many other ground-up efforts. In East Coast, we launched a bursary this year to support women who are pursuing their studies in STEM. 

More broadly, a good network of role models can inspire and support the next generation of engineers. Many of our institutions of higher learning are already doing this, connecting their students to industry mentors and alumni. IES is also doing good work in this area. Your Incubator and Accelerator grooms startups in engineering and deep tech, with mentoring as an important pillar of the process. I encourage more of you to step forward and play a part in shaping and inspiring the next generation of engineers. 


Let me conclude. It is a very exciting time to be an engineer. I just shared my thoughts on what could enable this era of engineering to flourish – through a more integrated and inter-disciplinary approach to innovation, by focusing as much on the existing as we do on the new, and by inspiring the next generation of engineers, including women. 

This World Engineers Summit hosted by the Institution of Engineers provides an excellent opportunity to explore how we can do each of these three areas better, and to discuss many new areas. With so many esteemed engineers from all over the world at this Summit, I trust that your curiosity and ingenuity will spark fresh ideas for new pathways and breakthroughs. Let us take this opportunity over the next 3 days to exchange perspectives, forge collaborations and deepen partnerships.  

I wish all of you an enjoyable and fulfilling conference. 

Thank you.