PM Lee Hsien Loong at Institution of Engineers, Singapore Golden Jubilee Gala Dinner

1 July 2016

Engineer Edwin Khew, President of the Institution of Engineers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the IES with you this evening.

One can argue that Singapore was built on the backs of engineers. Our education system has emphasised the study of mathematics, science and technical subjects. We have encouraged students to take up government scholarships to study engineering. And in the early years in particular, large numbers of our government scholars were in fact engineers. 

And engineers have built our basic infrastructure. Public health, housing, transportation networks, helped us to industrialised our economy. Helped us meet many national needs. 

But it is not just the specific skills of engineers which has made a contribution to Singapore. But also the discipline of engineering which make engineers valuable in many roles. Your analytical rigour, your discipline, your practical approach. Solving problems, not just describing them or lamenting them. Engineers, we believe are one of the most versatile professions. You can do many different jobs and in fact, you did do many different jobs all over our economy and society and government.

So our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to encourage young people to study engineering from the earliest days of our independence. And judging from the many whom are in this room, many of you took his advice and now have become role models in the profession and contributed outside of engineering, to the development of Singapore. Today IES is honouring two distinguished engineers in particular, Professor Cham Tao Soon and my colleague, Minister Masagos Zulkifli, both have made many contributions, not just as engineers and they are living proof, confirming the versatility and value of an engineering education.

I am also happy to present the awards for the 50 “Engineering Feats”. They reflect the many signal engineering achievements in our nation building journey. Making strategic breakthroughs, like with NEWater. Doing ambitious reclamation projects like Jurong Island and Pasir Panjang Port Terminal Phases 3 and 4. Improving our environment and quality of living, with ABC Waters, with My Waterway@Punggol or with Gardens by the Bay. Creating new devices like ThumbDrive or the Infrared Fever Scanning System adapted from military technologies that is now being used at checkpoints in many countries to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. So I congratulate all 50 award winners tonight.

As Singapore developed, we opened up more options and pathways other than engineering. Many of our students today study the humanities, business and finance. And it has become harder to attract outstanding students to study engineering and take on an engineering profession.

But we are doing our best to get people to come into engineering because it remains important to Singapore. Whether it is upgrading infrastructure to adapt to an ageing population or developing new solutions to overcome resource constraints or realising our version of a Smart Nation.

Engineering supports today’s economy and also supports our future economy. Particularly in the manufacturing sector which provides more than half a million jobs. But also using disruptive technologies, to create more opportunities and good jobs for Singaporeans.

But just as our economy has developed and become more sophisticated, so too has the practice of engineering, and we have to stay abreast of these changes. Traditionally, there were three or maybe four main fields of engineering, civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical. Now there are many sub-disciplines and specialist fields – aerospace engineering, biochemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, mechatronics. And innovation often comes from cross-disciplinary ideas. So if you are talking about user experience design, you need both design and engineering knowledge to improve the usability of the product. And you need engineers to also interact with non-engineers, business people, creative, design people, artists, in order to come up with solutions which solve human needs. 

We have made much progress with engineering, but we still have a long way to go. When it comes to building deep-sea drilling platforms, we have world class capabilities. When it comes to re-processing water, making NEWater, we are reasonably close to the leading edge. But in many other fields of engineering, even where we have developed competence, we are not at the cutting edge. For example, in industrial and precision engineering, the German SMEs – their Mittelstands – they are the world leaders and their students and their apprentices are amongst the most highly skilled in the world. In computer engineering, we have a very computer-literate society – everybody carries one handphone or more. But the deepest expertise is elsewhere. Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest IT talent from all over the world. And even in Asia, countries like China and India not only have larger pools of talent but deeper capabilities, and they have created IT firms that are world leaders, like Baidu or Infosys or Huawei. 

So we are working hard to build up our engineering talent and capabilities. And that’s why we promote STEM subjects in our schools – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. And more than 50% of our secondary schools offer applied learning programmes in STEM. This is also why we continue to invest in our Institutions of Higher Learning – to produce good engineers who are relevant to the industry and to develop curriculum and programmes that push the boundaries. So for example, to meet our transport engineering needs and to develop multi-disciplinary thinking, the Singapore Institute of Technology offers new degree programmes in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering and Telematics. 

So we are building up, training people, but having produced the people, we have to give them the experience and build up capabilities in the private sector but also in the public sector – establishing career paths to attract and retain good engineers, assigning challenging and meaningful work to sustain their interest, setting up Centres of Excellence for key engineering clusters and agencies like JTC and DSTA in order to deepen expertise. 

We are trying to also attract back home some of our good engineers who are abroad. In February, I was in Silicon Valley and met many Singaporean engineers based there who are in the top tech companies – Facebook, Google, Dropbox. In all the firms you find some. And they are not there because of the pay or the environment, but because they have something exciting to do and they hope to change the world. I am heartened that they expressed keen interest in what we are doing in Singapore and some have taken up our fellowships to come back for a few months, do a specific project, and hopefully find it congenial and I hope stay on longer than they planned. 

But beyond having good engineers, we need to develop the deep engineering capabilities and the complete thriving engineering ecosystem, with the Government, the private sector, academic institutions working closely together on complex engineering projects. We are doing some of these already – major infrastructure projects like the MRT lines, like Jurong Rock Caverns, like the Marina Barrage or the Marina Coastal Expressway, or projects like the Underground Ammunition  Facility, the Zero Energy Building @ BCA Academy. But we need to do much more to overcome our resource constraints and build a Smart Nation. Then, we can take engineering and Singapore further. 

The IES plays an important role and should play a more important role building up engineering in Singapore. You help to raise the profile and interest of engineering amongst students and I am glad you are awarding the scholarships to deserving and needy students. And I congratulate the recipients of the IES-SG50 Golden Jubilee Scholarships and the IES-Yayasan Mendaki Scholarships. 

IES also raises competencies and professionalism and supports professional networking of engineers. The Government values your advice and expertise, especially now that we are carrying out meetings with the Committee on the Future Economy. Most of all, I think IES can make a contribution by making engineering cool, so that Singaporeans will come to know that in Singapore, as an engineer, you can change not only our country but the world. So I hope IES will continue its good work and I am confident that the time will come when you celebrate SG100, your successors can say that you made a significant contribution to our journey as a Smart Nation.

So congratulations once again and thank you very much