DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam's speech at the Singapore Computer Society 50th Gala Dinner and IT Leader Awards on 10 March 2017.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information,
Mr Howie Lau, President of the Singapore Computer Society,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, let me congratulate the Singapore Computer Society on its 50th anniversary. It has been a journey of transformation for the ICT industry, and for all segments of our society. SCS has been an active agent of progress in this journey, and a reliable, trustworthy partner.
I want to pay special tribute to the pioneering leaders of SCS. We just heard from Mr Michael Abrams by video, and have with us here past presidents, including Mr Wee Tew Lim who served for a long stretch in the 1980s. From training a pool of IT professionals when we barely had an IT industry in the 1970s to building the pipelines of talent to meet the growing needs of today’s digital economy, SCS has contributed significantly to Singapore.
We have entered a new phase in our economy, and indeed in economies around the globe. Digital technologies and businesses models are transforming every sector, from manufacturing to logistics, from finance to healthcare. And the digital economy is also constantly disrupting itself - just look at the churn of top companies in Silicon Valley.
However, we are still at an early stage of this new phase of innovation. While innovation is relentless among firms that are at the frontiers of innovation, progress has been slower for the much larger mass of companies that are not near the frontier. Indeed, the gap between firms at the frontiers and the rest of industry is widening. It is the case across the advanced world - in the US and Germany, for example, and in Singapore too.
That’s why, despite Moore’s law still being in play, productivity even in the ICT industry is not doubling every two years. But it is also why there is so much opportunity ahead - the opportunity to get many more businesses and workers to be part of the digital economy and adopt new technologies, and the opportunity to raise productivity and the incomes of the average worker.
Our strategies in Singapore, as seen in the recommendations of the Committee on the Future Economy, are therefore two-fold:
We are not starting from a position of weakness. We have some advantages. What the digital economy requires – a workforce well educated in math and science, fast and pervasive connectivity, a strong intellectual property regime and a cosmopolitan environment – are our strengths. The World Economic Forum places Singapore among the top seven tech-ready economies.
The digital economy also allows us to transcend constraints like that of land and human resources. That’s how other small countries like Sweden and Finland have been able to grow a vibrant ICT sector, comprising both small, globally competitive ICT firms and Unicorns. In fact, Stockholm has the highest number of Unicorns per capita in the world.
We are making good progress in Singapore, but there is still much that we have to do to develop the whole ecosystem for a digitally-advantaged economy. We have leading companies, local and MNCs, which have integrated Infocomm technologies in their business models. Some are close to the frontiers of innovation globally. But we also have a much larger group of SMEs who have yet to take advantage of ICT.
The ICT industry, just like our economic strategies as a whole, therefore has a dual mandate. We will know we are succeeding, first, when we see both a larger cluster of companies at the cutting edge of innovation, introducing new ideas and techniques for the region and users around the world. And second, when the use of ICT becomes pervasive, across the business sector and amongst the public. We have embarked on both strategies with vigour, and must succeed.
We must attract as well as grow companies at the cutting edge, creating new value in Singapore and internationally. We know we can achieve this, because there are already examples which show it can be done. We need more companies like Razer, which has built up a strong reputation for its gaming software and high-end laptops. More companies like V-Key, with its award-winning mobile security technology. And more companies like Hope Technik in robotics and high-tech engineering.
And we must also make ICT pervasive - not just the hardware, but the skilful integration of software and heart-ware into business strategy. We are putting much effort to help SMEs in this journey of digital transformation. Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim just announced the SMEs Go Digital programme earlier this week. SMEs Go Digital is not only about what the government will do to help SMEs to catch up with the digital age. More importantly, it is about how we will bring the expertise of our Infocomm media industry to bear on SME’s digital journey.
Let me share two aspects of the digital journey that will be critical to achieving our dual goals - i.e. both exceptionalism and pervasiveness of ICT in Singapore. The first aspect is internationalisation and the second, developing our skills.
The competition in the digital age is of course international. And it is mainly amongst cities, not countries. And it is not just against Silicon Valley, but cities across the world, like Seattle, London, Stockholm, Berlin and Amsterdam in Europe, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Bangalore and Sydney in the Asia-Pacific.
More, if not most, companies in Singapore must think regional or global from the time they are formed. This means that the moment companies architect solutions, they should already be thinking about scaling for global customers. The scale of Singapore’s domestic catchment may not even make some innovations viable at home.
Again however, we are seeing examples of even small enterprises going global early. CashShield is one of them. It has caught attention because it recently clinched the first prize in the Singapore founder category of the MAS FinTech Awards, and also won the most innovative Infocomm solution in the National Infocomm Awards. Justin Lie, the founder, is a finance graduate of the NUS Business School. He developed an automated fraud-detection solution using machine learning. But Justin also felt that it was difficult to expand the footprint of a local company building a product or service tailored to Singapore. So he decided to go global from day one. In fact, CashShield’s first customer was in Holland. They scaled up in Europe. Returned to market their solutions in Singapore. And now have a global network of clients spanning 20 countries.
Justin and CashShield’s story shows that there are really no real barriers to succeed in the global ICT business, as long as you are determined, original and international in your perspective. As Justin himself puts it, being exposed globally also has the added advantage of cultivating a corporate culture of learning how to survive in difficult environments.
Depending on the product or niche, the local market can be useful in establishing a base or track record. But we have to think global even while local. Our corporate culture has to be one of keeping a constant eye on how each product can be scaled up in regional or global markets.
We must create an environment where firms that are close to the global frontiers of innovation can thrive. DPM Tharman
We must create an environment where firms that are close to the global frontiers of innovation can thrive.
This leads me to my second point on people and skills. The demand for ICT professionals is expected to grow by more than 50,000 by next year. The shortfalls are in every area – such as network and infrastructure, IT development, data analytics and cyber-security. In sectors like banking and finance, the need is acute.
It is also not just a question of getting enough numbers of people. We have to build both quantity and quality. Truth is we are very short of quality coders, of quality in technical middle-management, and short of deep tech skills. Building both quantity and quality of talent - that’s our biggest challenge, and we must tackle it as our biggest priority.
Fortunately, there’s never been a more interesting time for someone who wants to pursue an ICT career. It is not just about jobs that are in-demand, but the excitement and satisfaction that comes from using ICT skills and entrepreneurship to transform businesses and transform the way we all do things. Whether it is data analytics, cloud, the internet of things or other areas, ICT is pushing out the frontiers of innovation across every sector, and also helping to uplift and energise the SME sector.
So I’m heartened that ICT has indeed become an attractive choice among tertiary students. The number of students admitted into ICT courses at local universities has increased by about 30% in the last five years . And the competition to get in is fierce – I am told the entry cut-off for computer science courses is now one of the toughest.
More critically, we are investing heavily in continual learning - early-career, mid-career and late-career. Since we launched the TechSkills Accelerator or TeSA a year ago, more than 10,000 professionals have benefited from its programmes. What heartens me is the way industry partners like the SCS have made this possible.
Last October, SCS has partnered with Workforce Singapore, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), NTUC and e2i to launch Career Compass. This is a sectoral initiative under the nationwide SkillsFuture Career Advisors Programme, where experienced professionals provide deeper mentorship and career advice to those looking at careers in ICT. To date, SCS has rallied 110 Fellows and senior members to provide this career mentoring.
It is also very encouraging to see how the market of training providers and employers is interacting, bringing skills closer to jobs, and quickly. Players like General Assembly use intensive immersion programmes to help individuals from diverse backgrounds to get up to speed in skills in demand in the market.
When you add all our talent development efforts together - starting with exposure to coding in schools, attracting Singaporeans into ICT fields in our tertiary institutions, developing them at every stage of their careers and encouraging those who want to make a mid-career switch - we are making a major effort to build and sustain a strong Singapore core in ICT.
But we will not be able to plug both the quantity and quality shortfalls in ICT manpower by relying on ourselves. We are doing a lot more to build our own timber, but we must also stay open to people from all over the world with expertise and track records. It requires a careful balance, which MOM, IMDA, MAS and our other economic agencies are very mindful of.
We have tightened standards for Employment Passes so as to manage the growth of the foreign workforce and ensure that Singaporeans continue to have opportunities for good jobs and careers. But higher standards for those coming from abroad do not mean turning inward. We will not succeed against the global competition in ICT if we do that, and will not succeed in transforming our economy and sustaining good jobs for Singaporeans.
The reality of the marketplace is that the best companies harness talents from a diverse pool, so as to stay competitive internationally and benefit from diversity itself. That’s also how Singaporeans get to be part of winning teams, and stay relevant in a competitive global field. Our approach to foreign expertise and skills must therefore be open but calibrated, so we can sustain those good careers for Singaporeans.
The ICT industry is embarking on a very interesting journey for itself and as an agent of change. We must encourage more Singaporeans to come on board: whether it is to develop deep specialist skills and be at the cutting edge of global innovation, or to be catalysts for transforming existing industries, or to help every segment of our society make the most of the digital age.
I would like to commend SCS for your fortitude and the energy you have put into the transformation of our ICT landscape over the last five decades. I am confident that we can achieve success in our next phase of transformation, and be a leading city of the digital age.
Explore recent content
More from Notes
Explore related topics