Thursday, 19 November 2020

Singapore needs top tech talent to build world-class teams, says PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore Tech Forum 2020

As foreign professionals enter, Singaporeans also have to feel assured of fair treatment, he says
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2020

Even as the local tech talent pool grows, Singapore has to bring in foreign professionals at mid-to senior levels to build world-class teams, grow the industry and tackle urgent problems, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

He acknowledged the sense of competition and discomfort that can arise from large numbers of foreigners in the industry, and said Singaporeans have to feel assured that they are fairly treated.

They must see that tech companies are bringing in people with expertise and experience, whom Singaporeans can learn from, he said.

Speaking at the Singapore Tech Forum that is being held virtually, PM Lee said that while the country has a supportive environment for technology in terms of infrastructure, the key factor is talent.

"We need more tech talent to grow the industry, and to tackle the urgent problems that we have and that tech can help us to solve."

Local universities and polytechnics are producing more graduates who are in demand, but companies also need to bring in overseas professionals at higher levels who are in short supply here, he noted.

Such professionals help create a virtuous circle by expanding Singapore's talent pool, raising standards and strengthening the tech ecosystem here, said PM Lee.

But he also noted that social frictions can develop, especially if there are large concentrations from a single source and there is an economic downturn. Such tensions are not unique to Singapore, he said, adding that the Government will do its best to address them.

He said foreigners must make the effort to fit in here, and at the same time, Singaporeans have to feel that they are not discriminated against.

"They have got to see the tech companies as bringing in expertise and experience, (and) building up the industry and capabilities," said PM Lee. "So that our own people can learn from them, upgrade themselves and eventually build up our own talent pool."

Singapore has done so in the past with the petrochemical, biomedical and semiconductor industries, he added.

He also held up the Government's new Tech.Pass work pass, which will allow foreigners to start and operate a business, serve on the board of a Singapore-based company or be a shareholder or investor in companies here. They can also take up lecturing roles, serve as an adviser to companies here and conduct corporate training. Candidates must show they are high-level tech professionals.

"The Tech.Pass scheme is aimed at highly accomplished tech talent, the movers and shakers of the tech world - people who usually play different roles at once: founder, investor, employee, consultant, academic. People who can contribute to multiple parts of the ecosystem with their capital, their networks, their knowledge," said PM Lee.

He added that unlike the Employment Pass where an individual is tied to a particular job or employer, Tech.Pass will be personal to the holder and allow them to move between roles and employers - a flexibility meant to make Singapore more attractive to such talent.

At the dialogue that followed, PM Lee was asked about challenges Singapore faces in realising its Smart Nation ambitions. While the "will" to transform digitally is present, the lack of talent is an issue, he said.

He was also asked about Singapore's approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, to which he said they are welcome here and their contributions are greatly appreciated, but that society is still conservative.

The four-day forum, which started yesterday, is organised by the Singapore Global Network and Government Technology Agency.

Technology is critical to Singapore's Covid-19 response: PM Lee
By Justin Ong, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2020

Technology has been central to Singapore's Covid-19 response, and more broadly to the Government's work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

PM Lee told a virtual audience at the Singapore Tech Forum that biomedical science has been key to understanding genomes and disease patterns, as well as developing tests and treatments.

Information technology has been just as critical, for tracking cases, analysing data, ensuring compliance with stay-home notices and doing contact tracing.

He recounted in his keynote speech how contact tracing during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 was manual and labour-intensive.

Covid-19 has involved much larger numbers and an urgent need to quarantine close contacts.

PM Lee pointed to three essential solutions developed by Singapore: the Bluetooth-based, open-source TraceTogether app and token, check-in system SafeEntry, and Vision, which integrated existing government databases to promptly issue quarantine notices.

"Our response was not flawless, we discovered many blind spots as we worked it out," he said. "Our IT systems in the Government had been built over the years, not all are fully up to date, and they don't all work seamlessly together."

He cited how some systems could be updated only three to four times daily, because they were still using older programmes like Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to transfer information in batches, instead of being continuously updated using current techniques.

"When cases are multiplying, all these delays and inefficiencies make a difference," he said.

New products like TraceTogether thus had to be rolled out in a viable, albeit "far from polished" state. But this showed Singapore's in-house capability - as well as the importance of enmeshing tech and operations work early on, while keeping the process iterative and adaptive, said PM Lee.

The even bigger lesson, he said, was the recognition of tech as a "command function" which all public service leaders must grasp and appreciate. "Enough" leaders will have to be able to provide technical leadership on complex engineering projects, while appreciating other social and policy aspects.

During a question-and-answer segment afterwards, PM Lee said the public sector's senior management was "fully sold" on the need to not just make use of tech but also change the way it does things.

"The will is there... but I still wish we could go faster," he added.

Singapore could rise to the challenge with the help of an environment that supports science and tech, he said in his speech at the forum organised by the Singapore Global Network and the Government Technology Agency.

PM Lee then identified four environmental factors in Singapore's favour.

To start with, Singaporeans are "tech-literate", with more smartphone accounts in Singapore than there are people.

There is also good infrastructure in place, with a nationwide broadband network providing high-speed Internet connection - a "lifesaver" for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers confined to their dormitories.

He noted the Government has also been building up its IT engineering capabilities, while building up Singapore's entire tech eco-system and digital industry.

"Many major tech companies are now based here and they're doing engineering work, not just sales and marketing," he said. "(They are) creating a vibrant industry cluster and good jobs for Singaporeans."

Tech is an area where Singapore can have a "natural strength" in, he added. "If we can get it into our systems - not just individual apps and programmes, but get it fully into our Government, into the private sector, into the way we operate and live, then it can be an enduring advantage for Singapore."

Tech.Pass: New work pass in Singapore for top-tier foreign tech professionals to launch in January 2021
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2020

A new work pass will be launched next year for top-tier foreign professionals and experts looking to start businesses, lead corporate teams or teach here, in a bid to woo these people to Singapore and develop its high-potential tech ecosystem.

The Economic Development Board announced plans on Thursday (Nov 12) to launch Tech.Pass, which is planned to put Singapore ahead in the global race to attract highly skilled technology professionals in fields such as e-commerce, artificial intelligence and cyber security.

Tech.Pass will be valid for two years, with a one-time renewal for a subsequent two years that will depend on certain criteria. Applications for the pass will start in January 2021, with 500 places available upon launch.

Having such experts in Singapore will not only allow them to bring their capital, networks and know-how to the country's tech ecosystem, but it will also create opportunities for Singaporeans too, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

"Tech.Pass will add to the critical mass of established tech talent in Singapore and create a flywheel effect to further strengthen our position as a leading tech hub for the region," said Mr Chan at the launch of Tech.Pass on Thursday at a dialogue with the European Chamber of Commerce.

The tech sector is poised to be a large engine of growth for Singapore, and a study done by Temasek, Google and consultancy Bain & Company published on Tuesday found that the country's Internet economy - or business conducted online - is on track to reach US$22 billion (S$29.7 billion) by 2025.

The same report noted that Singapore houses the highest number of headquarters for companies with a valuation over $1 billion among South-east Asian countries, including e-commerce platform Lazada and Internet platform Shopee owner Sea.

In order to be eligible for Tech.Pass, candidates must meet two of the three criteria: a last drawn monthly salary of at least $20,000 in the past year, at least five years of cumulative experience in a leading role in a tech firm with a valuation or market capitalisation of at least US$500 million or at least US$30 million funding and beyond, or at least five years of cumulative experience in a leading role in the development of a tech product that has at least 100,000 monthly active users or at least US$100 million in revenue.

With the work pass, these individuals can perform activities like starting and operating a business, serve on the board of directors of a Singapore-based company or be a shareholder or investor in companies here.

They can also take up lecturing roles in institutes of higher learning, serve as a mentor or adviser to companies here, and conduct corporate training or workshops.

For Tech.Pass to be renewed, pass holders will need to fulfil several requirements, which include having earned at least $240,000 in assessable income over the two years or demonstrating total annual business spending of at least $100,000.

The EDB will be administering the applications of the pass, with the support of the Ministry of Manpower, said Mr Chan.

Tech.Pass builds on the Tech @ SG programme, which spells out more flexible requirements for foreign professionals to apply for an Employment Pass (EP).

The EP is for foreign professionals who have a job offer here, work in a managerial, executive or specialised job, earn a fixed monthly salary of at least $4,500 and have acceptable qualifications.

Singapore is not alone in this quest to woo international top-tier talent, and Mr Chan noted on Thursday that many countries have their own schemes to compete for these people.

He said in Parliament last year that countries like Thailand, China and France are already making their pitch for highly skilled technology professionals, and cited how both France and Thailand have special visa programmes to make it easier for technology talents to work in their countries.

He had warned then that Singapore would "almost certainly be left behind" if it did not attract such talent too.

The EDB said in a statement on Thursday that both Tech.Pass and Tech @ SG allow fast-growing tech companies and established tech talent to enter Singapore and anchor themselves here, which is part of Singapore's multi-pronged approach to develop a strong base of technology companies and talent to ensure it remains globally competitive.

"This will also create more opportunities for local tech talent to work in globally competitive teams alongside top tech talent from all over the world," it added.

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