Ex-GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong explains why we lack S'porean engineers

When this economist says something needs fixing, it better be fixed.

Jonathan Lim| July 18, 04:34 PM

Singaporeans lamenting about how they are losing IT and engineering jobs to their lower-paid overseas counterparts have long been a feature on forums such as Hardwarezone and Sammyboy.

However, these "complaints" were usually swept aside as unsubstantiated rants from keyboard warriors.

Well, Yeoh Lam Keong is not your everyday keyboard warrior.

The ex-GIC chief economist and adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy wrote a post on Facebook (Jul 18), explaining why Singapore has a dearth in good Singapore engineers and IT professionals and said that this "will take a decade of properly stringent professional immigration policy combined with the right industrial and education policy to fix."

Here's his post in full:

A Singapore Engineering Lament

Want to know the real underlying economic reason why we face a shortage of good Singaporean engineers and IT professionals?

Because we have been far too liberal in importing cheaper regional engineers and IT staff for over 2 decades. This has bid down the real wages and working conditions of such professions such that the return on investing in such a tertiary education and career is unattractive to locals.

20-30 years ago, some of the the best and brightest sought to study engineering. Now it's become one of the last choices. You can't blame our locals. It's simple labour market economics and rational human capital formation choice.

But it's had a huge negative long term impact on local industrial capability compared to other economies like Germany, Switzerland or Japan where good engineers still command a labour market premium and engineering continues to be a highly respected profession. They continue to lead the world in precision engineering and innovation.

This is also reflected in declining local engineering standards in the public sector for eg the SMRT and public housing lift maintenance as well as in the lack of private sector development of specialist engineering products and services. Why upgrade to these activities when we can do quicker operations based on cheap engineering labour and products?

It's also created a vicious circle where high end engineering firms now find it difficult to locate In Singapore unless they can hire foreign engineers.

And our leaders bemoan the shortage of good local engineers ? Sigh**

It will take a decade of properly stringent professional immigration policy combined with the right industrial and education policy to fix.

But fix it we must.

Yeoh is a contemporary of Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and he last made news after he wrote a widely shared rebuttal of DPM Tharman's speech (which was equally viral) made during GE2015.

Photo courtesy of KC Chew That's DPM Tharman on the left and Yeoh with his back facing the camera. On the right is KC Chew, the first Singaporean to attend Harvard College. Photo courtesy of KC Chew

In his 2012 interview with The Straits Times, he shared that one of his top worries for Singapore is whether its social policies are future ready.

He is worried about the delivery of public services in social security, housing, healthcare, infrastructure and education.

In the same interview, GIC's chief economist Leslie Teo told ST: "Lam Keong was never afraid to speak his mind even if his views were not popular or politically correct; he was not afraid to explore new and unconventional ideas. He always stood apart from the prevailing culture of the industry - big money, flashy, top of the world - by his concern for the average person and his simple tastes."

If Yeoh is right -- that it will take a decade of professional immigration policy combined with the right industrial and education policy to fix our lack of engineers problem -- Singapore is in for a rough decade ahead.


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