‘Deep’ Engineering: an Endangered species in Singapore?

I just got off a call with a certain Google executive looking at merger-and-acquisition opportunities in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. Google tends to prefer deals that feed into search, traffic and user generation of content. After hearing about Google’s acquisition strategy, I found myself having to come up with something smart to say after running out of interesting startups to talk to him about. In the end, the executive I was on the line with concluded that “price would not be a problem if we like their technology”.

My girlfriend always complains that I am too much of an optimist. At the end of the call, I was not convinced that Google would find anything they like in Singapore. Sure, Google has exceedingly high standards – evidenced from their exacting recruitment process, as well as the empty post for Head of Google R&D in Singapore (for the longest time). But as the wise old Chinese men would like to say, 无风不起浪 (there’s no waves without wind).

Fact: ‘Deep’ engineering has become an endangered species in Singapore.

(Hold a sec, a species can only be endangered if it was in abundance before.)

Fact: ‘Deep’ engineering in Technology, Media and Teelcommunications never existed in Singapore.

Historically, Singapore relied heavily on entrepot trade, and till today, continues to rely heavily on exports refining imported goods. Shipping transshipment, finance, services, manufacturing, – although the economy continues to power on strongly, it has been achieved through increasing its factors (create more jobs, increase productivity). The kind of ‘deep’ engineering responsible for creating the intellectual property powering the addition of the majority of new entrants into 21st-century’s million/billionaire club is simply not present in our tiny island.

And understandably so. With no natural resources, it would not make sense to adopt a strategy of organic invention/creation at the onset of the island’s independence. We ended up taking other people’s platforms and building upon them, offering services and refined products and manufactured goods.

World-class technology companies rely on ‘deep’ engineering to give them the competitive edge and allow them to stand up and be counted. Singapore was like a startup that had to bootstrap itself onto the global economy in order to survive – there was hardly any breathing space for anything else but jobs, housing, education and defense, much less invention.

Nevertheless, now that we have arrived, shouldn’t more effort be placed in examining its missing puzzle piece? This is not solely a matter of economic concern. I believe it is also a matter of national pride and identity (or lack of therein). I bet you Singaporeans would feel a whole lot prouder of their country if Apple was from Singapore. Creative used to own that spot in the hearts of Singaporeans. How many more years of patience must we have before the next Creative emerges?

A friend of mine lecturing at a local university once lamented to me the comparatively lower quality of engineering students here versus our peers at the college we both went to in USA. It’s no secret that the median admission scores of students selecting NUS School of Computing have been dropping year on year. The good students who stumble into engineering out of passion end up realizing the lack of well-paying and challenging engineering jobs, and choose to either leave Singapore or join the financial sector for the pay. MNCs have trouble sourcing for good engineers from the local pool that our universities contribute to, and end up importing from India, China and even Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Singapore is definitely racing to the bottom, as far as engineering is concerned.

Flip open the newspapers, or search on the Internet, and you’re bound to find a whole lot that is going on in the innovation, intellectual property and startup space (A*STAR, IDA, MDA, EDB, Spring Singapore, IE Singapore), but imho they are all 一盘散沙 (a pan of loose sand). Centralized and concerted effort with direct and appropriate KPIs needs to be adopted with regards to innovation and value-creation, across all government agencies. Efforts need to be more encompassing, extending from supply (startups themselves) and demand-side (users) to include the schools. Our kids need to feel passionate about IT and its explosive ability to create value, from zero to hero in a few years, instead of viewing it as low-level work to be outsourced to China and India.

Bring the fun back into engineering among our youth, and pull out all stops to attract the brightest engineers abroad, and we might just have a fighting chance at ‘genetically-engineering’ the birth of ‘deep’ engineering on our shores. Of course, we always have the alternative, which is to keel over and stop trying.

But that would be very unbecoming of the Singapore Government, wouldn’t it? 🙂

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.