Thursday, July 24, 2008

ST: Expect high leakage of engineers

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Expect 'high leakage' of engineers

TRAIN more engineers and expect a 'high leakage' of these desirable talent into other industries, said Mr Philip Yeo.

It's inevitable because 'their skills of logical thinking and analysis can be applied to any field', he added.

Mr Yeo should know. An engineering graduate from the University of Toronto, he has held various public sector portfolios.

He was a Defence Ministry permanent secretary. He was also chairman and then co-chairman of the Economic Development Board from 1986 to 2006.

He was also chief of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and is now the Spring Singapore boss.

He argued that engineers can easily cross over into finance, but not the other way round.

But what's happening today is that bright A-level students are heading into finance, an industry where he felt young people are 'grossly overpaid'.

He warned that the 'penalty will be felt years down the line'.

In contrast, Germany values engineers.

'It comes from a tradition in which you value people who can make and sell things.'

The solution: Reward engineers well, and make the industry attractive.

For now, a PhD graduate in mathematics can earn much more at a hedge fund instead of as a researcher, he said.

Singapore trains about 4,400 engineers a year at the universities here, he noted.


Is the solution really to train more Singaporean engineers when more of them are crossing over to non-engineering sectors of the economy? When more people cross over, this means that the market doesn't really need so many engineers. Also, companies won't pay engineers more simply because someone says so, even if that someone is Philip Yeo.

The comparison with Germany is not really suitable. The kind of engineering jobs we have in Singapore are mainly the repetitive low-level technical types, those that can and will be outsourced to China. On the other hand, a good deal of those in Germany are those that involve tailoring the product for the customer. Those jobs in Germany require a great deal of technical proficiency whereas the ones in Singapore are mainly the Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V types.

Take for example, the field of electronics. Although Singapore has a large microelectronics industry, most of the equipment is imported from overseas. If a machine breaks, they'll just fly in someone from the US to fix it. Singapore doesn't make high-precision optics; countries like Japan and Germany do. Because most Singapore engineers don't make or design things like high-precision optics, they stand to lose their jobs in the next 5 years to some guy in Vietnam or China. On the other hand, German or Japanese engineers have a lot more job security because they perform precisely those kind of services.

Rather than increase the number of engineering graduates, I believe that better solution would be to cut the number of engineering graduates and instead, focus on improving the quality of the education and training engineers receive in Singapore. In Germany and many other European countries, engineers undergo a very rigorous technical training and their degree courses take 6 years. Competition to gain entry to engineering institutions is fierce and engineers are very well-paid. In Singapore, people with C's for A-level are dumped into the engineering schools of NTU in the mistaken belief that the more sub-par engineers we have, the better off we are.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ST: Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds
By Zakir Hussain

MR HECTOR Yee, one of three public-sector scholarship holders who were named and shamed for breaking their bonds 10 years ago, now works at Google's headquarters in California.

So does Mr Philip Yeo consider him a loss to Singapore?

Clearly not, suggests his answer to the question. In fact, he is glad Mr Yee is not here.

Mr Yeo, chairman of Spring Singapore, is well-known for taking a tough line against government scholars who do not return to serve a single day of their bond.

Mr Yee, now 32, was such a bond-breaker. He had accepted a scholarship from the National Computer Board (NCB) to do an undergraduate degree in computer science at Cornell University in the United States.

In 1998, when he was 22 and about to complete his four-year course, he decided to stay on - sparking a controversy when his name was made public.

The issue was widely debated in the press and in Parliament.

Recalling the incident yesterday, Mr Yeo said: 'He wrote back by e-mail: I'm not coming back because I want to stay in America for the next 15 years. I see my role in life to serve the world and not Singapore alone.'

Then, in a typical no-holds-barred retort, Mr Yeo added: 'What bullshit is that, right?

'I don't think he's a loss. Thank goodness he's not here.'

Mr Yeo then went on to explain what got his goat.

'It's the attitude,' he said.

Mr Yee had asked for - and was given - an extension of one year to do a master's degree. But he later said he was considering a PhD after that. NCB advised him to get work experience first.

He then broke his bond.

Mr Yeo, then chairman of the Economic Development Board, had warned that bond-breakers would be named in public as a deterrent because of their growing numbers.

He remains adamant that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

Mr Yeo was himself a Colombo Plan scholar who did engineering at the University of Toronto in Canada. He returned in 1970. 'Because we are forced to come back, we helped build Singapore.'

To further underline his point, he gave this example: 'I got 100 scholars. I allow one to stay for five, 15 years, I make a mockery of the 99 guys who come home.

'At the end of the day, there's a thing called equity. If you don't want to have the obligation, don't take the scholarship...Borrow from Citibank if you want to.'

Philip Yeo's view on scholarship bond breakers are well-known but I'll just comment on one of them: namely, that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

I'm not really sure about the cogency of this argument. Government scholars who break their bonds usually pay the monetary penalty (principal plus interest which is above the prime rate). So, where is the actual loss to the taxpayers? PRC students absconding to the US without serving a day of or paying off their bonds are a greater loss to the Singaporean taxpayer.

Also, it's not as if the government had to cut social welfare spending in order to fund the scholarships. For some reason, I'm not convinced that the we would have fewer septuagenarians collecting old cardboard boxes in Singapore if Hector Yee didn't break his bond or that when he paid off his scholarship bond, the sum was paid back with interest to the taxpayers.

Now, if people are breaking their scholarship bonds, doesn't that suggest that there is something wrong with the scholarship-awarding organization? If your employees are resigning left and right after one month in your company, I think you should examine your HR policies rather than call people ungrateful. Maybe you shouldn't award so many scholarships.

Or even have a scholarship scheme in the first place.

Or you can redirect the funds for scholarships towards raising starting salaries or improve staff welfare.

Or hire more competent HR officers.

Or re-examine your scholarship policies.

There are so many ways to skin a cat. Calling people immoral or ungrateful certainly isn't one of them.