Is the engineering field a dead-end career in Singapore? Why?

Answer by Anonymous:

I, too, will answer this in the capacity of software engineering (and maybe even to the extent of electrical and computer engineering) as that's what I'm most familiar with. Also, I am making the assumption that you are referring to software engineering as well since the other engineering fields like civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, etc, are generally not perceived to be as dead-end as software engineering is in Singapore.

I would argue that software engineering in Singapore, at this point in time, is a dead-end career.

Singaporeans' Perception Of Software Engineering

Derrick Ko at Kicksend wrote a great blog post (…) about the state of engineering in Singapore. In that blog post, there was a quote from a post made by Member of Paliament Sim Ann and a reference to said post. The comments in that post were rather interesting. I quote Chen Chee Keong:

Programming is largely a tradeable job. It is almost impossible to protect the Singaporean programmers against competition from other programmers from lower cost countries. So we have to be realistic how much the company can offer.

The thing is, programming is not. The fact that this comment was made merely reiterates the backward mentality and perception Singaporeans still have towards software engineering. Never before has software been so pervasive in our lives. So what makes or breaks a company is the product itself and that is made by engineers, not managers, business people in suits who spout buzzwords, etc. A good product is engineer driven, with everyone else in support. Silicon Valley companies value that and it works for many companies (I might be generalizing a bit too much). If software engineering is still seen as something that can be outsourced, it implies that it is still a blue-collar job. That means that salaries will be comparable to that of blue-collar workers. Hardly prestigious as that in the Valley. With ever increasing year-on-year inflation and suppressed wages, it's no wonder people would rather enter management, finance or move out of Singapore to pursue software engineering. This brings me to my next point.


This is an interesting situation. Singapore does have the talent to build a vibrant startup environment. As stated by this recent TechCrunch article (…), we're very well poised in terms of regulations for startups but are rated poorly in the talent aspect. I would argue that we do have the talent but our talent pool is very poorly managed.

I'm currently a scholar studying Computer Science in America and I have to return to serve a bond in administrative work. That is something I loathe doing. I'm a builder, a creator, I want to help people by building software, not writing proposals and having unproductive meetings. Some of the brilliant engineers I know who are Olympiad champions and obtained scholarships to study abroad end up in the same situation as me, some even more so. After 5-6 years of serving our bond, we potentially get too settled into our careers and our career in software engineering ended the moment we left college. That is sad. The government has to realize that we do have the talent and that scholars can and should serve their bonds in other ways that are more relevant to their skill sets. A friend of mine, after learning CS and ECE at a prestigious technical university, and winning a few competitive programming prizes at ACM-ICPC, ends up in DSTA writing shell script. Such a waste of immense talent.

As for our homegrown talent in our local universities, I'm proud to say that we produce some of the best, and creative engineers I've ever seen. The most recent example is when a Singaporean team won first place at the 2012 hackathon (…). The team, mostly made up of NUS graduates, impressed Silicon Valley moguls with their app OMGHelp. While I'm extremely happy for them in their successful engineering careers, it saddens me to see that none of them are working in Singapore. They do not have the bond which scholars have and so are free to pursue their careers at greener pastures. I don't blame them as the Valley pays engineers a lot better than in Singapore (I've alluded to this point earlier in the post).

So where does this leave us? The government's scholarship system kills off engineering careers for many scholars whereas those that are not bonded leave the country in search of better career prospects. If we want engineering to not be a dead-end career, there has to be some success stories. Singapore needs it's own Mark Zuckerberg. Someone has to step up and spark a revolution and get every child who spends hours on their computer hacking instead of wasting their youth playing MapleStory. There has to be an ecosystem of some sorts that grows organically, by engineers, for engineers. I can now pirouette elegantly into my last point.

Ecosystem? What ecosystem?

Singapore is constantly chasing trends. We did that in manufacturing, then biotech, and now we're doing the same in tech. We're investing in startups in the Valley, enticing them to come over and set up offices in Singapore. You might argue, "But there is a Google office, Microsoft office, etc, in Singapore!" Yes, there is, but they are mostly sales and operations headquarters for Asia Pacific. Development is purely restricted to America. Nothing for engineers here, please come back another time.

Where are the engineering jobs? What about us? What about our people? If Singapore is serious about engineering or the tech industry, pursuing the FDI strategy is too short-sighted. We have to stop chasing the next big thing but leverage our talents and grow organically from there. It might not be startups, or biotech, or whatever, but maybe we should focus on what makes us Singapore and pursue that as a drive of economic growth. Korea and Japan did that with science and technology, Germany did that with engineering. I recall from my secondary school days (social studies, hurrah!) that Singapore adopted a diversification strategy when it came to the economy. It all seems like a "spray and pray" strategy to me right now. All the aforementioned countries played to their cultural strengths and succeeded in a particular area, I think we should hold up, take a look around, stop playing with economic indicators, and fix the economy in a practical way.

But, I digress.

A lot of us engineers want to pursue exciting careers in engineering in Singapore, startup great companies, be the next big IPO, change the world. We can create our own jobs for our own people. We don't have to rely constantly on Foreign Direct Investment, something which is detrimental to our economy in the long run. So, going back to software engineering (it can apply in any field, really), we should have an organic ecosystem, growing our homegrown talent, encouraging our engineering scholars to actually have some influence rather than have them do things that they are overqualified or uninterested in doing. We do have a small and growing group of tech entrepreneurs and hacker groups sprouting up but they need more support from the government, not just the occasional mention in The Straits Times. I can only see the country benefiting from this because we are utilizing our most precious resource, our people, in the best possible way.

Unfortunately, at the moment, we are not. We don't have best practices in place. A well known defense and aerospace engineering company has its engineers zip  source code, and email it to the next engineer who is working on that code. Only one person can work on that code at anyone time. Yes, that is how source control happens in Singapore. It's not even SVN (the horror!). My friend, during his internship there, suggested to his supervisor to set up a git server (duh, right?). You can guess what happened next. The supervisor rejected his proposal because he would have to obtain clearance from the higher ups to set up a server and that it would be too troublesome. D'oh. Stopped at the first level of bureaucracy.

Marc Andreessen said, software is eating the world, but Singapore would eat it first with all this red tape and silly backwards thinking. How can an ecosystem grow like this? I have no easy answer and I don't see this changing anytime soon.

I believe I have rambled enough. At this point in time, software engineering is a dead-end because of the same perceptions, mindsets and policies we have since 20 years ago. Nothing's changed. We can still outsource programming, no biggie. Without a solid, organic ecosystem, no jobs are created, our talent leaves, and the way people perceive engineering remain unchanged. It's a vicious cycle. I strongly believe software engineering and the tech industry can improve the lives of Singaporeans, create new jobs and potentially solve some of our economic problems, just as how the tech industry is keeping the American economy afloat, and it pains me to see Singapore miss this boat.

TL;DR: Yes. Because Singapore.

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