A new tech pass to attract special foreign talent to help develop an ecosystem for high tech industries was announced by the Government recently. As was reported, these FTs will be highly skilled individuals either brought in by companies investing here or individuals intending to build their own start-ups or the FTs will work for companies already operating in Singapore. The pass is tied to the individual who can move about taking on different jobs, or serve as advisor or director on the board of companies here.
The intention is to bolster the tech sector in areas such as Fintech, Medtech, Cleantech and Infotech. This is supposedly ‘a different kettle of fish’ and a category separate from the Employment Pass (EP) and Special Pass (SP). The tech pass imports are not meant to replace or deprive our local talents from opportunities in this sector.
While we do not wish to prejudge the effectiveness of this initiative, it is important that implementation of such a scheme is transparent and executed in accordance with its intent. Many well-meaning policies or schemes failed because they fell short during the execution phase. There should also be clarity in tracking the progress of the scheme. Notwithstanding that this is a different scheme compared to EP and SP, it is still necessary to rationalize these 3 schemes and bring about a healthy equilibrium in the PMET workforce. Given the general unhappiness among locals over the situation of PMET employment currently, they must be convinced that they will not be sidelined especially if there is little transparency on how these schemes pan out and the process involved in bringing another category of foreign talent onto our shores.
Since the basis of this initiative is to attract genuine talents that we lack, the obvious question beckons, “How do we ensure that we also groom our own at the same time?” Our universities and institutions of higher learning are ranked among the best in the world. It is therefore vital that they are primed to generate our own pool of such talents. This can only be done if there is a coordinated effort encompassing identification and prioritisation of programs, systematic training and R&D, ongoing incentives and support. The recent incident of a failed attempt to drastically raise the course fees of a Master in Technology program is a poignant reminder of the weakness in our system of taking a holistic approach in the larger canvas of grooming our home grown talents.
This tech pass scheme is supposedly to support or spawn the growth of high tech companies here. Presumably it is to address the challenges or create novel opportunities under the new normal. But the term ‘high-tech industries’ can be nebulous and wide-ranging. A new road map is needed to guide the type of talent we should attract, taking a more focused approach in building the industries we need. And this is important given that time is of the essence as we enter the next phase of our economic development post-Covid.
While there is a need to build strong ecosystems to support new industries, it will inevitably take time. On the other hand, the need for our own SMEs to get this kind of support is urgent and now.
In this respect, we must explore bold ideas. If the scheme aims to encourage foreign tech talents to invest in startups, why not take a step further to encourage such talents with entrepreneurial and tech skills to invest in our local companies to help them upgrade and move up and branch out to the region? They can be ‘tech entrepartners’ for our SMEs. To provide a sweetener to this initiative, Temasek or a government sponsored investment fund can perhaps play a role in co-investing with these foreign ‘tech entrepartners’. This will give a big boost to promising companies amongst our SMEs. It can make a significant impact in nurturing our SMEs as the backbone to our economy.
If we play it right, our SMEs will not only survive the storm but can instead grow and keep jobs as well as develop our core through partnering with these ‘foreign tech entrepartners’. It will be a win-win for all and certainly an important value-add to our economy.
To take this idea further, we can adopt a push and pull strategy to achieve this – create an attractive partnership scheme to entice the right talents for this ‘tech entrepartners’ initiative while at the same time seek out prospective targets from places like Silicon Valley to join the scheme. We must also allow free play of entrepreneurship between our local companies and prospective ‘foreign tech entrepartners’. The government should only be involved in facilitating the partnership and mitigating risks through direct investment.
Singapore needs a clear road map to steer our economy and tackle new challenges as well as to leverage on opportunities of the new normal. Once we have decided on which specific industries or businesses to help build, we can use the same approach to bring genuine talents to be the catalyst for our SMEs to address both our short term and longer term needs.
In any case, there is no question that we must double up our efforts to nurture our own talents and build our own core as they will be our long term pillars of the new normal.
Singaporeans deserve better!