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Friday, November 08, 2013

Why Singapore doesn't value its engineers

Yawning Bread is one of the more well-read blogs in Singapore, from what I can see. His commentary is very interesting and often thoughtful, although it’s a little too anti-government for my liking. Recently he wrote about a topic which is close to my heart - why Singapore does not value its engineers. Or maybe you "value" them but you still treat them like shit. I’ve worked in Singapore for quite a few years as an engineer. I never wanted to be anything else, not for the money. Maybe it would have been nice to have a few people reporting to me, but it would have to be engineering. Maybe operations. Not finance, not medicine, not law. All that shit doesn’t interest me. I know a lot of people love that shit, but I’m not interested in things just because people are interested in them.

Engineers are the drivers of the economy. The UK is run by the bankers, and Germany is run by the engineers. Whose economy is flourishing now?

The structure of Singapore’s economy
It was a mixed blessing that our early forefathers identified as one of Singapore’s main pillars of economic growth foreign investment by big multi-nationals. It was good for us because it ensured a good and steady rate of economic growth. But the problem is that as a result the local enterprises were not well developed. In fact, I think that the government may have tried to stifle it. There were the government linked companies, and they were allowed to grow. The rest – either the government consciously or otherwise smothered it to death or they didn’t care about it. I think that the early generation PAP was quite jealous of power, and they weren’t going to encourage a large enterprise that could rival it for power. If Singapore had a Google, I’m sure that Google would be as powerful as the Singapore government.

Whatever it is, the conditions for entrepreneurship did not exist, it did not get developed. In spite of everything, there was a success story in Sim Wong Hoo. They tried to get him lim kopi by the internal security department, but to no avail. When he was head to head against Apple (remember the Creative media player vs iPod?), they didn’t try to back him to the hilt (to be fair that would be like the US government backing Apple.) And like most people who come up against Steve Jobs, he lost.

But what would it have been like if Singapore had tried to build a success story out of Creative media? Anyway, I don’t think that he has been treated very well.

Singapore is rated very highly as a good place to do business. That sounds good, but in reality it’s not that great. It also means that if you’re a foreigner, you can set up your business here, and everything will revolve around what you need, and if any of the pesky Singaporeans try to be your business rivals, we will swat them down.

And that is why Singapore leads a neo-colonial existence. In place of the old British colonial masters, our new masters are the multinationals. Squelch dissent, squelch competition. When are you going to stand on your own two feet?

The other aspect of the Singaporean economy is related to the first point, that of attracting multi-nationals. Singapore has tried to be a headquarters for business, trade and finance. Which is OK when you are dealing with things like dealing with the Malaysians and the Indonesians – all that minerals and logging, when they need banks and transport and what not, we can serve them.

As a result, this place is run by banks. It is run by the foreign multinationals. It is definitely not run by local engineers. And that is a shame, because banks can only make money by taking a cut of everybody’s takings. They don’t produce something from nothing, like engineers do. And if they do produce something from nothing, that’s something you have to be very wary of because it means they’re highly leveraged. They can only make money by taking interest off peoples’ loans, dumping toxic assets on other people, or jacking up the prices of real estate or other essential materials for obscene profits. They’re not actually beneficial to society at large.

The colonial aristocratic mentality
The other reason why engineers don’t get a lot of respect is because there is an attitude that they’re just there to serve the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats rule in Singapore, and that is how they got the intuitive notion that any monkey who has proven himself as a manager in another domain of expertise can simply swoop in and manage a bunch of engineers who have been dealing with their own respective problems for much of their lives.

This attitude was less nonsensical in the good old days when engineering was a relatively simple affair, but it makes less sense now. Some people have the great misfortune of having to not only do their projects, and manage their own projects but spend time explaining what they’ve done to a manager who’s so retarded that the explaining takes as much time as the project. Because he’s the “managerial calibre" and you’re not. These people are the destructors of productivity.

The best managers are invariably the people who have spent some time doing the work at the entry level. And there are good managers of technical staff who instinctively know when to defer to their advisors and what decisions to make. But everything else being equal they are at a disadvantage.

Singapore is too small
A great engineering scene, unfortunately depends on there being a critical mass of engineers who can work on a project. Engineers from a region can work on one small component, and they’ll meet up with engineers from another region who can work on another component. These things pile up and coalesce into greater innovations. Singapore is just a city. It is not a country with many cities, each of which has a niche of its own. LA is the creative arts epicenter. Silicon Valley is a startup incubator. Seattle is a great business headquarters. NYC and Chicago are big financial centers and centers of culture. Each city specializes and build up their special niches. These special niches interact and combine with each other to form something bigger.

Singapore? It will have to decide what it wants to be good at. But in many important ways it is isolated. China can build a great manufacturing center because it has critical mass. Any part can be bought from any supplier. Building such a complex manufacturing system is not easy. Singapore has to ship the parts from Indonesia or Malaysia or wherever and that is not easy. When it comes to innovation and IT the story is the same. When Paul Maritz flew to Singapore to give a talk it was such a big event because he had flown all the way. In Mexico we had famous professors from all other parts of the US come in on a weekly basis.

Another advantage of being from a big country is that you have a big domestic market. That means your business can grow to a critical size before it has to expand across international boundaries. In contrast, Singaporean businesses have to go international pretty quickly.

Foreign talent
In the end, a disproportionate number of engineers are foreigner Singaporeans. When I was in a local U taking graduate classes in engineering I was very dismayed at the great proportion of students who were foreign born. I was disappointed that while I think the gahment is keeping its promise that 80% of undergrads of local unis are Singaporeans, that doesn’t seem to apply to postgrad degrees. Maybe Singaporeans thought they should pursue these degrees overseas. (I own up to being one of them.) Maybe the govt applied the admission criteria too rigidly and didn’t favour the locals, in which case only the PRCs with their perfect GPAs would get through. But I was also disappointed that Singaporeans did not opt in large numbers to get a masters or a PhD in engineering because they didn’t think that it would make them a lot of money. Many of them would prefer an MBA.

Mistaking academic results for actual achievement
In Singapore there is a premium placed on people getting a good degree with honours. And there is a correlation between this and what they go on to achieve in life. But it’s not as strong a correlation as you might think, and a lot of people who did well in school are not always likely to be the pathbreaking breakers of rules who invent something truly different. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergei Brin and Larry Page were all dropouts. Would Singapore have tolerated them? There was a teacher who said that he liked a section of his students who got lousy grades, because they were usually rebelling against the rigidity of the system. School is an enterprise which rewards conformism, and maybe that’s why the Singapore cabinet is made exclusively of people who excelled in school. There are exceptions, but the ones who excel in school tend to be followers of rules.

Deep anti-intellectualism
Maybe this is something that takes place in the manufacturing and transport sectors. Maybe this is a feature of blue collar jobs, that the eggheads who enter these sectors are just asking for punishment. So this is not uniquely Singapore. But nevertheless it is a big pain in the ass when your ideas get pushed aside unless they get endorsed by an external agency or somebody important enough. Singaporeans tend to be conservative, and a lot of East Asian societies tend to be conservative. It is not always a conducive environment to stand out, and you need a thicker than average skin to stand your ground.

Let’s put it this way. Some of the most important and productive things that I did in my career, I had to do it over the strenuous objections of my superiors. I managed to accomplish those things when their backs were turned, and only after that did they see the value in my approach.

Then there are the innate things that make America a great place for innovation and entrepreneurship. For one, their venture capital system is one of the best, having nurtured many big startups into maturity. Venture capitalists are important because they have to pick good ideas and they need to have as good business acumen as the founders themselves. Of course this is an aspect where the economics of scale plays a good part.

Then there are the other things such as tolerance of failures and the openness of American society – at least in the more liberal parts.

For whatever reason, the Americans have a great record at innovation that Singaporeans may yet one day learn from (it hasn’t happened yet).

The more observant readers will notice that I have talked about the prestige of engineers almost interchangeably with the quality of a good startup scene. This is not an accident. If you have a country that has produced Google and Apple, then engineers will be held in high regard. You will have good and real engineering work – the type that pays well, the type that is rewarding and produces great benefits. Otherwise you get engaged in Sisyphean tasks that make your life look like a pathetic waste of time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Chinese/Indian/Indonesian engineers try to think out of the box, they are being naughty, they need to follow how things should work in SG, or they get punished, when Angmos from MNC think out of the box, they are creative. But 80% of engineers are foreigners, mostly from poor countries, who get snubbed. How can SG become innovative?!

Silicon Valley is magical because it is the first place in US where at least Asian entrepreneurs get treated like their own for being weird.

10:10 AM