His worry: Is S’pore becoming high cost, low tech?

His worry: Is S’pore becoming high cost, low tech?

 

By Clarissa Oon

 

WHAT keeps pioneer civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow awake at night is the fear of Singapore becoming a high-wage and ‘not so high tech’ economy like London and losing its competitiveness.

 

The longtime advocate of technical education said Singapore must ensure its best and brightest continue to become engineers and not just bankers.

 

Mr Ngiam observed how Singapore started off in the late 1960s with low labour costs and low technology.

 

‘In the 1970s and 1980s, we moved to low cost, higher tech.

 

‘Today, the question I would like to pose is: Are we in danger of being high cost and low tech? That really gets me very worried at night.’

 

Wages in Singapore had gone up significantly over the decades, he said, but the level of technology not by as much.

 

In comparison, the high labour costs of many Western countries are offset by strong technological capabilities. He cited the example of Finland, where, he was told, ‘the engineer is more respected than the manager’.

 

His pet theory for the decline of the British economy is that ‘their best and brightest from Oxbridge, instead of going into engineering and running factories, went into the City of London’.

 

‘City of London – they are not creators of wealth, they are just shuffling assets around the place,’ he said dismissively.

 

The United States has overtaken Britain because ‘while some of their best went to Wall Street, their best still go into engineering, ‘ he said.

 

Mr Ngiam was a champion of technical education when he was Economic Development Board chairman from 1975 to 1981.

 

It was partly as a result of his lobbying during this period that Nanyang Technological University was born and the National University of Singapore expanded its engineering faculty.

 

Recalling those days, he said: ‘I used to tell everybody, what I want is 1,000 engineers, 5,000 technicians from the polytechnics, and 10,000 Institute of Technical Education workers.

 

‘You give me that, I grant you a job.’

 

Once they knew they could find trained manpower here, the multi-national companies flocked to Singapore, he added.

 

Mr Ngiam said the beefing up of technical education was very timely, ‘because now the world talks about global competition and a knowledge-based economy.

 

‘How do you become a knowledge-based economy, except through science and technology?’

 

As a result, if the cream of the education system goes into Shenton Way instead of the technology and industrial parks, ‘I think we are done for’.

 

Source: Straits Times

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