Engineering matters for Singapore's future, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

(Front row from left) Mr Edwin Khew, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Kenneth Gin at the IES 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner on July 1, 2016.
(Front row from left) Mr Edwin Khew, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Kenneth Gin at the IES 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner on July 1, 2016.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Singapore has boosted its water supply through water-recycling and also increased its land area by reclaiming land, all feats accomplished by engineers.

And engineering will continue to be important for Singapore's future, as the country works towards becoming a smart nation and overcoming its lack of resources, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore.

In a speech that dwelled on the key role engineering played in the country's early years, Mr Lee also outlined the current challenges of building up talent in the field and keeping abreast of the changes in its practice.

Mr Lee said the Government started giving out scholarships for young people to study engineering so that the country could develop basic infrastructure such as transport networks and industralise its economy.

Singapore's early leaders also believed that the study of engineering developed analytical rigour, discipline and problem solving skills.

"One can argue that Singapore was built on the backs of engineers," he said.

But Mr Lee noted it has become harder to attract outstanding students to study engineering and take on engineering jobs, as many now gravitate towards the humanities, business and finance.

Engineering jobs have been among the top professional occupations with the most vacancies for the past few years. In the past year, Mr Lee has spoken up about the need to grow Singapore's pool of engineers and to rethink the value of engineering and what it means.

Engineering has also evolved beyond its traditional areas of chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical to specialist fields like aerospace and biochemical engineering.

While Singapore has world-class capabilities in building deep sea drilling platforms, "in many other fields of engineering, even where we have developed competence, we are not at the cutting edge".

For instance, even though Singapore is a very computer-literate society, the deepest expertise is elsewhere as Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest IT talent from all over the world, he added.

That is why schools here are promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the public sector has introduced new career paths for engineers to retain and attract talent, Mr Lee said.

In April this year, the Government announced that the public sector will boost the salaries of its engineers and provide them with a clear road map of career advancement.

Singapore needs 1,000 more engineers each year over the next few years to keep public infrastructure projects going.

A number of awards were given out at last night's gala dinner. Former president of Nanyang Technological University Professor Cham Tao Soon received the Lifetime Engineering Achievement Award, while Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli was made and Honorary Fellow of the Institution.