Singapore needs 'Jedi Masters', not 'Jedi Master' companies

A man passes a Google signage outside their office in Singapore, on May 24, 2019.
A man passes a Google signage outside their office in Singapore, on May 24, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Economic Development Board (EDB) continues to use an outdated playbook of lucrative grants and incentives to lure foreign tech firms to the island (Singapore chases tech 'Jedi Masters' to groom budding talent, May 25).

This strategy worked well in the late 1960s when Singapore was one of the pioneers in luring semiconductor and disk drive manufacturers to invest in the country. It triggered the electronics industry boom and propelled the nation to become one of the four Asia dragons characterised by an export-oriented economy.

By the 2000s, most of these manufacturers had left Singapore, preferring lower-cost countries such as Thailand and China.

Over the last 30 years, these "Jedi Master" companies never transferred the deep engineering know-how to the local talent.

Today, EDB hopes that new "Jedi Master" companies, such as Facebook, Google and Dyson, will do so and elevate Singapore into a global tech hub.

Meanwhile, unlike Singapore, two of the Asia dragons, South Korea and Taiwan, are still semiconductor success stories today.

The reason? The semiconductor industries in these markets are driven by local companies such as Samsung and Hynix for South Korea and TSMC and UMC for Taiwan.

Singapore's future depends on investing in local companies and helping them become successful globally.

Getting a foreign "Jedi Master" like chief executive Piyush Gupta to run DBS Bank helped propel it to become one of the best banks in the world.

Similarly, the Government should buy over Hyflux, a key local company with strategic water treatment technology, and appoint a foreign "Jedi Master" who can help it compete globally.

The money from hefty incentives used to lure foreign firms is better spent on such foreign "Jedi Masters" who can help run our local companies and take them global.

Liu Fook Thim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore needs 'Jedi Masters', not 'Jedi Master' companies'. Print Edition | Subscribe