Wake-up call for engineering industry

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's assessment last week of the state of engineering excellence in Singapore is a timely wake-up call for engineers in both the private and public sectors ("Engineering key to Singapore's future as smart nation: PM"; July 2).

We have some of the best engineering schools in Asia but few engineering achievements to match. Even in fields where we have gained competence, PM Lee noted that we are "not at the cutting edge".

As a retired engineer, these are my observations as to why our engineering is not at the forefront of things:

- A culture of risk avoidance in the public sector has dampened initiatives from the private sector.

- A lack of respect for innovation and innovative ideas.

Someone with a good solution to a problem will likely hesitate to discuss it with government agencies, for fear that his idea may be repackaged into a public tender if he shares it with them.

- A lack of a reward and recognition system that is commensurate with risk-taking.

In the private sector, if a company does well because of a bright idea from an engineer, those who benefit are the directors who hold large chunks of stock options. If his idea fails, the engineer is shown the door.

- A lack of confidence in engineers' ability to lead.

When public tenders that require multidisciplinary collaboration are called, architects are asked to lead even if the content of the project obviously requires an engineering rather than architectural solution.

- A culture that does not celebrate failure as the cornerstone of success.

Failure is failure, with no two ways about it. No wonder that bright young engineers tend not to become entrepreneurs but choose to work in the civil service, where the job is safe and the pay is good, or a multinational where there is an ethos embodied in the famous saying, "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm".

Unless we address these issues, even though investments in engineering hardware and software in our institutions of higher learning may produce brilliant graduates, they will be frustrated in their engineering career.

Lim Soon Heng