SINGAPORE - A global race is on to attract a small group of highly-skilled tech professionals in such fields as artificial intelligence and cyber security, and "if Singapore sits back and does nothing, we will almost certainly be left behind", said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Monday (Sept 2).
Already, Thailand, China and France are wooing these experts, he added, citing how both France and Thailand have special visa programmes to make it easier for tech talents to work in their countries.
Mr Chan was giving the underlying reasons for the new Tech@SG programme, which facilitates the hiring of foreign talents by tech companies, in his reply to labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) who had asked whether there was a need for it.
Industries such as cyber security, artificial intelligence and big data analytics are referred to as deep tech industries. Together with related companies, it is the "linchpin for the future economy", he said.
"If Singapore sits back and does nothing, we will almost certainly be left behind. We have only a small window to build a critical mass of high-end professionals, start- ups and companies," he said.
"There will only be a few such nodes globally. How we (are doing) today will decide whether we make it as a tech hub, or not. We must move now, and move fast."
He also said Singapore needs to complement its workforce with these skilled foreign professionals to meet the demand for tech professionals from companies here as well as the Government.
Mr Chan warned that Singapore risks diminishing its "competitive edge" if it does not do so, adding that having workers from other countries will provide opportunities for, as well as encourage Singaporeans to come up with new ideas.
"In a world where multi-sectoral, cross-discipline and cross-cultural teams are increasingly common, Singaporeans must learn how to work with people from all around the world," said Mr Chan.
"This will increase their competitiveness as individual employees and make them more attractive to employers."
Who qualifies for Tech@SG
Mr Chan also announced that companies that apply for Tech@SG have to fulfil these requirements: be incorporated in Singapore; have a digital or technology offering; and have a business model built around proprietary technologies, research or hardware.
They also need to have secured more than US$10 million (S$13.9 million) in venture capital funding, and have - in the last three years - received funding from a venture capitalist that Tech@SG recognises.
With these requirements, the programme will help ensure the companies demonstrate a commitment and ability to build teams and products in Singapore.
Tech@SG was also prompted by feedback from high-growth tech companies.
Mr Chan said Alibaba, Grab, SAP and Taiger are among such companies with plans to expand significantly here.
Many of them have shared that being able to complement their local workforce with global talent is essential for quickly scaling up their operations according to their plans, the minister said.
The talents in big demand are professionals who can lead the development and roll-out of digital products globally, said Mr Chan.
"These are often people that can marry both technical leadership and commercial acumen, manage larger tech teams in the hundreds and thousands, and are highly valued because they are in short supply," he added.
In the short-term, these skills may come from global professionals, "but we must take a strategic view to reap the long-term rewards for Singaporeans", he said.
Singapore did it for the semiconductor industry in the 1960s when in three years, more than 7,000 jobs by three companies - National Semiconductor, Fairchild and Texas Instruments - were created, he noted.
"Today, we have a similar opportunity...but time is running out," he said.
Mr Chan also assured the House the Government is deeply cognisant of the fact that foreign talent is an emotionally-charged issue "because it concerns jobs and the kind of society we want to build in Singapore".
He added: "We will never stop putting Singaporeans at the heart of everything we do and will continue to develop every Singaporean to their fullest potential so that they can fulfil their aspirations and seize opportunities in Singapore and beyond".