SINGAPORE - Even as the local tech talent pool grows, Singapore has to bring in foreign professionals at mid-to-senior levels to build world-class teams, grow the industry and tackle urgent problems, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Nov 17).
He acknowledged the sense of competition and discomfort that can arise from large numbers of foreigners in the industry, and said Singaporeans have to feel assured that they are fairly treated.
They must see that tech companies are bringing in people with expertise and experience, whom Singaporeans can learn from, he said.
Speaking at the Singapore Tech Forum held virtually, Mr Lee said that while the country has a supportive environment for technology in terms of infrastructure, the key factor is talent.
"We need more tech talent to grow the industry, and to tackle the urgent problems that we have and that tech can help us to solve," he said.
Local universities and polytechnics are producing more graduates who are in demand, but companies also need to bring in overseas professionals at higher levels who are in short supply here, he noted.
Such professionals help create a "virtuous cycle" by expanding Singapore's talent pool, raising standards, and strengthening the tech ecosystem here, said Mr Lee.
But he also noted that social frictions can develop, especially if there are large concentrations from a single source and there is an economic downturn.
Such tensions are not unique to Singapore, he said, adding the Government will do its best to address them.
Mr Lee added that foreigners must make the effort to fit in here. And at the same time, Singaporeans have to feel that they are not discriminated against.
"They have got to see the tech companies as bringing in expertise and experience, (and) building up the industry and capabilities," he said. "So that our own people can learn from them, upgrade themselves and eventually build up our own talent pool."
Singapore has done so in the past, with the petrochemical, biomedical and semiconductor industries, he added.
He also held up the Government's new Tech.Pass work pass, which will allow foreigners to start and operate a business, serve on the board of a Singapore-based company or be a shareholder or investor in companies here.
They can also take up lecturing roles, serve as an adviser to companies here, and conduct corporate training. Candidates must show they are high-level tech professionals.
"The Tech.Pass scheme is aimed at highly accomplished tech talent, the movers and shakers of the tech world - people who usually play different roles at once: founder, investor, employee, consultant, academic. People who can contribute to multiple parts of the ecosystem with their capital, their networks, their knowledge," said Mr Lee.
He added that unlike the Employment Pass where an individual is tied to a particular job or employer, Tech.Pass will be personal to the holder and allow them to move between roles and employers - a flexibility meant to make Singapore more attractive to such talent.
At the dialogue that followed, Mr Lee was asked about challenges Singapore faces in realising its Smart Nation ambitions. While the "will" to transform digitally is present, the lack of talent is an issue, he said.
He was also asked about Singapore's approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, to which he said they are welcomed here and their contributions are greatly appreciated, but that society was still conservative.
The forum is organised by the Singapore Global Network and the Government Technology Agency.