Singapore is looking for foreign help to build its Smart Nation

Financial incentives for tech professionals to go to Singapore

Singapore wants more data scientists, engineers, and technologists to come to the country and work. To this end, it has launched the Smart Nation Fellowship programme, led by the country’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and tied into the government wider Smart Nation agenda.

The fellowship is inviting tech professionals from anywhere in the world to come to Singapore and work for three to six months on government projects like data analytics for fighting financial fraud or optimising data on public transport. Other projects include the development of the country’s open data portal.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is quoted as saying he wants to make Singapore a smart nation “where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology”. The initiative encourages governmental agencies to release their data into the public domain and the development of public services apps for transport and health as well as hackathons delving into these fields.

Now the IDA is looking abroad for help to accomplish this aim. IDA head Jacqueline Poh told The Strait Times that the organisation has about 90 native data scientists working for it and the new fellowship is open to Singaporeans in the private sector and academia. But why is it turning its attention overseas?

“The Government must take the lead in this push and stay open, innovative and adaptive to change. We must continually engage with and learn from technology leaders and experts globally, to actively create technology applications that have the potential to change people’s lives,” said a spokesperson for the IDA. “The Smart Nation Fellowship Programme will be the conduit to this global exchange of knowledge and talent networks for the public good.

“We see the Fellows as complementary to the data science, technology and engineering capabilities we have been building up in Singapore. Fellows will join a forward-looking group of like-minded, passionate technologists already in the Government and work collaboratively on meaningful projects, and in the process share knowledge and expertise on data science and technology matters.”

Singapore has hit a roadblock of sorts in the last few years when it comes to recruiting tech talent. The IDA recently admitted that in 2014, up to 15,000 positions remained unfilled. This isn’t even limited to tech as the Singapore Workforce Development Authority has launched the SkillsFuture scheme to fill positions that are lacking professionals.

Through all of this, it is smaller tech firms that are feeling the pinch as they struggle to find the talent that they need.

The shortage has caused salaries to increase by some 15%, which may not be an issue for the likes of Google, which is on a hiring spree of software engineers for its new Singapore engineering hub, but will adversely affect startups.

Fixx Digital, a web design company, for example said that out of 20 job applications it receives, only one of them is Singaporean. In many cases, professionals from neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have been hired and relocated to the country. “The supply is so short that we can't afford to be selective. And we have to pay these inflated salaries,” says Darren Lee, managing director of Fixx Digital.

“Against the backdrop of a talent scarcity across Singapore, experienced skilled professionals can expect to see salary hikes,” explains Yvonne Tang, director for IT Practice at ZW HR Consulting, which carried out research on swelling salaries in Singapore’s IT sector. “Technology drives so many aspects of a modern business – from sales growth to productivity improvements – employers will need to consider increasing salaries to keep pace with inflation in order to retain their high-calibre workforce.”

As for how much the IDA Smart Nations fellows will be paid for relocating to Singapore and working with the government, the agency provided no specifics.

“Stipends will be offered to appointed Fellows for their time and effort committed to the three to six month stints with the Government. The stipend will be commensurate with their years’ of working experience and unique skillsets,” it said.

Nevertheless, the Smart Nation initiative is optimistic that it will solve this issue and Singapore will remain on track to becoming the smart nation it strives to be.

“We hope that those who have established themselves in the tech sector – be it industry or academia – will be excited at the prospect of contributing some of their time to make a difference to our Smart Nation vision and to inspire the next generation of technologists.”