Answering Singapore's call to value IT must start from the top

The government needs to first ensure its own ministries and agencies recognise the importance of tech products and services, and regard them as more than just support functions.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The Singapore government has called upon the nation to respect the art of engineering so initiatives such as its smart nation plan can be adequately supported, but the public sector should take the lead and first ensure it has adopted the necessary mindset.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong this week said the local population did not always regard engineers as valued contributors, treating these professionals simply as people who provided support functions and helped fix computer-related issues. His observations were made during his visit to the US, where he met with the CEOs of tech giants including Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Lee noted that engineers working in Silicon Valley were deemed valuable members of the tech companies they worked for, something which was not necessary so in Singapore.

"They see it as a support function--my computer is broken, call an engineer and fix it," he said. "We really need to reposition our conception of what engineering is about, and how important engineering is to us."

He urged Singapore to adopt this mindset, especially since it would need robust engineering capabilities to support many of its smart nation initiatives.

The prime minister also spoke about the need to encourage Singaporeans currently based in Silicon Valley to return home and launch new initiatives in their home country, though, he admitted that this would not be an easy task. To do so, he added, Singapore must be able to offer the same kind of career and jobs that Silicon Valley provided.

"It's not just a matter of pay or having a job...but to have the same challenge, same excitement, the same kind of technical demand on the person so they feel they are stretching the envelope and doing something meaningful," Lee said.

Like most business strategy, however, for real change to occur, it must first come from the top.

Public sector should reassess its own mindset

Does the public sector itself value skills that help drive creative thinking and innovation? A recent revelation suggests it may not.

Kelly Cheng, a creative director at a design consultancy, pointed to a tender posted on the government's e-procurement portal GeBiz, which called for vendors to include in their bids "unlimited changes" to work they were to produce. Those two words were even highlighted in caps, underlined, and bold...presumably, so bidding vendors would be made aware of the importance of providing this "unlimited" service.

Cheng said such demands were increasingly showing up on government tenders, pushing her to voice her concerns.

Needless to say, her post went viral and eventually caught the attention of the Ministry of Finance, which manages the GeBiz portal. In a post on its Facebook page, the ministry acknowledged it would be "unfair" to expect its suppliers to agree to the "unlimited" clause.

It added that it would be issuing a note reminding all government agencies of its procurement principles, including the need for all procurement specifications to be reasonable and fair.

Kudos to the ministry for its prompt action, but one wonders how far and wide such mentality permeates within the public sector.

If most people in Singapore currently do not regard IT as more than a support function, as Prime Minister Lee suggests, then it must be fair to assume civil servants are included in this mix. Do they also expect IT vendors to provide "unlimited" alterations to software codes at a flat fee? Do they demand a multitude of functions without consideration for the number of manhours required to produce the work?

The GeBiz fiasco clearly indicates the public sector needs to reassess its valuation of creative services and regard for the engineers behind such services, whether or not they're from the tech or design or communication industries.

After all, to galvanise the community and effect change, the government needs to first ensure it itself is ready to embrace the mindset it champions.

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