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Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

Minister Ong: Singapore needs to bring in foreign talent for high-end jobs

In an interview with Bloomberg on Wed (19 Sep), Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said Singapore needs to bring in foreign talent in areas including software programming while the country re-balances its education system to meet future demands.

A key issue is whether Singapore has a critical mass of workers to make itself a vibrant economy that will attract investments and encourage enterprise, he said. Singapore will maintain little restriction on foreign labor for high-end jobs while keeping a quota system for lower-skilled industries including construction.

"Talent is very short everywhere in the world – AI talent, software programmers," Minister Ong said. "We let them in because we require a critical mass for the sector to take off, while we continue to train Singaporeans for those jobs."

"A transformation is required," he said, "A transformation towards an economy that is more innovation-driven, that is more productivity-driven."

Foreign talents with questionable quality

It is true that talent is short everywhere in the world. However, the manner how some of the govt agencies hire its talents does give rise to questions with regard to the quality of their "talents".

Three years ago, news of Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) hiring a foreign-born talent with a bogus degree erupted and came to public attention. An Indian-born naturalized Singapore citizen was caught with a bogus MBA degree from a degree mill university.

But IDA chose to protect its decision to hire her in the first place. IDA said she “did not deceive” the statutory board when she included her bogus MBA degree in her job application.

IDA had initially defended its hiring of the said staff, saying she pursued an MBA out of personal interest, and it was not a relevant certificate for her position in IDA though she was open about the fact that she had obtained it. "Her MBA from Southern Pacific University was not a factor that contributed to her employment at IDA," said IDA.

Later, IDA changed its position when it said it was “continuing to look into” the matter, as public uproar continued. IDA then added that her employment was not based on considerations of her MBA degree "as her position required only a bachelor's degree, and that it also considered her relevant skills and prior work experience".

"She had genuinely believed her MBA programme to be bona fide, and she had put in effort to obtain the qualification," IDA defended her.

Her first degree was from University of Mumbai in India, ranked few hundreds positions below NUS and NTU.

IDA concluded, "We have conducted a thorough investigation into the matter, taking into account the various concerns raised. We have assessed the facts and interviewed Nisha Padmanabhan, and are satisfied that she did not deceive or mislead IDA by citing the MBA in her CV when she applied to IDA for a job."

But the public remained unconvinced.

95 per cent of engineers in India unfit for software development

Even if the degree is not bogus but comes from an Indian institution, a survey last year claimed that 95 per cent of engineers in India are not fit to take up software development jobs.

According to a study by employability assessment company Aspiring Minds based in New Delhi, only 4.77 per cent candidates can write the correct logic for a programme - a minimum requirement for any programming job.

Over 36,000 engineering students from IT related branches of over 500 Indian colleges took Automata — a Machine Learning based assessment of software development skills — and over 2/3 could not even write code that compiles.

The study further noted that while more than 60 per cent candidates cannot even write code that compiles, only 1.4 per cent can write functionally correct and efficient code.

The employability gap can be attributed to rote learning based approaches rather than actually writing programmes on a computer for different problems. Also, there is a dearth of good teachers for programming, since most good programmers get jobs in industry at good salaries, the study said.

Moreover, programming skills are five times poorer for tier III colleges as compared to tier 1 colleges in India. "Sixty nine per cent of candidates from top 100 colleges are able to write a compilable code versus rest of the colleges where only 31 per cent are able to write a compilable code," the report said.

Compiling is only the first step. Then there is programme logic which the programmer has to grapple with. And if the programmer cannot get his logic right, he would not be able to get his software to run correctly.

Would you then trust such a software programmer to write codes for a 'AI-driven' car?