SINGAPORE: Push to develop local technology talent

Singapore has announced a SGD70 million (US$58 million) programme of postgraduate funding and scholarships to boost "research, innovation and enterprise talent" and become a leader in engineering and applied research in Asia.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat (pictured) said the quality of scientific talent was critical to Singapore's success.

And a former education minister Tony Tan has said: "We are witnessing unreserved growth in developing countries, most notably China and India, and the greater integration of these economies into the global economy. This puts greater pressure on Singapore to maintain a highly skilled workforce that leads the region."

The new Industrial Postgraduate Programme, announced by Heng on 4 August, began accepting applications this month. It has been jointly developed by the Education Ministry, universities and the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Almost a dozen major international companies are in talks with the government and universities to become part of the initiative including Rolls Royce, which manufactures aircraft engines, and other engineering, defence and space companies.

The programme will fund some 200 postgraduate students over the next five years who will simultaneously train in private sector companies. Candidates will come up with their own research topic and apply to participating universities and companies.

"Universities will also have expanded opportunities to partner with industrial researchers to translate research into commercial applications," Alvin Tan, Assistant Managing Director of the EDB, told local media in Singapore.

The idea is for postgraduates to gain experience in a corporate research environment while they study, with the industry experience counting towards PhD work. Some may continue to work for the company after they graduate.

The aim is to develop home-grown manpower with both research and industry skills. Heng said this would provide students with the "best of both worlds, fostering interaction between academia and industry".

The number of researchers, scientists and engineers in Singapore has doubled in the last 10 years to some 6,700 including both Singaporeans and foreigners, according to Singapore's Agency for Science Technology and Research, A*Star. It has provided some 1,100 scholarships and fellowships to Singaporeans and Singapore residents since its 2001 launch, tenable at both local and overseas universities.

However Singapore is concerned that it still relies too much on importing foreign science, technology and engineering research talent.

According to the 2009 National Survey of Research and Development a third of researchers, scientists and engineers with PhDs are from overseas.

With the Industrial Postgraduate Programme, the government wants to provide more opportunities for highly qualified Singaporeans to return after studying abroad. The programme will provide students with a salary over four years as well as university fees, and they will have additional opportunities to work in industry or hold dual appointments.

However, the focus on providing scholarships only for Singaporeans and Singapore residents has led to some criticism. Former deputy prime minister and presidential hopeful Tony Tan caused controversy last month when he said he favoured a "Singaporeans first" approach to higher education, even as the city-state has been trying to attract more international students.

"Whatever initiatives we launch, we must always put the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore first," he said, but added: "Singaporeans first is different from saying Singaporeans only. Singapore is an international city and it would be a grave mistake to close our doors.

"While putting Singaporeans first we should not make it too difficult for international talent to come to Singapore. Finding the right balance is not going to be easy but we must try," he said at a speech at Singapore Management University.

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