Engineering and Technology Careers are Not Valued – Singapore is “High Cost Low Tech”


Among news like a monk and an infidel GP doctor making six-figure income, there’s an interesting piece in ST two days ago – ex-top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow worries that Singapore is becoming “high cost, low tech”.

“The United States has overtaken Britain because while some of their best went to Wall Street, their best still go into engineering.”

His concern is valid.

In Singapore, the best JC students are attracted by glitzy ads and employment survey reports (see example) glamorizing the banking and finance industry and repeatedly highlighting that top dollars are made there.

For engineers and techies, they only get to hear things like “with a basic degree, you get to wash test tubes”.

Or that engineering and tech talent are a dime a dozen from China and India.

It is no wonder that students die to get into the in-demand courses like business, finance and accounting, while engineering and technology-related courses are dumping grounds.

See my previous posts on getting out of engineering and dead end career.

We all know that techies are undervalued in sunny Singapore. You’re a techie, you make 5k and be happy. Stay happy. Else get out and go to countries like USA, Japan, or even China and Taiwan where tech talent are much more highly valued than over here. Or, get into banking or do a sales job.

So Mr Ngiam worries about the lack of local high-tech talent.

There’s always a simple solution (right?): Start paying top dollars for engineers.

Start with tech-related ministries and agencies like Mindef and MDA. Then, move to tech-related GLCs like Singapore Technologies and JTC.

Pay millions for, say, the Chief Innovator in DSTA and ask the media to cover this ad nauseum (much like the way life sciences were glamorized in the not too distant past).

Hopefully we get to confuse the students again.


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  1. my comment just bring out a point where some of the fresh grad said forget about working when pay lesser than 2.4k…

    When u cannot find job even first class or dean list also no use..

    You try throwing a stone on roadside and an engineer will get hit..

  2. To high-paid : No need to get offensive here. You wanna scold, try looking at the mirror and you can start.

  3. To low paid : Why do I have to look into the mirror and start? My pay is much lower than yours and I don’t complain. It pains me to see pathetic people like you getting a reasonable salary and still pity yourself..

  4. Rather than being so angry at somebody who’s “getting a reasonable salary and still pity himself”, why not explore avenues that will get you a higher pay?

    And if you’re genuinely happy about your “low pay” (according to yourself), then why need to be so angry?

  5. to 5m10y; Thanks for the advice, but I didn’t mention that i was happy with my pay, i just don’t complain. Btw, I’ll explore other avenues..

    to low-paid; Sorry for the strong words, wish u all the best in your career.

  6. Hi Serene,
    You sure still want to switch to banking sector, looking at the market now thing finance and banking sector is bottom out liao, waiting for the wave to hit singapore only

  7. ya I thought about that too.
    but u think about it, when market is good, you don’t yearn on any better things more than those who had stayed on.

  8. What kind of Engineering? Software engineering? Should be relatively easy to go to banks, although now you have to compete with about 100 Lehman people 🙂

  9. I chanced to visit this site..I am a mechanical engineer from India, switched to oil and gas software field, worked in SG for 3 years and when I left Sg, was paid 6.5K/month(in 2005). Now in middle east, getting paid 10.4K USD/ free, so definitly more money then Sg, however, I believe, if you specialize in some engineering field, salary and demand is not bad, and chances are that u would get to some leadership role(though, not in manufacturing). My total exp. is 12 years since 4 year degree in engineering. now planning to persue MBA from top 10 universities, to shift from engineering to management..hope this brightens some mechanical engineering aspirants, who might have read all the gloomy news in this page..(and above info. is not to brag or boast, but humble statistics, to encourage young enggs. to persue goals relentlessly).

  10. No worries I switched from engineering to engineering-investment activities, and pay and recognition and network have all increased exponentially…

  11. Hi! I’m a current EE student in one of the N uni.Took EE out of interest and skills included.

    I am completing a dip in acct and finance very soon with maximum scores. Can anyone advise on my career possiblities after i grad?

  12. ece, here’s an advise from an older person. Engieering to Account to Finance – sounds like you’ll be jack of all trades. I have 2 advises. First, 20yrs from now when you look back, you’ll either be in engnieering, or, finance, or neither. You can achieve faster and better if you focus on 1 area, and harness your skills all the way. Second, follow your instinct of what you think you like. You must know your purpose of wanting to do acc or finance. if you are waiting to see what will happen, you are not controlling your destiny, and thus many a times, give up what you like. asked anyone who has worked 20yrs, most if not all will tell you they do things not to their pursuit 20yrs back. Jigs did a great job, he knows what he wants, and pursue it in middle east. I’m sure he has reason to do this MBA, he has made the next plan. An example for all youngster out there.

  13. My key interest definitely is in ECE. I took an acct and finance initially purely to seek improvement for myself. But after hearing the sky rocket pay and seeing how everyone is condemning engineering. Im somewhat demoralized and feel disturbed in the prospect of working in engineering field

  14. ECE, hi again, pls do not be demoralised. If you like what you do, go for it, engineering or finance or whatever. You don’t want to regret doing something you don’t like, even if that means making more monies than what you originally liked. Only 1 life, of course you have to live it happily. And, the bonus is, being happy at what you are doing bring out the passion in your work, and you will like to excel easier.

  15. ECE,
    money is not the only factor. its not easy making those kind of money as put across by many here. its misleading. doing what u like is the only sustainable way. its rare to hit the jackpot n run. you are better off betting big or small in the casinos..

  16. I see. Thanks everyone for such insightful advice. Im glad im still in ECE. Im looking forward to study on clean energy and hopefully implement them in Singapore if I have the opportunity…..

  17. I believe the whole concept is viable. A quick look at Australia and their government funding into clean energy certainly tells a lot how clean energy can be implemented without problems. For Singapore, I believe the clear cut solution would be solar. In fact, I still believe it is possible to construct offshore solar farms, although I have no idea why nobody’s doing it. Perhaps due to technical reason?

    But in terms of technology , we certainly won’t be seeing any in SG in the near future since govt support and overfocus on its finance has already caused singapore to be light years behind in terms of solar development. you can BUY them off but i reckon without the specialist in it, not much can be done.

    I also strongly believe in the whole funding and everything is just a fad. Singapore is getting too pragmatic and abandoning its manufacturing sectors already. I still think that students shld if unfortunately born like me inclined towards engineering get ready to erase all the knowledge and relearn after grad to find a better job.

  18. i guessed much comments have been made on this site. The only crucial factor is to know what you want and follow your strength in order to be competitiveness and be able to climb up in the industry and not just by looking into others of heading into a “financial sector” just because of high returns. one question actually doubts me “In what sense will they wants to hire someone of average they will rather hire someone ie; scholars or very experience skilled people. That why we sometime can see young chap ard the age of 28-30 in bank making profits and because of such generalisation people starts to think the banking is the best. Yeah, but 100 people ppl eventually only a few get enlisted. Hence in overall let focus on the “strength” in our areas.


  19. Hi Eric,

    Hi again, a bit off topic here .Do you happen to be an undergrad in engineering as well?

    By the way, I am always having this wonder about how actual engineer do? Is it really outfield all the time, with all guys around?

  20. I’m an ECE grad too, but never as an Engineer. The rule in the real world: Your pay corresponds to how much $ you can bring in to the Co. The more money you bring in, the more you will be paid. As an engineer, your value is lesser as usually you don’t contribute to sales…. and if you can control a portion of the entire sales, then you are in a position to negotiate for more… Also, in choosing a company, you need to consider whether you want to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond or a Small Fish in a Big Pond… i choose to be a Big Fish…

  21. Hi BIG FISH, that is exactly what I thought. I am now looking to working in a bank or a sales engineer. Dun mind can you share with me your profession and some advice on how you got it?

  22. I would say it also depends on the company culture.

    I believe that having started as an entrepot trading center, Singapore company culture generally does not value engineering. Such a company would likely be a distributor, a middleman who benefits from volume. The more you sell, the more valuable you are to a company, because ultimately, the product/concept/idea originates from somewhere else.

    A lot of private companies in Singapore with R&D facilities have them to take advantage of grants from EDB or IDA, or simply because it makes the company look more attractive to prospective clients. The basic nature of these companies are still manufacturing.

    Companies who have R&D need to recognize that the products are made possible by the product planners (those who really come up with the ideas for a product) and engineers who make the product happen. These companies have not got rid of the ‘middleman’ mindset.

    Stats used for benchmarking ministrial pay against the top private sector professionals have also shown that top ‘engineers’ earn much less than the lawyers, doctors and accountants. Such is the sad stat of affairs in Singapore.

  23. Hey all, I’m currently with the force and has a BSc in computer sciences, which means I do all the techie stuff at work.

    Lets not talk about my pay(which is blatantly on the MINDEF website), as we all went through NS we are always on standby, exercises over weekends, long long working/physical hours and demanding higher ranking officers.

    My contract is coming to an end and I’ll be 26/27 by then. What are the odds for me to break into banking and finance? I’ve thought of getting CFA but not really sure if the other industries acknowledge my past years of experience in the force.

  24. army_regular, many people are still hoping to get into the banking & finance industry even at times like this and you are certainly not alone. Many are willing to take on contractual roles in banking until the recession is over before scouting for another more permanent role. Even with the relevant certs and degree, it is very diificult to get in the industry without any experiences. So i can only say good luck to you.

  25. hi all. i see that so much discussion about finance and engineering sector going on, is there anyone with hindsight on the IT sector. I got a B.Comp and noticed that IT grads usually get a much lower starting pay than almost everyone, usually below 2.6k/mo while fresh engineering guys etc usually find themselves carrying home 3.5k/mo or more.

  26. Yeah, definitely low cost low tech is correct.

    Baka-neko, IT grads are paid that low probably because you join the wrong company. In my company even fresh grads get almost double of what you’re getting. No offense there, just stating facts.

  27. Hai~
    My company just have some engineer lay off. So sad and the best part is that my company which is a large MNC have never retrenched any engineer since it have set up in spore 30 years ago. I can’t help but think

    1)engineer is low cost low tech, but if it is stable, so be it. Be a tortise, yet you still compete the race. However, i seriously doubt, as we are also in danger of retrenchment
    2)I have work 4 yrs in eng, & my pay is only 3400 and I am now 30 yrs old. Is it too late to switch?

    Worrying days

  28. low cost-low tech on

    engineers are not of much value. if engineering is important, sg govt will set up singapore engineering university in bras basah, not singapore management university.

  29. Simple is Beautiful on

    30yrs old is not too late. I now 28 and pay 3500. but feel current engineering job not suitable to me in long run as soon I will have to bring home works to do. I want spend my weekends 100% on family life.

    I think you have to decide what life-style and trade-in u are comfortable with. I even consider buy house in Johor and work in SG after married. This will increase my salary “2 times” loh. Of course, that mean I have to spend more time & effort on travelling (can watch video using PSP)but I think worth it.

  30. bad reasoning.. still need engineers.. just that they are not well paid.. pay at times is not tagged to value of the job/work.. and this is very much the case.

  31. If I decided to switch, which industry should I go for, or what type of course should I under-take.

    1) Bank – corporate, investment (which i do not think I can get in)
    2) Take a MBA
    3) Other sale-orientated job like property agent or insurance

  32. To low cost-low tech
    Your views and comments are so myopic. SMU is setup to meet the rising demands of undergrad enrolment in Singapore. And for your info, the faculty of engineering has the highest enrolment rate in both NUS and NTU due to higher resources as compared to school of business. Moreover, SMU is setup with an aim of providing a business from another approach. FYI again, SMU degrees are not yet recognised globally when compared to NUS or NTU degrees.

    To ECE,
    I agree with you that renewable energy such as solar energy (in which the gov put a lot of emphasis on) is a viable option in Singapore. However, Singapore is currently extremely backward in solar technology as compared to solar tech research giants such as germany, australia and USA. FYI, the newly setup research institute in NUS (Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore, SERIS) only focuses on 1st and 2nd generation solar tech, as they do not believe in the newer 3rd generation. Moreover, the major activities in the solar field here involves the construction of manufacturing plants, not research labs. So if you want to venture into this field, best bet is to go places like aust or germany.

    PS: Your offshore solar plant is not viable yet due to the high cost of underwater cables for transmission of electricity. This will further strain the initial investment due to the already very high cost of solar modules. Moreover, maintainence cost will increase dramatically if the modules are offshore.

  33. lower cost-lower tech on

    when will we see a new university setup with an aim of providing an engineering education from another approach, without mass producing engineering graduates for the manufacturing plants ?

  34. My two cents worth. When you don’t succeed, don’t blame it on others. Whether you succeed in the working world is irregardless of what degree you did in school. Many of us go on and on claiming that business is a better degree than engineering. Well, if you are so damn good, you will succeed anywhere and with whatever degree you did in uni. But if you are no good, the outcome will be the same, regardless of whatever degree you have.

  35. Success depends on some luck.
    It will still be good to discuss what kind of degrees are good for general students.
    We know that a Philosophy major can also be a millionaire, but what is the mean/median salary of all philosophy majors in Singapore?
    Students should choose a degree course with eyes wide open and armed with such info.

  36. To low cost-lower tech
    Engineering is different from business degrees. Being a professional and accredited degree, there are certain guidlines in which the course has to follow. Furthermore, engineering degree in Singapore now is much more different as compared to the past. New course materials and requirements such as human resource and biz modules are present for a holistic education.

    The basline is that the system can only do this much. Many ppl take an engineering course but only some will excel. This is the same in all other courses such as business.

    Quoting low cost-low tech, if engineering is mass producing engine grads for manufacturing plants, business is also good in mass producing biz grads for 8 to 5 offices in Raffles Place.

    Of course, this is not true. Only people with aim and passion excel. So please do not make stereotyping and sweeping statements.

  37. But if you are no good, the outcome will be the same, regardless of whatever degree you have.

    I do not agreed. What make a person so good, if he is not gifted by nature. It is the education and the environment. My qns is: Do you think that people from engineering background is aiming for a easy way out or rather they have been in this environment, hence know the limitation of this industry, esp in spore.

  38. Read the Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Success is a combination of many factors, and luck plays a major, major part.

  39. To Drahcir,
    As what goodie has mentioned, success is determined by a very complex combination of factors. Of course education and environment is one of them, but they are not the only determining ones.
    Do you really think going into the finance sector or any other sector from engineering is an “easy way out”? I believe to be able to succeed in any industry, there is no easy way out, especially in Singapore. Also, what kind of limitation are you talking about? Career prospects? Annual income? Starting a company? If you are talking about all these, then there is limitation in all sectors and industries, because currently i do not know of any sector or industry which can allow most people in the industry, if not all, to be able to do very well in the above mentioned fields.

  40. lower cost-lower tech on

    when will we see a new university setup with an aim of providing an engineering education from another approach, without mass producing non-holistic engineering graduates who can only think for the not valued, low cost-low tech sg manufacturing plants ??

  41. As long as the government value the finance industry more than engineering, finance grads will always earn more on the whole, regardless of whether they are bright sparks or average performer. We’re talking about what’s the best industry to go into for the average student. If you’re a bright spark, no matter where you go you’ll still do well (with a bit of luck of course).
    I give you 2 extreme examples to illustrate my point:
    Imagine you’re average, and you decide to do ballet. How to survive in Singapore as an average ballerina?
    Now imagine you’re an average back office operations guy in UOB bank or MAS. You’ll have a stable career with above-average pay barring unforeseen circumstances like retrenchments (UOB has no retrenchment thus far in this crisis and MAS has never retrenched any staff).

  42. lower cost-lower tech on

    m i still doing well, if i m bright spark going far in a low cost low tech place ?

  43. To Undergrad:

    U misunderstand my qns. Anyway, what I am trying to tell you is for engineering graduate to go into sale/bank is hard, but we will still try, becoz of the limitation of engineering in spore. The biggest of all challenge coming from China. In a nutshell, cost. Meaning that our manufacturing plant which is owned by foreign MNC will move out one day. can be very fast. And giving the environment banking will be one of the key pillar to be developed in spore. And trust me, a lot of engineering graduate succeed in banking

  44. To Drachir,
    Sorry that I misunderstood your qn. Anyway, I do agree with you that a lot of engineering grad succeed in banking, especially in finance related jobs due to the analytical nature and good handling of figures present in most engineers due to the nature of their course. A lot of banks are actually holding recruitment drives in NUS and NTU engineering to recruit engineers into financial sectors.
    To lower cost-lower tech,
    I suggest that before you post anymore comments, go check out the recent news and development of education and careers in Singapore.
    Firstly, President Nathan has already revealed the commencement of a 4th university in Singapore, and MOE has just held a press conference stating that the 4th university will be a university of applied technology, situated in Changi.
    Secondly, if you are a bright spark in engineering, you will most probably won’t go into production or manufacturing, but rather research areas in which singapore is pouring a lot of money into. You can go check out how much good researchers earn in institutes like Astar. I know they earn a lot. Alternatively, if you are a bright spark, you may even excel if you venture in the banking/finance sector, or even become an entrepreneur.