Movers and shakers of the tech world: Singapore wants you

New Tech.Pass scheme aimed at founders, leaders with experience in hot tech firms


THE Economic Development Board (EDB) on Thursday launched a new Tech.Pass to draw up to 500 top foreign tech talents to Singapore.

Companies The Business Times spoke to were thrilled by the new initiative that the Republic is pitching against similar efforts in countries such as the UK and France.

"The government is recognising that there is a group of technical people Singapore needs to attract, to push itself to be a global and South-east Asian hub," says Daljit Sall, senior director of information technology at Randstad Singapore.

The Tech.Pass scheme was announced by Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, at a dialogue with members of Singapore's European Chamber of Commerce.

"We have our work cut out for us to meet a surging demand for skilled manpower by companies in Singapore," said Mr Chan.

"If we do not compete for these companies, then we will lose them quickly to other locations. We would rather top talent compete on the side of team Singapore, than to be competing against Singapore."

The pass will be valid for two years and can be renewed once for another two years if renewal criteria are met.

The EDB said the scheme is aimed at attracting "founders, leaders and technical experts with experience in established or fast-growing tech companies".

Today, such individuals are already able to start and operate a business in Singapore under the EntrePass, or to work for a company with a valid Employment Pass.

But the Tech.Pass will go a step further, allowing individuals to participate in any or a combination of specified activities, without having to apply for different passes.

And unlike the Employment Pass which requires the sponsorship of an employer, the Tech.Pass will be tied to the individual. This means pass holders will be able to move seamlessly between activities that contribute to Singapore's tech ecosystem.

They could work for a Singapore-based company, or start and operate their own. They could be a shareholder or investor here, or serve on a company's board of directors.

They could also mentor companies, conduct corporate training, or even teach in institutes of higher learning.

Bernadette Cho, general manager of talent investor Entrepreneur First Singapore, thinks these flexibilities will be a major plus for Singapore's talent attraction efforts, especially for local startups. "The pass makes it easier and more attractive (for top talents) to come to Singapore, because it's not tied to a company," she says.

"This allows them to be more fluid in the ecosystem. That might mean seeing phenomenal talent take leadership positions at local startups, which they might not otherwise have been able to do if they were tied on an Employment Pass."

In Ms Cho's view, the high bar set for Tech.Pass eligibility also suggests the pass is targeted at the needs of growth-stage companies. "What I think is prescient about the government here is that they recognise the path from Series A to Series B funding is very precarious, but the path from Series C to unicorn is very rare. I think they are trying to bring in people who can drive that delta."

While she is excited by what the scheme offers the entrepreneurship scene, Ranstad's Mr Sall is thrilled by the technical experts it could draw.

"The beauty of this pass is that it allows for an individual who may not be a founder, but may have scaled up teams and done all the tech stack to make a product or company successful," he said.

"In the current world environment, especially due to the pandemic, a lot of these people want to move to this side of the world.

"They may be thinking: 'What am I doing in Country X, when I could be based in a country that's dealt efficiently with one of the biggest crises the world has ever faced'?"

Julian Artopé, founder and chief executive of 3D-printing startup Zenyum, agreed.

"Given the uncertainty in markets like the US and the UK, Singapore has a shot at becoming the metropolis of choice for the world's best tech talent in the 21st century," he said.

Mr Artopé is also optimistic that the infusion of such top talents into Singapore will create more jobs and enable skills transfer to locals, where companies are committed to doing so. He cited Zenyum as an example, which he says now employs about 90 staff in Singapore, of which less than one fifth are foreigners.

"Even though I am originally from Germany and Zenyum now has offices across Asia, it would have been impossible to build a company of this size and traction if we were not fully committed to our roots as being a Singaporean company at heart," he said.

Similarly, Stanislav Protassov - the co-founder of global technology company Acronis - recalls how Acronis struggled in scaling up its R&D centre in Singapore in the early years, until it brought in overseas talent to oversee its efforts.

The centre was able to grow from a five-person outfit to one that now employs nearly 150 engineers in Singapore.

"The reason why we could hire them is because newcomers and fresh graduates had people they could quickly learn from," he said.

Mr Protassov said global talent is not just a matter of ambition, but of necessity for Singapore.

"When you open yourself to the world, you have basically got an immediate unfair advantage," he said. "That's how Silicon Valley built itself. Berlin is also a very well-known place for high-tech startups, and they attract foreigners from all over the world."

While most observers and corporates were upbeat about Tech.Pass, some took a more cautious and pragmatic tone.

Elena Chow, founder of talent solutions consultancy ConnectOne, notes that the pass comes with strict qualifying criteria, appearing to rule out the middle tier of tech professionals. "There is a lack of mid-tier engineers who are able to lead teams and yet are still hands-on in coding," she said.

"This is especially so in startups where the tech leads have to wear several hats. This pass does not seem to address this group of individuals."

She noted that while the Tech.Pass appears aimed at making it easier for tech talents to work and do business in Singapore, it was unclear if these individuals could not already do so under existing schemes, like the EntrePass.

Overall, Ms Chow thinks that given the global shortage of tech talent and the acceleration of technological trends induced by Covid-19, Singapore may need to take a "slightly looser stand on foreign tech talent for a few years" - and not just at the top echelons of talent.

"Otherwise, Singapore startups will be forced to increasingly build remote tech teams, or organise their teams outside of Singapore. Both of these scenarios are not favourable in the long run for Singapore," she said.