Tapping opportunities in semiconductor sector

The Straits Times by SEOW BEI YI

With semiconductors being key to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart factories and autonomous vehicles, Singapore is positioning itself to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead in this industry.

In doing so, the Republic starts from a position of strength, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at a dinner marking the industry's 50th anniversary yesterday.

"The output of the semiconductor and semiconductor equipment industry reached nearly $100 billion last year, which is roughly one-third of Singapore's manufacturing output and 4.5 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product," he said.

The country has a reputation for reliability and a strong intellectual property protection regime as well.

"We will continue to build on the existing strengths... and ensure that our ecosystem supports the development of deep capabilities, in innovation, talent and skills in every job in the industry that will create future growth," he said.

Mr Tharman added that training partnerships are the way to the future. Beyond existing industry scholarships and work-study initiatives, Singapore is set to do more, like developing a SkillsFuture Series for Advanced Manufacturing, which includes more than 600 accredited courses.

"The increasing adoption of advanced manufacturing and Industry 4.0 techniques will require workers to adopt new skill sets in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence, data analytics and additive manufacturing," he said.

He also spoke of building win-win partnerships, noting that the nature of collaboration in the industry has changed over the past five decades.

When the first wave of global semiconductor firms set up here, Singapore offered labour costs that were lower than in advanced nations. The companies brought their capital, know-how and links to global markets.

Now, Singapore boasts a more mature ecosystem, with global firms and local players involved in activities across the entire value chain.

  • Surviving ups and downs of the industry

  • At the height of the 2008 global financial crisis, as jobs were being shed with painful regularity, Ms Seow Boon Quey found herself the sole woman in a committee that was tasked with looking at how workers in the semiconductor industry could be retrained instead of laid off.

    She was overseeing the human resources department, among others, in Tech Semiconductor then.

    "Usually, it takes one to two years to develop such a framework, but we finished it in about five months.

    "Nobody from our company was laid off during the downturn, and we managed to upgrade some staff to engineers and technicians," said Ms Seow, now 63 and a consultant at Micron Technology.

    "One of the challenges for the industry is that it's cyclical, and there are a lot of downturns," she told The Straits Times.

    Yesterday, shewas among the pioneers of Singapore's semiconductor industry to be honoured at its 50th anniversary dinner.

    When she joined the industry in 1977 after graduating from the University of Singapore, there were only 25 women in her engineering cohort of 400. Today, women account for a third of the 42,000-strong workforce in the sector.

    The sector is competitive, she said. While there were a "few hundred" semiconductor firms when she first joined, there are only about 10 large ones globally now.

    "Only the fittest survive. People have to adapt, and each generation will have to find its solutions," she said. "When you have a wafer fabrication plant, you hire a lot of people, and even with big data today, it still creates jobs - just different kinds."

    Seow Bei Yi

Large multinational companies work with smaller local ones to develop products and solutions as well, and the Republic has also become a location for companies to develop, test-bed and commercialise solutions for the world.

"Today, our partnerships are still at the heart of what we do. But there is a more complex and dense set of relationships," Mr Tharman said.

There have been other changes, too, with some flagging difficulties in retaining talent and attracting specialists in recent years.

Ms Jennifer Teong, vice-president of manufacturing and quality at Silicon Labs, said the industry went through a phase when it was hard to attract people to engineering.

While some headway has been made, she added: "There is still much we can do to promote and develop engineering interest in our schools to create a continuous pipeline of local talent."