Sunday, September 26, 2021

My NTU engineering professor became a billionaire. Hope his achievements can attract more people to take on an engineering career.

Nanofilm launched an IPO in October 2020. It has been years since I saw a large IPO raising more than SGD500m on Singapore stock exchange that is not a REIT or business trust. Even better is that it is a high-tech company. Nanofilm Technologies is the biggest listing on SGX in eight years. The company was founded by Dr Shi Xu. He was one of my engineering lecturers at NTU. Today, he is a billionaire. Congratulations. 

I am not vested in Nanofilm but I am an admirer of Dr Shi Xu for his achievements.

Dr Shi Xu left a deep impression on me as a lecturer because he distinguished himself with his communication skills and good command of English. During those days, many foreign professors did not speak English well because their formal education was not done in English.

I am sure other students will remember him well too. I spotted several female students who like to sit among the front rows during his lectures. It is not hard to spot these female students because there were so few of them in engineering school. He was a good-looking lecturer. Coupled with his billionaire status, I think his wife will be greatly envied by many women today :).

Nanofilm jumped almost 17% on IPO debut (23Oct2020). I would like to see some animal spirits returning to the Singapore stock market scene. The Singapore stock market has been pretty dead for years. While value investing is a proven investment strategy, if most investors here are mainly dividend-hungry and value-oriented, no entrepreneurs will want to list their company on SGX. No self-respecting entrepreneur will want to list his baby at a cheap price and pay generous dividends to other shareholders at the expense of future growth. Some animal spirits and a tilt towards more growth investing will be a healthy development for the Singapore stock market. Meanwhile, due to the lack of growth and tech stocks in Singapore, the growth-oriented investors in Singapore have moved on to U.S, Hong Kong, China markets.

Just as no entrepreneur wants his baby to be a value stock, no salary worker will want to be a value stock either. Every boss will like to keep a value stock employee on their payroll forever because he is underpaid, yet delivers reliably. In the past, I have seen many engineers in Singapore becoming value stocks in the labour market. I had underpaid supervisors who would had been much better paid had they applied their brain-power to work in more lucrative sectors. So, it is not surprising that many intelligent engineers have switched to better-paying industries like banking and finance. Over time, this has led to a serious shortage of good engineers in Singapore. In recent years, we are seeing the consequences. MRT breaking down, lifts breaking down, flooding, basic infrastructure breaking down are related to the shrinking pool of engineers in Singapore. If we cannot even maintain our basic infrastructure well, there is no hope of technological progress to drive our country forward. Fortunately, I can sense that the situation is improving today.

I expect this problem to be partially solved in the public sector through higher salaries of public-sector engineers. There is a strong case here to do so because national security demands that we have a core group of local, rooted engineers to maintain our country's infrastructure. 

In the private sector, this is a much more difficult problem. The government cannot get over-protective of locals by restricting the supply of foreign labour too much as foreign companies will move their operations to other countries. The recent rising protectionist tide to prioritize local workers over foreign workers has come at a bad timing. More people are working from home due to Covid virus. If employers are comfortable with staff working remotely from home, then why not simply hire cheaper and equally competent staff from other countries with lower cost of living like India and Vietnam? Foreigners need not come to Singapore to take jobs away from Singaporeans. They can do so working from their homes. Rising protectionism may accelerate this trend. It is perfectly legitimate to punish some foreign employers who discriminate against local workers if they have a strong bias to hire and bring their own village over but Singaporeans need to be mindful that our economy is still very reliant on foreign companies who are free to leave. 

I hope more tech entrepreneur success stories like Dr Shi Xu becoming billionaires will attract more talented Singaporeans to consider engineering as a career in Singapore. I am happy to hear more stories of engineering salaries going up in recent years.

Show them the money, then more will come.


  1. hyom,


    A lot more girls will take up engineering if more engineering lecturers were to look like Dr Shi Xu ;)

    More local success stories of entrepreneurship would benefit Singapore as we can't always be depending on foreign MNCs.

    Personally, I don't think people will aspire to join engineering to become more "entrepreneurial" though...

    I would think that's the opposite...

    The more important "hooks" to draw people into engineering is if we can show engineering graduates have HIGHER starting salaries over other faculties, brighter career advancement prospects, more ego boosting prestige in society; etc.

    (Or have more chio bus in engineering faculties, but who are we kidding!?)

    You know how it is today in Singapore...


    Have more HIGH PROFILE engineers in parliament!


  2. Hi Singapore Man of Leisure,

    Engineers who later on become entrepreneurs have one advantage. Their deeper technical understanding can help them play a stronger role in ensuring product quality. When product quality is bad, even honest salesmen will have to resort to snake-oil tactics to sell the lousy product. The customer will blame the poor salesman but if you drill down to the root cause, it's bad engineering.

    I hope you are in a lucky position to be selling high-quality products designed by competent engineers in your sales job so that you can look at yourself in the mirror with pride because every time you close a deal, you are creating value for your customer. Having good engineers is so important.

    Engineers do have HIGHER starting salaries today as well as during my time. As for brighter career advancement prospects, it depends on which company and which industry he is working in. If it is a shrinking industry like electronics in Singapore, it is much harder to have brighter career prospects even if the engineer is competent and proactive. However, if the engineer joins a high-growth tech company in a high-growth industry similar to those in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen, then career advancement prospects await even for the average engineer. Since more of these high-tech foreign companies are setting up operations here in Singapore, I see bright prospects for engineers who join them.

  3. If i remember correctly, about 10 years back, banking line already if shifted some of their operations to India & Philippines liao...

  4. Some local engineers that i know... (cannot tell u where lah, but i think u know where i referring to lor)... they didn't know much about technical works and have no interest to know more also. They have more interest in management work... so really hard to find a entrepreneurs engineer...

    1. Hi Sy,

      If they're interested in management work, then better do management work. It is easier to produce excellent work when doing stuff that we are interested in. It will be sad to become an unmotivated zombie worker who turns up every day for work just for the money and work until retirement.

  5. Yalor, good to do something that we are interested in as our job.
    Those "engineer" doing like admin work, respy to email, doing power point (only choose work that can present to big boss), manage people (but don't have management related degree), don't understand what happen at ground (technically). But taking "engineer" salary lei... 👍🏞

    1. That is one crucial difference between salary workers and self-employed/entrepreneurs. Salary workers can be unmotivated zombie workers and still draw a comfortable salary at the end of the month. Self-employed/entrepreneurs will die of hunger if they are not hungry enough to hunt for food.


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