Insights on Chemicals & Materials

By Chloe Mak

Discovery+ is a series of online industry panels which give students the chance to interact with working professionals and learn about the careers they aspire to enter. These panels provide youths and working professionals with the opportunity to better understand industry trends, hear first-hand perspectives from industry professionals, and gain valuable advice on entering or navigating these industries.

On 19 July 2022, Advisory hosted Discover+: Chemical & Materials, the 60th edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included:

  • Ow Kai Onn (Moderator), Vice President & Head Chemicals and Materials, Economic Development Board

  • Chng Loi Siang, Head of Controlling, Performance Materials Asia Pacific, BASF South East Asia Pte. Ltd.

  • Dr Dinesh Kumar Basker, Senior Researcher & Development Manager, Evonik (SEA) Pte. Ltd. 

  • Marc Teo, Regional Managing Director, South Asia Croda Singapore Pte. Ltd.

Below are some key points shared during the session:

It is a diverse sector with a vast number of companies. There are more than 50 companies worldwide, with the 50th company worth 6 billion in revenue. As of 2021, the top 20 companies make half a trillion dollars or 10 Tesla companies. It is also one of the oldest industries, and the top 50 companies are usually international companies with global operations. The industry does not revolve around office work only, but also manufacturing and R&D as well, along with a wide variety of activities. 

The oil and gas industry sells crude oil, some of which is refined to fuel products. Some crude oil is further refined into chemicals, which is what our industry is concerned about. 

On the other hand, the chemical industry is non-fuel related, and it is increasingly evolving around buzzwords such as sustainability, low-carbon, artificial intelligence (AI), digital tool usage and 3D printing.

One highlight we had was finding a new chemical reaction that showed an interesting non-linear optical effect during our research. This was the world’s first reaction that showed the effect. 

Aside from highlights in the scientific part of our industry, our highlights also include overseas stints. While abroad, the key is to challenge ourselves to learn a lot in a short span of time. These enabled us to learn more about our company, its culture and people, and industry trends abroad. Do seize the opportunity to work overseas when you have the chance to do so.

Something surprising is that the chemical industry has a significant influence on civilisation. While it is well known that there are a few areas in which the chemical industry is useful, the prevalence of the industry is increasingly being appreciated. 

Similarly, trends such as digitalisation and sustainability are also shaping the industry in different ways, such as how biochemistry, instead of just chemistry, is increasingly needed due to sustainability. A lot of innovation is driven by sustainability and it is also prioritised over functionality as compared to the past. 

Lastly, the speed at which change in the industry is occurring is surprising as well, especially in the last 5-6 years. One example would be in the paint industry, where water-based systems are increasingly used as they are more sustainable. In the past, such systems could not be functionally replaced. However, better technology is currently accelerating this change.

As long as you chase your passions, yet remain logical about it, you can venture into different industries regardless of working locations. Being able to take varying sides of an idea and convert it into different products is one way to follow your passions.

It is not just about how you plan to get into the industry, but rather finding out what you want to do in it and looking for challenges at the same time. This builds your knowledge and working style, which will provide you with new experiences.

Most of our posts were based in Singapore; we only went overseas to find new challenges such as switching careers within the industry. It was not difficult to do so as many companies have a strong Singaporean presence which allowed us to springboard into overseas companies.

You can talk to peers and seniors in the company to learn about chemistry. Learning on the job is like selling a cookie, one needs to RND to find out which flavour is the most popular, ensuring that the cookies have no allergies for consumers, and the equipment that is needed to mix and make the cookie. Last but most importantly, treat everyone with respect and try to exchange knowledge.

Look out for trends, as the chemical industry is growing and will not go away. For example, sustainable biofuel is one of the hotter trends around, and the industry is generally going into sustainability, transparency in ingredients, and the development of natural solutions. 

You will have to see things from multiple perspectives as well. These things include the ways to do bioengineering with plants that already produce biofuel, the number of plants that are needed for fuel, or biovarients that can give better fuel efficiency. 

A knowledge of chemistry and biology is needed, as well as some research perspective and multidisciplinary knowledge. Lastly, you should also learn and think about how to put ideas into something that the customer wants.

The minimum entry-level salary ranges from 5-6k, depending on years of experience. One does not actually need a chemistry degree to be a part of the industry. In some cases, companies do look for at least 3 years of experience. While salary is important, it is also crucial to see what the company offers you. For example, some companies offer different rotations of roles for new employees, and the salary remains comparable to other companies once they finish the programme.

Gender diversity is moving in the right direction, with more women getting into research. Leaders in the companies will definitely need to intervene and work on other forms of diversity beyond gender, since the industry is also looking for those in non-chemical backgrounds to value-add in other ways such as through data analysis.