BC column web Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

12 April 2019

The news that massive espionage had occurred at ASML’s San Jose’s affiliate made headlines in Dutch media. A few former ASML employees had stolen unique knowledge. Parliament was upset. Our high tech knowledge was stolen and Dutch interests had been damaged! Really!?

Last December, I was strolling through the Christmas malls in San Jose and was amazed that there were hardly any white customers in the heart of Silicon Valley. Almost all shoppers were Asian and among them many Chinese. When visiting companies, you will find the same pattern. In several offices, the working language is Mandarin or an Indian tongue. Silicon Valley was once a stronghold of white male engineers and has now turned Asian.

The Dutch high tech scene is moving in that same direction. This magazine is switching to English, a logical consequence of the changing scenery. If the staff had been really brave, they would have opted for Mandarin.

In the first four years I was lecturing at university, a total of 106 students attended classes. There was only one Dutchman in my audience – a son of an immigrant. More than half of the students were Chinese. The rest came from India, Iran, Southern Europe, and a few other places. My running gag was that in any pub in Bangkok you could hear more Dutch being spoken than in the canteen of a Dutch technical university.

Today, for every three retiring engineers universities deliver one replacement. Moreover, Dutch tech salaries are structurally lower than in the surrounding countries, causing a substantial outflow.

The high tech industry, whether in Silicon Valley or in the Netherlands, cannot survive without those Asian alumni from our universities. Of course, one day they will return to their home country to start ‘something’ with their education and knowledge. Are they to blame for re-using intellectual property? Perhaps we should remember Abdul Qadir Khan, who was educated in the Netherlands to become the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb.

Dutch society does not value technical knowledge as Asian societies do. Recently, I was teaching a group of young Chinese engineers in analog electronics. In the Netherlands, that field has been declared dead for a long time. That fate has struck many more traditional engineering disciplines. The demolition of those knowledge bases on colleges and universities never triggered questions in the media nor parliament. Nobody saw any danger in erasing these crucial technical specializations on our universities. Now, there are too few engineers to fill industry vacancies.

Philips divested its consumer branch, its defense activities, its component manufacturing know-how, and its semiconductor activities. Never one question was raised in parliament on what strategic opportunities were lost. Large parts of NXP with unique RF design knowledge (eg for 4-5G networks) were sold to Chinese investors. Not only the patents but also the know-how and even the physical brains were irrelevant to the Dutch national interests. And now Huawei is crucified as a potential safety risk! It might be true, but it’s also pure hypocrisy.

Earlier, Fokker, Daf, Organon, shipping companies, chemical and pharmaceutical companies fell into foreign hands. Not always Chinese hands, but protecting Dutch intellectual property interest obviously has never been considered particularly important.

Apparently, neither politicians and government nor the media and the general public see any problem in destroying our technical knowledge base from early education to high tech equipment manufacturing. As long as the business elite can make money. The merchant rules.

So Dutch media interest in the ASML IP theft is just for the headlines. This theft is a really serious crime that once more should open our eyes for the true intentions of superpowers. But already the merchants have stepped in: don’t blame the Chinese government; we want to do more business with them! Perhaps a couple of investors will sleep poorly tonight, but the Netherlands is already looking forward to tomorrow’s headlines.