ANGER. That’s the word which best describes how some Singaporeans feel about the Govt giving scholarships to foreign students, particularly when there’s no bond attached, or when the foreign scholars can break bonds with apparent impunity.
Totally understandable, especially in light of foreign students crowding our universities. But it reflects a poor understanding on the part of critics of what scholarships should be, because their thinking has been perverted by the Govt’s scholarship-bond model of the last 50 years. It also ignores the reality of these “scholarships”, which are really nothing more than inducements to come to Singapore.
But let’s start from basics. What is a scholarship?
Wiki defines it as “an award of financial aid for a student to further education.” It adds “Scholarships are awarded on various criteria usually reflecting the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award.”
Great men like Cecil Rhodes used their wealth to set up scholarships because they wanted to give back to society, to nurture young people towards values they wanted to uphold.
Hence, the selection process focuses on leadership potential, character and noble values such as truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, willingness to contribute to society, etc.
There are no restrictions on the course of study, and there is no notion of a bond at all, because the offer is made in the belief that the recipient lives the values of the scholarship.
This is how scholarships should be.
Chen Show Mao is a Rhodes Scholar, and in the best tradition of Rhodes, has given up his multi-million career to contribute to society as a full-time MP.
He lives the values of Rhodes.
The PAP Government saw scholarships differently. Rather than promoting noble values, it saw scholarships as a means of nation building.
Thus scholarships were given to attract young men and women into the Civil Service. However, in its desire to make the social contract airtight, Govt scholarships came with bonds plus hefty damages for bond-breakers.
While scholars in the early years were grateful to the Govt for providing them a quality education they could not afford themselves, later scholars realised how the Govt had perverted the spirit of scholarships with bonds. They realised that the aim of Govt scholarships was no longer to benefit society or uphold noble values, but a way for the Civil Service to renew its elite.
As such, they had no qualms breaking their bonds and paying the liquidated damages, if they felt they could do better in the private sector themselves, or if they no longer believe in Singapore Inc or the PAP way.
In response the Govt started its name-and-shame campaign against bond-breakers, claiming that scholarship bonds are not just a legal obligation which can be broken at will, but also a moral duty to society.
As a result, many Singaporeans now think that scholarships are a matter of obligations and bonds, and do not understand the spirit of scholarships. Many students I speak to now compare scholarship offers in terms of the conditions and duration of their bonds rather than the values and qualities that scholarship was meant to uphold.
What a perversion!
But back to the present.
Critics complain that the Govt offers so many scholarships to foreigners, which Singaporeans are not eligible for. They are pissed that the Govt shames Singaporean bond-breakers and collects LD from them, but can’t do the same against foreign scholars effectively. They also feel that taxpayers’ money is better spent on helping Singaporean students cope with university fees, rather than on ungrateful foreign students who only want to use Singapore as a stepping stone to go to the US.
I think that if these critics understood the purpose of scholarships (as described above), they would not feel this way. Britain gave Singapore students scholarships under the Colombo Plan, and never asked for anything back. They only hoped that such scholars would return and contribute to economic development in Singapore. Now that Singapore is rich, it is only right that Singapore should help other less-developed countries in the same way, eg through the ASEAN scholarship.
But in the context of the complaints, most of the Govt scholarships for foreigners do come with bonds or a requirement for such foreign scholars to work in Singapore for at least two years after graduation.
The reason is simple– Singapore is short of young people due to our Two is Enough campaign. The hope is that these young graduates will want to settle in Singapore after working two years.
That’s the only reason why Singapore offers so many scholarships to students from China, India, etc. There are no noble values the Govt tries to promote thru scholarships. For the Singapore Govt, it is always about what they give vs what they get.
Obviously, we will not get 100% success. Some scholars may break their “bonds” or leave Singapore for greener pastures after a few years.
There is nothing anyone can do to stop them, but it does not mean the policy is a failure, or that one should stop giving scholarships.
Hopefully, critics will now see that the Govt is not discriminating against Singaporeans by offering foreigners scholarships. What they’re doing is to try to repair a failed family planning policy from 30 years ago.
Whether this is the right thing to do is a separate matter, but there is nothing sinister or discriminatory in the Govt’s actions.