20 June 2005


"Dammit. I flunked my Econs S-Paper."

A letter to the Straits Times Forum caught my eye today. I saw several angles to it which, I'm fairly sure, the writer himself did not.

June 20, 2005
Embrace elites in order to enrich our society
By Robin Chan

MY APPLICATION to join the 'elite' club was rejected when I failed to score 4 As and a S-paper distinction. My eagerly awaited interview for the prestigious PSC scholarship never materialised. For the first time in my life, I felt vulnerable. The clouds I had been floating on since my days at Raffles Institution suddenly evaporated. I was hurled back into reality and felt like another casualty of 'the system'.

My dreams of overseas study seemingly dashed, it was a while before I summoned up enough confidence to tell myself that I still had the ability to succeed.

I stumbled through NS like an elephant on stilts. It was an awkward and uncomfortable time, but I saw the real struggles of those who had fallen by the wayside. I realised that far from being a casualty, I was still very much a functioning product of 'the system' - I had an education.

I did eventually secure a scholarship that allowed me to go overseas. I was part of the elite again.

There is nothing wrong with an educated or a governing elite. Elitism has become another of those cursed 'isms' - the convenient concoction of complainers.

Elitism is a state of mind, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we dislike it, the more it becomes a bane to our society. There will always be casualties, given the meritocratic nature of our system. Which system has no flaws?

Let's turn elitism on its head. We should not let the educated elite be the be-all and end-all of our society. Since we each have a myriad of talents, there is space to create many kinds of elites, and society will be richer for it.

The writer is a second-year student majoring in International Political Economy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The Question of Self-Esteem

In my view, one great flaw of the Singapore system is that it disallows Singaporeans from feeling good about themselves. Most people go through it and emerge with their self-esteem damaged. Severely damaged, in some cases.

The misconception is that this is a problem afflciting the Normal stream students, the ITE students etc. WRONG, in my view. The problem exists at all levels.

The letter above is one example. The writer was from Raffles Institution, won an overseas scholarship and is now studying at a prestigious American university. Yet he felt like a "casualty of the system" and suffered a serious confidence problem, when his application for a PSC scholarship was rejected.

This reminds me of one of my friends, a President's Scholar. At that time, he had already graduated with 1st Class Honours from Cambridge and was rapidly rising through the ranks of the civil service. He was feeling somewhat down and wanted to meet me to talk about his woes.

So we met up and I bought him a beer and lent him a sympathetic ear. "So, what's your problem? Let's talk about it," I said. It turned out that he was feeling insecure and inadequate. He felt incompetent and useless. He was having a mini personal crisis of confidence at work.

"You are nuts, my friend," I said, as sympathetically as I could (which is to say, not very sympathetic). "You just got promoted a few months ago. You have a 1st class degree from Cambridge. And you are a President's Scholar. You could sit there and twiddle your thumbs and they will promote you anyway."

"Yes, I know," he said mournfully. "But I feel really lousy. I am not as good as the other President's Scholars. I am really just not as good as the other President's Scholars."

Local Universities vs Overseas Universities

The letter writer had been deeply disappointed at not being to go overseas for his university education. Has anyone ever thought about how the vice-chancellors and the dons of Singapore's local universities like NUS and NTU would feel about that?

What delicious irony. Our local institutions NUS and NTU have great aspirations to become world-class institutions. At the same time, our brightest young minds have great aspirations to avoid studying at our local institutions NUS and NTU.

While there is much to be said for an overseas education, I can't help but feel that its attraction for so many young Singaporeans is partially due to the marketing strategies of the PSC over the years.

These marketing strategies are hurting NUS and NTU. Perhaps these local institutions must start generating their own counter-hype. Don't ask me, go hire your marketing consultant. Maybe get Mercermachine. Or even XiaXue, queen of hype.

Slaking the Wanderlust

As Acidflask told us, scholarship bonds can be highly disadvantageous to your future career aspirations. So think carefully, young bright Singaporeans.

If your true desire is just to go abroad, see the world and experience life in another country, then I say this -

there will be other opportunities. Companies these days are forever posting employees to different parts of the world. Many jobs nowadays require the employee to make short business trips very frequently to many different countries. Or to relocate permanently to another country. Or to work on projects for some significant duration (six months to a year) in another country.

And so on.

So don't break your heart over the scholarship you didn't get.

(Personally, Mr Wang Zhen detests travelling on business. Travelling on holiday is fine, but travelling on business is icky)

The Dangers of a Overseas PSC Scholarship

Mr Wang would like to issue a warning about the dangers of a PSC overseas scholarship. The danger lies in the bond, and the working experience you will gain in those bondage years.

Young Singaporeans may not know enough about the working world to know the risks they are taking. You see, in many, many ways, the government operates very differently from the rest of the world - ie the private sector.

The implications? The experience you gain in the bonded years may not be easily transferable to the private sector, if you should subsequently decide to leave the civil service. Many government jobs have no parallel, or only very rough equivalents, in the private world.

Suppose for example you were a government scholar involved in planning policies to encourage Singaporeans to have more children. Or suppose you were an SAF scholar and your major responsibility was to steer a submarine. Or perhaps you were from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and you specialised in negotiating international treaties with Malaysia.

When it comes to the time to leave the civil service - how relevant do you think your work experience will be, to the private sector?

The Grapevine Chatter

1. Zuco's Blog
2. The Depths of Shallowness
3. Heavenly Sword
4. Singapore Angle


Merv said...

It's really strange that the letter writer only feel that he's "part of the elite" only after he secured a scholarship.

Having a scholarship is one thing, feeling like an elite having one is another thing.

if these guys are in charge of policy-making in the future, and if they "feel they are elite", would you think they'll ever feel for the common man?

Why must "being an elite" be part of the equation?

What rubbish. You have a passion in formulating policies, improving the lives of Singaporeans, then get a scholarship and later join a ministry.

If you want to get a scholarship, just to feel "elite", then whine while getting a very well paying job in the civil service, then shame on you.

Han said...

I really can't see why anyone would want to work in the civil service. It's like selling your soul to the devil. I can't think of anything more unfulfilling than pushing pencils, shuffling papers and do tai ji quan.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Actually, the civil service offers a very wide range of jobs, some of which can be very interesting. You wouldn't be able to find an equivalent job elsewhere.

On the other hand, this relates back to my "transferability of work experience" point.

It would be quite interesting to steer a submarine;

develop a plan to handle terrorist contingencies in Singapore;

be a District Court judge;

represent Singapore at UN meetings and conferences around the world;

would it not? And these are things which only the civil servants get to do.

Then again, the experience is often just not easily transferable. The longer you stay in the civil service, the harder it is to successfully move out.

Maybe that's why the government has to give top jobs in our GLCs to our faithful PSC scholars who have served faithfully for so long that they have become irrelevant to the real private sector.

Anonymous said...

Molly wants to be an elite, but when she cannot be an elite, elitism is bad. When Molly becomes an elite, elitism will be good.

takchek said...

Hehe, to think I nearly became one of them. Hmm, good blogging topic!

tausarpiah said...

hey mr wang (and takchek perhaps?),
maybe u should expound more on the local vs. overseas uni divide ... what about the job market, employers etc. in singapore ...? u noe their take on the two?

Beach-yi said...

One possible theme you can read or look up is the economic idea of positional goods. This realy applies to most capitalistic and mostly advanced countries but I think it is applicable anywhere there is 'inequalities' in terms of social status/class.

It's not really a new revolutionary idea, we all know about it intuitively aka keeping up with the jones', a few papers have been written to crystalise the concept, go hunt around for it online if you are interested.

Heavenly Sword said...

The use of the word "club" by Robin is interesting. Clubs are exclusive groups, in which "membership has its privileges". His letter makes me feel that he could be interested in being part of the club just because of the privileges and status that come with the club membership, which is so wrong. He may not have meant it that way, but the letter comes across that way, perhaps due to the choice of words (such as "prestigious"). One should not apply for a PUBLIC SERVICE commission scholarship just because it's "prestigious" - prestige shouldn't even be one of the major considerations.

Anonymous said...

I personally feel that he IS a casualty of the system. He had let the system "brainwash" him to such an extent that he actually believe that only by getting a scholarship that one can be successful.

Agagooga said...

Heh, I think I know the guy. We studied together (sort of).

I never really wanted to sell my soul anyway *g*

Anonymous said...

So you are Stray Cat from YPAP forum? Very nice commentary you got here indeed hehe.

As for your friend's point here
I am really just not as good as the other President's Scholars."

It is not surprising since we always based our happiness on how far we are from "our" reference group.

Anonymous said...

Another thing I just remember, in HK, do you think pop icons like Dicky Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Edison Chen etc etc will be considered as "elite" as those HK scholars(if they even have this)?

As in, when you ask a 9 year old HK kid, is he likely to say, "I want to grow up to be like the Twins?"

If so, we can understand better why being a govt scholar is so important to most Singaporean students. We simply lack alternative "role models".

Maybe Robin's last paragraph is saying the same thing, but I sense a "I have made it anyway, now, let others worry about that now."

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