05 July 2005


Scholarships seem to be the current hot topic. As usual, Mr Wang Zhen will surprise you with insights that you probably never thought of. To begin with, a quiz question. Find two differences between Group A:

Singapore Airlines / Singapore Press Holdings / Development Bank of Singapore / Singapore Power Ltd / SembCorp Industries / Singapore Armed Forces / Singapore Police Force

and Group B:

Citibank Singapore / Hyflux / Creative Technologies / Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation / Asia-Pacific Breweries / Courts Singapore / Goodwood Park Hotel /
Osim International / Fraser & Neave Ltd.

Got it? Here's the answer:

    1. All the Group A entities are linked to the Singapore government. But all the Group B organisations are genuine private-sector entities.

    2. All the Group A entities offer undergraduate scholarships. But none of the Group B organisations do.

Why is this the case? What makes genuine, bona fide commercial organisations shy away from offering undergraduate scholarships?

Money is not the issue. These are not puny little SMEs we're talking about. The Group B organisations are big players in their own right. If they thought that scholarships were a good idea, they would have no problems plonking down a few million dollars a year to fund the programme.

It is also not about the private sector not valuing talent. In fact, Citibank Singapore is an award-winning employer, well-known for the quality of its human resource programmes and policies. Banks like Citibank and OCBC in fact also run sophisticated management trainee programmes for people whom they believe have the potential to become their top employees. No bonds, and no scholarships, though.

The real reason is that the private sector knows that the undergraduate scholarship system is simply not reliable. It is a poor method for attracting and retaining talent. There is just too much crystal ball-gazing involved.

"I see .... glass and soap. I hear .... the sound of running water.
You will be bonded to the A*STAR Test-Tube Washing Department."

Suppose in the year 2005, you plonk your money on a bright young lady with excellent A-levels and a great CCA record. You are actually betting:

1. that she will perform well and learn valuable things in university from 2006 to 2009;

2. that in the year 2009, your organisation will have a job vacancy that's a good fit for her;

3. that she will be an outstanding performer when she starts work in 2009, (so outstanding that it was worth waiting 4 years for her);

4. that she will remain an outstanding performer from 2009 to 2014;

5. that from 2009 to 2014, there will be no mismatch between what your organisation can offer her, and the kind of career she expects or aspires to have.

So right now in 2005, scholarship boards are making bets all the way to 2014. And you thought the traders from China Aviation Oil were bad.

"Scholarships are just too risky.
I prefer to speculate in oil derivatives."
- Chen Juilin, China Aviation Oil.

In reality, some scholars break their bonds because they suddenly realise that their true interest lies somewhere else. Others grow disinterested and perform mediocrely. They count down their bonded days the way NSmen count down their military days to ORD. Others find that they just don't have the temperament for the job they're given. I know someone who took a PSC teaching scholarship only to find out too late that she really hated teaching. Other scholars are really great at physics or engineering or chemistry, but just don't like government policy-making.

Crystal ball-gazing is very difficult. You can't even tell where the oil prices might be next week. Never mind what will happen between now and the year 2014. That's why the private sector generally does not adopt the undergrad scholarship system.

GLCs follow the Singapore government system, because the GLCs are linked to the Singapore government. Ever notice how GLCs tend to be headed by ex-PSC scholars?

Meanwhile, the Singapore government struggles to revise the scholarship system. That's because this was the same system on which the Singapore government built itself. It would be a tricky exercise for ex-President's Scholars like Lee Hsien Loong or Vivian Balakrishnan to come forward and say that maybe President's Scholarships aren't such a great idea.

"Yes, I am the emperor. You like my new clothes?"

The traditional PSC scholarship system may have worked well in the past. Times, however, have changed, and the system hasn't evolved sufficiently. It is now a weak, wobbly dinosaur struggling with climate changes.

If the readers of Commentary Singapore are interested, Mr Wang will, in a subsequent post, explain why the system that once worked, no longer does.

Tyrannosaurus Scholarus Rex.
Enforces moral obligations & feeds on bond-breakers.


Anonymous said...

Yes, interested, please post, thank you.

Ellipsis said...

great article. looking forward to the next installment.

Angeline said...

"...there will be no mismatch between what your organisation can offer her, and the kind of career she expects or aspires to have..."

Yet the mismatch occurs often. The hapless scholar struggles so to lead a meaningful bonded existence.

Misery loves verification (and company, just not the *working* company it’s in) of the why-s.

Anonymous said...

I for one feel that Singapore's educational system would be so much less stressful if the ultimate payoff is not a "low risk/high return" job of a President Scholar.

takchek said...

Waiting for your part 2! :)

adinahaes said...

you raised alot of good points. I'll be waiting for part 2.

L'oiseau rebelle said...

Just came by here. Love your analogy with crystal ball-gazing.

I think another problem is that the scholars aren't given enough information about the type of jobs they'll eventually hold. And when they realize it too late, they either leave or unhappily serve their bond; either way is bad for both the scholar and the sponsoring agency.

And yet another problem is the assumption that good A Level grades = good policy makers. I don't quite see the logic there, unless you assume that good at studying = good policy makers, and now, that does sound a little absurd.

Waiting for part 2 too!

jeffyen said...

And yet another problem is the assumption that good A Level grades = good policy makers.

This is the assumption that keeps the whole exercise together. It doesn't have to be 'legitimate' to achieve its purposes. The idea is to have some sort of guage that represents 'excellence'. As long as the criteria are made explicit and everyone understands them, that in itself would 'bestow legitimacy' (helped along the way by the idea of 'meritocracy') to the assumption that scholars would be good policy makers. It's an easy-to-understand game rule. OT: what I'm interested in is what exactly is a 'good policy maker'.

Waiting for T-Rex's side of the story in Episode II. ;)

Anonymous said...

Talking with some people in GIC which prides itself on hiring people who could be president scholars), I found that mgmt was disappointed with the scholarship program so far, but are still running one to remain in line with the other organizatons.

Just to play devil's advocate, I find scholarship necessary from the government's perspective. Imagine you are a [Insert 'prestigious'overseas university name here] graduate, would you want to work as a civil servant for $2500 a month? If the government pays you corporate rates, how would that reflect on our $2000 a month grad from NUS/ NTU/ SMU?

Anonymous said...

to correct you on a point (erm, nitpick?), OCBC does offer undergraduate scholarships, but they are bond-free.


I guess this has got something to do with their connections to Lee Foundation also?

Huichieh said...

Trackback: From A Singapore Angle, "Mr. Wang on the scholarship system; angels and devils"

"...now with Mr. Wang's excellent and very detailed posts out, let me simply point in that general direction. But let me play the devil's advocate here for a moment..."

Anonymous said...

Great post, looking forward to part 2 of the scholarship expose!

Anonymous said...

Oops, just realised that this post was made quite a long time back. Time to start reading the archives of Mr Wang's blog which I haven't had the time to do just yet.

Silly me.

Great blog, excellent writing.
Keep it up Mr Wang!