They should make me the Prime Minister."
- Chinese Imperial Scholar
THE NEW ECONOMY
20 years ago, most people changed jobs infrequently and freely accepted the idea that they might very well work all their lives for the same employer. For example, Mr Wang Zhen's father worked for the same company for 35 years. In those times, a scholarship bond would not have been perceived as disadvantageous. Instead it would be seen as an advantage - even before graduation, the scholar would already have been guaranteed employment, and for six to eight years!
Nowadays, people change jobs frequently. This is the New Economy. If you stay too long in the same job, you may be perceived as lacking in drive and dynamism. Changing jobs every so often is one of the best ways to stay on the learning curve, acquire new skills and boost your earning power. You also have to move quickly to grab opportunities in the fast-changing marketplace. So far in his life, Mr Wang has already worked for the civil service, two law firms, and two banks.
In this new age, a scholarship bond can be hazardous to your career. This is especially so because a civil servant's experience is often not easily transferable to the private sector. If you work for Citibank, chances are that your skills will also be relevant to JP Morgan; HSBC; DBS; OCBC; UOB or ABN AMRO. If you work for the Government of Singapore, well, there is no other government in Singapore that you can work for.
All these factors means that bright young Singaporeans will think twice, and very hard, before accepting a government scholarship. The New Economy demands that each individual take responsibility for his own career; plan his own strategy; and be ready to move quickly when opportunity comes along. Being trapped for six years to the same employer can therefore be highly detrimental to your career. Increasingly, this means that many bright young Singaporeans who accept government scholarships will do so only after doing their calculations and concluding that if they really needed to, they would be able to afford to break their bond.
COMPETITION FROM THE WHOLE WORLD
A long time ago, the common perception was that the Singapore government was a most excellent employer. Government jobs were cushy, the working hours were regular, and most importantly, the job was an iron rice bowl. The government would never go bankrupt and it would never sack you, unless you screwed up formidably or committed a crime. Furthermore, and very importantly, the Singapore government provided accelerated career paths for scholars and gave them quick, easy promotions. Thus the Singapore government was a great place to work, for people who were bright enough to win scholarships.
All of the above remains more or less true (except that some civil servants nowadays have terrible working hours). A few other things have changed. Firstly, the world globalised and became a smaller place. Secondly, the MNCs of the world now understand that human capital is the ultimate key to success. In other words, the competition to attract talent has become much hotter. The Singapore government is not just competing with other local employers for the brightest young Singaporeans. The Singapore government is competing with the whole world for the brightest young Singaporeans.
If you are a truly talented young Singaporean with a brilliant academic record, the choice today is not just whether to be a scholar in Singapore, or a non-scholar in Singapore. The other available choices are whether to work for the world's biggest companies and most generous employers - in New York, London, Hong Kong, Silicon Valley, wherever opportunity calls you to.
Increasingly, this means that the Singapore government will fail to attract some bright young Singaporeans, even though they are the brightest of the bright, and therefore the Singapore government's most desirable targets.
A CHANGE OF VALUES
I believe that in the past, many of the people who applied for government scholarships genuinely felt a calling to public service. They wanted to serve the country and felt that the best way to do that was to be in the government.
Times have changed. This is obvious even in the uppermost echelons of the government. Today, our ministers tell us that if we do not increase their world-class salaries to the world's highest salaries for government ministers, then they are likely to become corrupt and rob our nation's coffers.
Autopsy reveals the true cause of death - low ministerial salary."
With leaders like that, we should not expect our bright young Singaporeans to possess high ideals. If they do possess high ideals, then we should applaud them, but if they do not, we should not be surprised.
The point therefore is that high ideals have grown somewhat obsolete in our system. In contrast, monetary rewards play an ever-increasing role. This will affect the government scholarship system. Fewer Singaporeans will accept government scholarships because they genuinely feel called to public service. More and more Singaporeans will accept scholarships because of reasons such as monetary rewards or prestige. And when monetary rewards are better elsewhere, then we expect bright young Singaporeans to decline scholarships. When the alluring novelty of prestige has worn off, we expect government scholars to break their bonds.
The PERILS OF BEING MORE AFFLUENT
Many, many years ago, the personal stories of our government scholars were an inspiration to the ordinary people of Singapore. We used to read in the newspapers about how a taxi driver's son or a widowed seamstress's daughter studied so hard and scored all the A's and won a President's Scholarship. The moral of the story was that if you worked hard, then there was always hope, no matter how disadvantaged your personal circumstances might be.
This no longer happens. It simply no longer happens. The typical profile of our scholars has changed. The vast majority of scholars come from very wealthy family backgrounds. Their parents are likely to be highly educated themselves.
I think that this is a natural manifestation of a highly competitive education system. Over the years, our system has grown ever more competitive. And in a highly competitive education system, every little advantage counts. To be rich is an advantage. To have well-educated parents is an advantage.
The rich kid spends no time on housework because his maid does all of it; therefore he has more time to study. The rich kid's parents can afford to send him for violin lessons and tennis class; therefore his CCA record looks more impressive. The rich kid's father is a doctor and his mother is a lawyer; therefore his father can help him with A-level Biology and his mother can help him with General Paper. The rich kid's parents can send him to the best independent schools which in turn lay the route to the best junior colleges.
These advantages accumulate over years, and in the end, we see that the most prestigious scholarships almost invariably end up with the rich kids. A President's Scholar is not made in a day. He is not even made in a year. I say that the process starts somewhere around the age of eight or nine, when his well-educated parents engineer his entry into the Gifted Enrichment Programme by buying him books with MENSA IQ tests that he can practise taking.
They would have sent me to ITE!" - Albert Einstein
I believe that it is still quite possible for the relatively poor Singaporean to succeed (say, to the extent that he enters a local university and graduates). I just don't believe that it is very possible for the relatively poor Singaporean to succeed at the very highest levels, and win the most prestigious scholarships.
Why is this significant? It is significant because only the relatively poor would be profoundly grateful for their scholarships. It is only the relatively poor who would think, "If not for this scholarship, I would not be able to attend university at all, let alone study here in Stanford. I must serve my bond faithfully and give something back to Singapore."
For the rich, the prestigious scholarship is more like a trophy. It is a symbol of achievement, something that looks good in a CV, something to be very proud of. But it is not something to be deeply grateful for.
In the end, it means that the Singapore government scholars of today, being affluent, and being less grateful for their opportunity, would tend to be relatively less committed to public service. This is in comparison to the poorer Singapore government scholars of yesteryear - those heroic sons and daughters of taxi drivers and widowed seamstresses. That noble breed is now extinct.
ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE GOVERNMENT
The performance of the Singapore government has steadily grown less and less impressive over the years. Mr Wang himself used to be a staunch supporter of the PAP government. In the years 1994 - 1997, Mr Wang zipped busily around the Internet chastising those who would criticise the PAP government.
But one thing happened, then another, then another - electoral gerrymandering; world-class ministerial salaries; faltering economic growth; collapsing highways; a ridiculous criminal legal system; massive unemployment; nationwide blackouts; poor Singaporeans living without water and electricity. The evidence is undeniable. Today Mr Wang cannot say with a straight face that he thinks highly of the Singapore government. Mr Wang is an honest man.
Mr Wang believes that he is not the only one who feels this way. He thinks that there is a higher percentage of intelligent people today who have a negative perception of the Singapore government. This is in contrast to Singaporeans, say, 15 years ago.
As the public perception of the Singapore government grows more and more negative over the years, Mr Wang feels that fewer and fewer bright young Singaporeans will feel inclined to accept a government scholarship. No one wants to work in an environment populated by incompetent fools.
PERFORMANCE, NOT GRADES
In the drive for higher performance, what really matters is .... higher performance. In the most efficient organisations, this means that everyone matters and everyone is encouraged to do his best. It also means that nothing is written in stone. The best people get the highest rewards, but who the best people are - that changes from year after year. You have to keep performing. If you perform less well, then you get smaller rewards. If you perform badly, then you have to leave. You cannot argue that you deserve to be made Director because 15 years ago, you scored 4 A's and 2 S-Paper distinctions and had an outstanding record as a Boy Scout.
In the Singapore scholarship system, the government and the scholars are stuck with each other for six years. Even if a scholar performs mediocrely, the government cannot ask him to leave. The government had already "paid" for him - it now needs to live with him. It is like mistakenly buying an expensive but ill-fitting pair of shoes. The shoes are so expensive that you cannot bear to throw them away. So you force your feet into them and suffer the blisters for six years.
You guys are still gonna make me rich!"
Over time, this leads to several implications. Firstly, the Singapore government will consistently fail to get optimal performance from its employees. This is because it will consistently fail to reward optimal performance.
Secondly, some people will be pushed into senior positions, not because they are performing well and have displayed the ability to do well in these positions, but merely because the government gave them a scholarship when they were 18 years old, is now stuck with them, and has to put them somewhere.
Thirdly, as high-performing non-scholars will regularly leave the civil service after a relatively short time, the majority of non-scholar employees lefy behind will be average, mediocre or poor performers. Once again, we have a model where the Singapore government is failing to get good performance from its overall workforce. This has serious implications because non-scholars still necessarily form the bulk of the civil service.
These are the main reasons why I said in my earlier post that the scholarship system worked very well in the past, but not today. If the readers of Commentary Singapore are still interested, then in my next post, I will propose how the Singapore government scholarship system can be improved.