11 July 2005

Mr Wang's Scholarly Musings

Aha! Mr Wang has found a critic and detractor. Excellent! It shows that this blog attracts thinking readers. Mr Wang loves to have thinking readers - their presence proves that Commentary Singapore offers things to think about. Mr Wang's critic is found here. The critic sniffs doubtfully at Part III of Mr Wang's writings on the scholarship system. Here is the critic's first sniff:

    "Part Three is a rather big letdown though. And No, I Won’t Even Charge PSC A Cent For My Brilliant Ideas, while offering sensible suggestions target specifically at PSC, is somewhat dated already and sadly sounds like a laundry list of ‘been there, done that’ suggestions. Which is probably testimony to the difficulty of the problem of fixing the system while it’s not obviously broken… yet. Suggestion One, to cut down the number of awards, already went into effect last year. They’ve trimmed their ’soft target’ intake from about 150 scholars/year to 50. The other bit , to have a scholarship aimed at graduate school for existing civil servants, sounds exactly like the existing Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship scheme. I fail to see the difference."

The astute Mr Wang will now explain. Cutting down the number of undergrad awards was only a side point for Mr Wang. The main point of cutting down is merely to have more funds to offer more graduate scholarships for existing civil servants. And how is Mr Wang's 1st Brilliant Idea (henceforth, "1BI") different from the existing Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship scheme? In several ways.

Firstly, civil servants as well as non-civil servants may apply for the LKY scholarship. Whereas the 1BI is open only to existing civil servants. Secondly, the LKY scholarship comes with no bond. Whereas the 1BI comes with a bond. Thirdly, the LKY scholarship allows a free choice of the course of study and uses traditional selection criteria (such as a good record in social or community services or sports). However, the 1BI focuses on the applicant's actual work performance and requires him to choose a course relevant to his existing career in the civil service.

These are very important differences. The 1BI helps the Singapore government to retain human talent by means of a bond. The LKY scholarship does not. Also, the 1BI is a much more specific & effective tool for selecting the correct people to be trained in the specific areas where the Singapore government needs people to be trained.

For example, suppose there is an outstanding young economist, John Tan, working at the Ministry of Trade & Industry. Everyone agrees that his performance is amazingly impressive and everyone sees a lot of potential in him. John really likes his job in the civil service and he really loves the high-level economic planning that he can do at MTI. "I want to plan the nation, not just a company!" he says. He played a big part in the India-Singapore free trade agreement that the two governments recently signed. John hopes to do a Masters degree in economics so that he can acquire new knowledge and do his job even better in future.

John is a prime candidate for an 1BI scholarship, and it is clear that he is a good catch for MTI. After all, they've seen him in action, in the actual workplace. However, using traditional PSC selection criteria, John is an immediate loser. After all, he had flunked his Chinese language exam twice, and he had only taken one S-Paper (Economics - he scored a Distinction, but still that's only one distinction). His performance in other subjects was spotty - he even got a D for Literature. Furthermore, he had a lousy CCA record (he had spent all his free time in the library reading about economics. Instead of playing sports or musical instruments or selling flags in Orchard Road).

Under the PSC traditional scholarship criteria, John's human potential goes to waste. The D for Literature kills his scholarship hopes. Never mind the fact that no economist in MTI really needs to know the difference between free verse poetry and iambic pentameter. Never mind the fact that you don't need to know how to play tennis or have a Diploma in Classical Piano in order to be a top-class economist. John just won't get his PSC scholarship.

"The PSC rejected my application too. They wanted all-rounded scholars
who excel in team sports." - Stephen Hawking.

However, under Mr Wang's 1BI, John's talent (as an economist) is recognised for what it is. The 1BI scholarship will help John to develop his talent further, and bind him for a further X years of service to the civil service. John may never learn to appreciate Chaucer or Shakespeare or to distinguish between the Key of C and the Key of A Minor. But Singapore will benefit from his years of service as a strategic economist.

Conclusion - Mr Wang is smarter than the PSC. Ahhh, but you already knew that, didn't you? Back to my critic's next point:

    "Idea Two, to choose consciously for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, sounds very much like a bursary scheme of financial aid, albeit ‘upgraded’ in the sense that it would be just as prestigious (presumably) as a non-busaried scholarship."
Mr Wang must apologise if his earlier post wasn't that clear. Mr Wang's 2nd Brilliant Idea ("the 2BI") is not so much about helping the really, really disadvantaged students (for that, we have bursaries). The crux lies in where you draw the line for "maximum household income". An illustration:

Ex-President Wee Kim Wee's granddaughter was a President's Scholar. Ex-Minister Tay Eng Soon's daughter was a President's Scholar. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's two sons and one daughter were all President's Scholars. These scholars were all people who didn't need scholarships to go to Oxford, Cambridge and wherever else they went. If they hadn't received those scholarships, Daddy and Mummy would have paid for them to go anyway, thank you very much. Instead, taxpayers' money (YOUR money, MY money) was used to send these rich kids.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend has only grown stronger through the years. An ever-increasing percentage of PSC scholarships go to wealthy kids who do NOT need the money. They would go to the best overseas universities REGARDLESS of whether they got the scholarship or not. Daddy can afford it.

Let's think in terms of the national interest. First assumption: places like Cambridge, Harvard, Yale offer a very high-quality education. Second assumption: A high-quality education is a good thing. Third assumption: the more Singaporeans receive a high-quality education, the better for Singapore. If you agree with these assumptions, then logically this follows:

If public money is to be spent on individual Singaporeans' high-quality education overseas, then the money should go to bright Singaporeans who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford such education. In other words, DON'T use taxpayers' money to finance people who are already filthy rich. Those people are going overseas anyway, and no, it won't hurt their pockets. Mr Wang suggests the following guideline:

If the parents earn more than $500,000 a year, then the student should not be eligible to apply for a public scholarship, unless there are some truly exceptional circumstances. Like, his parents hate his guts and refuse to give him a single cent.

There. Next criticism, please:

    "And with regard to Point Three, to have scholarships with reduced the bond terms, PSC has proven themselves over and over again to be very rigid about the period of bond service, that it is completely non-negotiable except via liquidated damages. And scholars at local universities already have three-year bond periods anyway. And to play the devil’s advocate, it wasn’t too long ago that overseas scholars had their bond reduced from eight to six years."

Mr Wang is not suggesting that people accept scholarships with bonds, and then negotiate for shorter bonds. That would be a painful administrative hassle for everyone.

Mr Wang is suggesting that the PSC offer different types of scholarships, some with shorter bonds. Mr Wang is also suggesting that the PSC need not try to pay all tuition expenses for an overseas scholarships. For example, the PSC can award only 50% of the money that it currently hands out to an overseas scholar. The bond is accordingly shortened. The scholar pays for the rest of the expenses himself.

Mr Wang's critic points out that local scholars already have 3-year bonds anyway. However, Mr Wang is working on the assumption that there are better places in the world than NUS, NTU, SMU etc for bright Singaporeans to study at. Thus Mr Wang's scheme is to enable more bright Singaporeans to be able to afford to go to top universities overseas, without:

(A) being given what they don't need (100% coverage of overseas expenses, when a lower percentage, say, 75% or 40%, would do); or

(B) being saddled with what isn't necessarily good for them OR the PSC (a very long scholarship bond).

Next criticism, please:

    "Brilliant Idea Number Four, to foster greater cooperation across scholarship agencies, is to some extent already implemented, but only in one direction. PSC scholars are advantaged over non-PSC scholars, to the extent that they have more opportunities to ‘jump ship’, to transfer to a specific statutory board if they so wished. It’s not a well-publicised feature of the scholarship, but it exists. The official channels are closing though, with PSC justifying their closure with the proliferation of specialized scholarships. And FIREFLY is perhaps an example of a scholarship that offers some diversity of choice, albeit not at the level of PSC’s Open scholarships, where the doors to practically all ministries (and several stat. boards) are wide open."

Frankly, Mr Wang did not know about this Firefly scheme. After checking it out, Mr Wang is most unimpressed. Puh-lease. These are all statutory boards answerable to the same Minister of Trade & Industry. They all fall under the same umbrella. How much diversity in job options do you really expect to get under Firefly?

Mr Wang's idea is much grander in scope. It allows for movement from the Singapore government to the government-linked companies. When you consider the fact that there are many GLCs, you see that Mr Wang is offering a far wider range of career options for PSC scholars.

Many government jobs are peculiarly "government". Many private-sector jobs have no parallel in the government. By allowing scholars the possibility of accessing the two realms of the working world, Mr Wang massively increases the probability that PSC scholars will be able to find a job that best suits their temperament and personal interests. This is much more preferable than the scholar growing unhappy where he is , threatening to break his bonds, and getting labelled in the mass media as an immoral, ungrateful sinner.

"To hell with the PSC! I'd rather drink the hemlock!"
- The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques-Louis David


Elia Diodati said...

Much as I would agree with you in principle, I was, and am, merely pointing out what has already been done, AFAIK. And stating my view that despite my agreement with your ideas, I still remain pessimistic that the situation will change in the manners that you have outlined.

WRT 1BI (to use your nomenclature): why is there a need for a scholarship that is exclusively for civil servants? If the scholars agree to work for the civil service, there should not be a significant difference between a civil servant and a non, assuming the hypothetical scholarship board agrees that they have comparable work experiences above and over whatever flaws their academic transcripts contain. It should then follow that even if your imaginary John scored an F in A level economics yet managed to pull off some comparable coup de grĂ¢ce in MTI, he should be just as eligible for the 1BI scholarship as if he got that S paper distinction that you taked about.

WRT 2BI: I can only say that the guideline as stated is somewhat simplistic. This unfairly penalizes students with more siblings, assuming that each sibling is qualified and interested in pursuing expensive, quality educational experiences. Then again such criticism, plus quibbles over how to define special incomes such as inheritances, lottery winnings, out-of-country assets, is probably little more than splitting hairs.

WRT 3BI: I am merely pointing out that currently under most scholarship schemes, the bond lengths are not a straightforward function of the benefits earned, in terms of period of study. UK students who do not pursue honors year programs usually take 3 years to graduate. US students are given 4 years. Yet in both cases the bond is fixed at 6 years. Rumors have it that people who don't complete the program in the stipulated time frame can still get by without an extension in the bond period, Students in non-Anglosphere countries take longer, and at least in the case of PSC, have a bond term of only 5 years. Given the facts above, it is unlikely that PSC will be amenable to go for 3BI. At the very least, it would mean a significant restructuring on their HR staffing policy, and lots of bureaucratic wrangling to justify a more complicated scheme.

WRT 4BI: last I heard from PSC et. al., they were looking at *closing* such avenues for transfer, rather than opening them. The rationale for which, I was told, is apparently to avoid 'competition' with statutory boards/ministries/GLCs that already offer their own scholarships. Which of course is missing the whole point, as far as trying to find a good fit between scholar and agency is concerned, since the agencies are effectively pushing the vast majority of this responsibility to the applicant, and focusing it at the time of application. But this is apparently what, and how, our civil servants think.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Wrt 1BI, you must revisit my earlier post. Offering an undergrad scholarship to a person who has just finished A-levels, and offering a graduate scholarship to a young civil servant both serve the purpose of bonding the desired candidate to the organisation. However, as I had mentioned earlier, offering the graduate scholarship to the young civil servant has several advantages. One of these is that the existing civil servant already has a taste of what public service is all about. He is a far better position than the 18-year-old teenager who just finished junior college, to decide whether he really wants to be bonded to the civil service for the next X years. Thus you are much less likely to end up with an unhappy scholar who decides that the civil service does not suit him and that he wants to break his bond and quit.

Yes, you are right, if the imaginary John had done badly in all A-level subjects but done very well in MTI, the 1BI might well extend to him a scholarship. That is another example of the brilliance behind the 1BI.

Wrt 2B1 - the guideline IS simplistic. I could design something more sophisticated but here I am more interested in fleshing out the principle (I am after all not a real civil servant. The real civil servants could ponder CPF balances; income tax assessment; number of siblings; value and number of properties owned etc).

Wrt 3BI - yes, I fully agree that this would entail significant changes. Would Mr Wang ever suggest insignificant changes? Again, let's consider the principle rather than the details. The idea is that PSC can offer less valuable scholarships (in terms of monetary value) and accordingly, the scholarship bond can be reduced. It may not necessarily be a strict linear relationship; but in the end, the desired results are these:

- more bright Singaporeans can afford to study at top overseas universities, without being burdened by unnecessarily lengthy bonds;

- the disadvantages, for the PSC as well as for the scholar, of a long bond are reduced.

4BI - Ah. See, another example of Mr Wang being more brilliant than the PSC.

Are my ideas currently in use? No, I don't think so. For 1BI, I envisage that the graduate scholarship for existing civil servants is could the MAIN form of scholarship that PSC hands out. This clearly is not the case right now.

2BI is also clearly not in use. What I am suggesting is not a bursary. My idea of a bursary is monetary assistance for clearly disadvantaged people - people who otherwise cannot pay their university fees at NUS. Whereas 2BI is about excluding the very wealthy from using public money to finance their own education - so that the money can go elsewhere and help other Singaporeans get a quality overseas education.

As far as I know, 3BI is also not in use. Your point about PSC probably not going to be amenable to the idea suggests that indeed, nothing like 3BI is currently in use.

Anonymous said...

A PSC bondbreaker (whom himself has written about how the system should be changed) arguing with someone advocating change with the current system.

This is rich. The world wide web never seizes to amaze.

Onwards, the verbal diahorrea of the masses!

Corporate Manwhore

Anonymous said...

Very good ideas Wang. You've clearly thought it out carefully. I do hope the govt would take note- but considering the govt is run by President Scholars or rich parents whose children are getting PSs, I doubt it'll see the light of day. Never mind the good people will emigrate to somewhere else- and I'm sure the govt can import loyal trustworthy talent from somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Oh ya I forgot, under the present system pple like Einstein, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawkings, etc.. would surely have ended up in a vocational school cos they kept on failing all the other subjects. Einstein was only good in Math, he practically failed all the other subjects. What a loser ya??? Singapore's most valuable resource-its people- and the govt squanders it like cow dung.