06 July 2005


This is a continuation of my previous post. Here I examine how modern-day trends have affected the basic operations of the government scholarship system.

"I'm very good at Chinese brush painting.
They should make me the Prime Minister."

- Chinese Imperial Scholar


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.


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.


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.

"Ex-Minister Mr Teh Cheang Wan.
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.


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.

"Thank goodness I wasn't born in Singapore.
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.


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.


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.

"So what if I can't perform?
You guys are still gonna make me rich!"

Since the government is stuck with its scholars, it is also forced to design career paths for them. Since the government does not like to admit to any mistakes in its selection process, it will persist in its belief that all its scholars are truly superior. Since the government believes that all its scholars are superior, it will engineer their path to high-ranking positions. Due to such artificial engineering, high-performing non-scholars are denied opportunities that they should rightfully have. These persons grow frustrated when they find out the rules of the game. So they quit.

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.


Anonymous said...

Great posts so far, awaiting further comments from you.

Beach-yi said...

Hehehe..oh well I'll bever be one of those scholars nor high performing non-scholars, not that I like to be mediocre but I have grown to dislike the Singapore ethos ever since my JC days.

Interesting, keep it up. Please don't leave us hanging for too long if possible, haha.

Anonymous said...

More More More!

takchek said...

More please. :)

Anonymous said...

Let's hear it!

Kiddyboy life snippet: I have so far resisted three offers to take money from government that comes with bond.

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..."

Elia Diodati said...

There is perhaps an assumption here that the demographic profile of government scholars has changed and that newspaper reports of sons of taxi drivers becoming President's Scholars is more a reflection of the 'average' scholar than media spin-doctoring. An assumption which I am pretty loathe to believe in, given the absence of hard and fast data.

On some level, sure, few Singaporeans in the 1960s and 1970s were affluent, so at least on the 40-50 year time frame it is certainly a valid assumption. But what if one were to compare profiles of scholars from the late 80s and early 90s to, say, scholars today?

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who got 4 As during his A levels when asked if he was going to take up a scholarship," Of course lah, scored 4As leh, was not that easy, don't take scholarship wasted"

Well, he's still my friend but I don't agree with this sort of thinking, and I feel that he's not the only one.

Anonymous said...

you should write to the straits times! you write better!

Anonymous said...

Good analysis of the problem. But surely families who have rich kids might balk at some of your suggestions.

"Oh but my son is REALLY smart."
"A President Scholar that kena stuck in his ranks in the civil service. Woah - sure boh? Dun want to apply for that scholarship liao lar"

For example, I heard this:
"I going to Yale on a scholarship, a president's scholarship. I aspire to be President of Singapore one day so I can change things, effect change." -

I asked whether he knows the limits of the President's veto power. He said President can do everything (to that effect) and he is a president's scholar!!


But he happens to be also a genius and very rich. I mean genius in the sense of 4as 2s papers, best jc, best sec, speak other languages, captain of one sports, debate member, e.t.c. also speaks very well, confidant, air of leadership.

One must be perfect. I agree - you should award to the best - but the scholarship award definition of a "Perfect" scholar is silly. There are too many of them.

And too many of them is not only the problem - what about the others who are not perfect but might deserve consideration?

Compared to say FELLOW X
X from a relatively poor family but happen to be better at studying than most. gahmen say X top 20 percent, top 10 percent, then top 5 percent; then suddenly say x top 2 percent of the cohort (2/100 x 50000 = still too many).

But go apply scholarship award they say X dun have CCA. Wah piang - X work in factory, as a waiter, give part time tuition over the many many years and X still should have joined CCA - what the ??


Then they ask why dun do sports? Dun do community service? Go into biz?? This people got no sense of reality. They are asking why not make resume look better.... If X do these things, X will either be applying for a very different kind of scholarship or not at all..


The people who sit on the board awarding scholarship - one of them - say how come dun earn money other ways like selling insurance part time e.t.c.


Idiotic lar. Army record also important. Then wah - realise that your primary, secondary results also important. Award Board implicitly suggest 2 percent not enuff. X must also be 2 percent ever since X was 8 years old.


And X already very "f-up" case liao. Many more applicants from about as poor families ( i dun know how poor) also do very well in school (say 0.5 percent), perform very well in sports,army, but somehow, somewhere, they just did not have the luxury of time to go learn Italian for example e.t.c. They also did not had the chance to learn sailing or fencing....e.t.c.

Those little little things that distinguish one scholar applicant from another unfortunately takes money and time, a luxury not everyone has.


Elia Diodati said...

Trackback: e pur si muove

Anonymous said...

Hi Wang,

I happened to chance upon this site and I must say, as one who has benefitted from the scholarship system, your posts have been sobering and those who want to serve in the Civil Service and any GLC should read and note that a scholarship is not a trophy but something to build one up with an overseas education to return to serve the nation so that Singaporeans live a safe and better lives in all aspects.

I have almost run the full course of my bond and these posts have given me aditional perspectives in staying or going. I would veture to say that those who view their scholarship as a prestigious trophy will indeed work the system for its worth to earn more trophies, and frankly, blur the lines between service to the nation and self-fulfilment (not unlike the Ming and other mandarins in China's long history).

Keep asking the right and fundamental questions. Only when we see the reason we exist do we understand what we should do.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your analysis that the scholarship scheme has lost its relevance and is breeding a generation of uninspired civil servants.

I have been lucky to serve out my bond in an unconventional manner - at a MNC and then at government organisation of my choice.

I'll like to think that it was a combination of risk taking, tenacity, persuasion and luck that allowed this move. I have never been the "perfect scholar" with the perfect GPA. In college, I took classes I liked even if I knew I wouldn't get As. I paid my loans late. I never sent my transcripts back on time. It wasn't deliberate. I was just being myself. I am just not one of those kinds eager to kiss up. I just want the opportunity to do what I like and contribute in return.

I took the risk to ask for it even though it was unheard of. I called to arrange for interviews. I worked very hard to persuade both my scholarship board and my employers to accept my proposal. The gamble paid off.

My point is while the scholarship system is flawed, scholars also have a part to play. Biding for time will not help. Whose time are you wasting anyway? There are other dimensions of life. Work is just one of them. Blaming the system alone will not help. While I was in college in the US - thanks to the scholarship - I had an interesting conversation with a medical student from Uganda. He was also the beneficiary of a scholarship (bondless) and he spoke of his desire to return to Uganda to serve his people. I was very surprised given that he obviously could have choosen the easier way of settling in the US. Instead, he chose the country ravaged by years of civil strife because that was his home and he felt that he could have a greater impact. In the small circles of my scholar friends, I have yet to come across a Singaporean who would say that. Are we too pragmatic to even have such dreams?

Maybe if we were allowed to truly chase our dreams, we might have been more inspired to serve our nation. Instead, we were "nudged" into majors that scholarship boards think they need. So would-be doctors study engineering or science if they wanted a scholarship to study overseas because most of the scholarships were awarded for these fields. (Correct me if I'm wrong but medicine scholarships in the late nineties were only possible if you were the President scholar.) These scholars usually do not find satisfaction because they have "sold out" to study something else. Then there are those who didn't sell out but made a Faustian bargain instead. If they wanted to major in the arts, then they had better take the teaching scholarship. They took the reward first (the love for the arts) and paid their dues later (teaching kids that they couldn't stand).

It is time that the scholarship boards review the process and start a proper dialogue to hear the scholars out rather than threaten legal action whenever scholars hint of switching jobs. More flexibility should be granted. As long as the scholar is contributing to Singapore, it doesn't matter where or who he works for.

In very calculating terms, we should seek to maximise contribution. How this can be achieved is up to every individual person to explore. What the state can do to help is to provide the resources - be it a scholarship or job opportunities - to help him achieve the goal. Ideally, the person will be a far happier and productive member of our society.