Sunday, December 9, 2012

Examining Singapore's scholarship system

There has been an exchange of letters regarding Singapore's meritocracy in view of the scholarship system. The original letter by Harvey Neo essentially argues that scholarships pervert meritocracy because scholarship holders because they are fast-tracked in their careers compared to non-scholarship holders, with little or no relevance to their actual work. The rebuttal came from Bryan Chow and I reproduce here the more relevant paragraphs:

CA1: "Mr Neo argues that students structure their education to win scholarships. Yet, there are a variety of scholarships that cater to different industries and students.
Every ministry requires scholarship holders who are a good fit with its goals, and there is no quasi-mandatory activity that one must complete to win a scholarship."

CA2: "Second, Mr Neo states that scholarship holders are automatically fast-tracked within the organisation at the expense of non-scholarship holders.

Scholarship holders are held to a higher standard than their peers and must prove worthy of remaining in the organisation for the long term and of their progression. A scholarship merely provides the chance to attract and nurture talent."
CA3: "Finally, Mr Neo notes that 18-year-olds are not given enough time to reflect on what interests them most in life before agreeing to a scholarship.
Yet, junior colleges and polytechnics offer internships, job attachments and career counselling, which help students make informed decisions.
While there is no correlation between academic achievement and workplace excellence, scoring well in school and doing well at work are not mutually exclusive."

Here is my response should I find time to write in.

W.r.t. CA1, can any ministry confirm that this is true? This is because Bryan does not identify himself to be from any Ministry's HR.

W.r.t CA2, I think Bryan misses the point here. While I agree with him that a scholarship is a means of attracting and nurturing talents, Harvey's original intention is to show that by fast-tracking scholarship holders, it is contrary to the principles of meritocracy. There are different routes of advancement for those with and without scholarships. If all routes lead to the same end point, but that there are those who are fast-tracked, it implies that at any point in time, those that are fast-tracked have a will higher probability of obtaining a higher position, even if effort of the non-scholarship holder is the same.

W.r.t CA3, I have not much objection to Bryan's rebuttal.

I find Bryan suspiciously arguing as if he was a scholarship holder or works in the Ministry. Nevertheless, I have my own stand on this issue based on the fact that I am not a scholarship holder.

As an individual, to receive a scholarship is definitely a prestigious moment. Unique to Singapore is that ministries bond these scholarship holders to their organisation to lock in on their investment.

But at 18 years of age, I do think it is difficult to make that decision. I know of people who cannot wait to serve out their bond. Furthermore, a bond is really necessary because if there is no disincentive, there is really no sacrifice on the scholarship holder part. Moreover, there is a measure of accountability to tax payers. This might make up or offset for the faster advancements and changing of portfolios.

There really is nothing wrong with having scholarships because they are measured on almost the same standardised exams. That said, I do think that it is increasingly being awarded to people from advantaged backgrounds. I do not support affirmative action programmes but the current system is also self-perpetuating.

I find it slightly unpleasant to know that certain people are fast-tracked or given higher salaries. However, we must also understand that if the ministries do not do so, it will be very difficult to attract the academically gifted in the first place. This is not being communicated clearly from most channels. 

I have two worries not directly related to scholarships. Firstly, scholarships do give rise to an elitist mentality, although it is widely pervasive to begin with. Secondly, I feel that while scholarship holders are almost by definition "elite", I feel that they are increasingly out of touch with reality. I feel that this could be due to the fact that they are shielded from the real competition - foreigners. No doubt they have an eye for detail, but speaking to friends, civil servants from the normal officer to the higher ups,  seem to be able to function in a rigid system and in Singapore. This is a generalisation but I am always reminded about how many bad decisions we have made regarding investments with our CPF, investments overseas (Suzhou IP), etc. 

Civil servants are not politicians but the both closely to formulate and implement policies and make choices. To this end, and in a blunt manner, I cannot help to feel that for a long time, they have no qualms of screwing Singaporeans over. Yet  Singapore the country is slowly internationalising and the top down ways will not work. We have more bus drivers from Malaysia and China because we have more workers coming here to work. And some of them do not really work or think the same way as Singaporeans. The civil service has got to learn to adapt.

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