Sunday, 8 May 2011

Scholar, Officer and Gentleman

In the last few days it was brought to my notice (some internet message making the rounds) that a couple of our highly-paid ministers have sons who are in receipt of very expensive scholarships.

In other words (if this information is true) Singapore taxpayers -- the lowly clerk, the security guard, the hospital cleaning lady, the sales assistant, the school teacher, as well as the most expensive CEO -- are helping to foot the bill of said ministers' children at very expensive overseas universities, providing them with book allowances, flights home, etc. etc.

I was just amazed, if this information is accurate, that these ministers had the cheek to accept these rewards. Buay paiseh, huh?

I have nothing against these young men. I am sure they are very capable, very personable and polite young people deserving of every accolade they received.

But surely, as top-dollar ministers, these fathers should be going to their colleagues to say, "Hey! Thank you for thinking so highly of my son. But hand on heart, I cannot accept this. It is worth a lot of money. Could we give it back so that we can give it to another candidate whose parents cannot afford to pay?"

"Let's do it this way, we can acknowledge his abilities, maybe make it an honorary award. But let me pay for the fees. Or at least let me pay some of the costs of educating him there."

An officer and gentleman would, in my view, say that.

Sometimes when we give away some things (lawn mower, old sewing machine, old microwave, my old car, etc, all in working order) the recipients say, "This is too good to give away. Could we give you  some money for it?"

(Anyone with a sense of justice would say that. Our reply is usually, "Make a donation to church or your favourite charity.")

I grew up in an era where we were always challenged and inspired by sons and daughters of taxi-drivers and housewives winning major scholarships. We looked at these and say to ourselves, and later our children, "You could get to Cambridge that way."

How have things changed in the last two decades!

I watched in amazement as foreign investors tell us that they cannot find Singaporeans with the ability to think outside the box, or the work ethic, to do the work. Therefore they seek permission to employ foreigners.

So ministers acquiesced to this request (demand?). Did they not first ask, "What is wrong with the Singapore education system such that graduates are deemed to be 'trained' but not 'educated'?"

Is this why sons and daughters of ministers have a better chance to gain scholarships than the sons and daughters of us more ordinary people, us "lesser mortals"? Do they have opportunities denied ordinary Singaporean young people? (Access to better schools and overseas universities not affordable to most, eg?)

What an indictment, eh, on the state of Singapore education?

Who has/have been in charge of education in the last 20 years to create a generation of young people who cannot think for themselves? And how much do we reward these ministers, did you say?

I hope these are not the same ministers who allow their children to accept these high-prestige and high-value scholarships.

In the UK young people vie for scholarships to prestigious (secondary) schools in the private sector. These awards are usually merely honorary. Sometimes all the scholars get is a special neck-tie or item of clothing which they wear with great pride. Sometimes such non-monetary scholarships are called "Exhibitions".

Some scholarships carry a 5% to 25% remission of fees. Most carry a full remission only if the candidate's parents are genuinely unable to afford the school without that scholarship.

If our cabinet ministers have a heart, or clever enough, they would have said, "Why not design a scheme to recognize these candidates without using public funds to educate them?"

That would have been the appropriate and expected response of the true gentleman (and whatever the PC equivalent to a female "gentleman" might be).

Of course, if the ministers are only paid a pittance to do their work, as altruistic "service" to their nation, I would not quibble with their children winning prestigious and expensive scholarships.

The terms "eating cake" and "having it" come to mind.


Lila said...

Unfortunately, you have neglected to mention a key detail about these scholarships, which is that virtually all of them come with very long
strings attached. The returning scholar is obliged to work for the organization for a period of up to six years, and dissolution of the
commitment is only possible with the repayment of the sum spent plus compound interest.

The process of awarding scholarships is pretty meritocratic, or at least it was in my day, and I don't think things have changed so radically. Looking back at my JC cohort, I do think the scholarship selectors were overall fair in their decisions. The mediocre son of the mediocre minister didn't even get an interview, while the brilliant orator son of a backbencher won
a scholarship to Oxbridge. The son of two secondary school teachers got a scholarship to Harvard, where he became the class valedictorian.

So if you have faith that the system is sufficiently meritocratic, then it seems a fair use of taxpayers' money to 'chope' these academically gifted young people for the civil service. Because isn't selection by academic
excellence far preferable to selection by what public school you went to, or who your parents know?

Due disclosure: I was the recipient of an overseas scholarship from a statutory board and served out my full bond plus extra time for good

CaL said...

The selection process is meritocratic enough. Period.

What i want to highlight is the "merit(s)" to be the recipients of these scholarships.

1) Acknowledgement of their scholastic prowess.
2) Bragging rights.
3) Entitlement to join the Government Sector as "Talents"