This is one of those rare posts I make about my personal life so that one day I may look back at this blog and realize that I was once a young and naive idealist. It is the cumulation of a train of thought that has been running on and off for the past six months and a snapshot of me at what I consider to be the first major crossroad in my uneventful life.
I was offered the Public Service Commission’s Overseas Merit Scholarship (Open) earlier this year (2009). While it was an honour to be given one of the most prestigious scholarships in Singapore, I ultimately resolved to turn down the offer. It is a decision that few of my peers (and perhaps even myself) fully understood at the time.
Seeing as we are once again approaching the end of the year and a new batch of A-level graduates will soon be going through the same things I did, I thought it’s about time I finally put my thoughts down in words.
PSC OMS (Open) is one of the many scholarships administered by the Public Service Commission, a state organ that manages and grooms public servants. It is given to Singaporean A-Level graduates selected through a standardized IQ/personality test, a psychological interview and a panel interview. It covers tuition fees, housing and allowances for the duration of the student’s overseas undergraduate studies in exchange for a 5- to 6-year work bond with the government under various ministries or statutory boards. It is also an open secret that OMS scholars enjoy faster career advancement and better work opportunities than local scholars and non-scholars working in similar capacities within the civil service.
Just to make my position clear, I am of the opinion that OMS (Open) is an excellent opportunity in many ways (job stability, competitive pay, fast-track promotions, prestigious brand name) and that people intending to enter the civil service should definitely take it up. But unfortunately, it turned out that I was not one of these people.
There are many passionate arguments surrounding the merits and demerits of the work bond that comes with government scholarships. Here are what I feel to be some important points to consider.
A government scholarship is not just a simple exchange of goods and services, but a complete career package. It requires one to make a major commitment that will last well into one’s early thirties. Many people I know see the scholarship as a simple work contract or even a form of student loan, but this view misses the bigger picture. The purpose of the scholarship is to develop future leaders of Singapore and its sponsorship of undergraduate education is but a portion of an extensive talent-grooming programme designed to produce future top-level management. If one’s intention were to leave the civil service after having served the work bond, then the bulk of development would not have achieved the intended positive outcomes, both for the organization and for the individual.
While it is often said that the civil service (in Singapore) serves as an excellent platform from which recognized talents (i.e. scholars) can enter equivalent high-paying private sector jobs with ease, this is only true if we only consider management positions. Despite what the PSC claims to be a diversified career offered to its scholars and the highly corporate nature of Singapore’s government, the civil service is ultimately an enclosed ecosystem populated by its own performance benchmarks and cultural oddities. Beyond corporate management positions that mirror those found in government ministries, there are few other careers into which one can easily transit, after having spent 5-6 years in this unique environment.
Therefore while it is true that an OMS (Open) award may not necessarily tie one down to public service, it does at the very least make things very difficult for one to move out of corporate management. That is, unless you are willing to start again from scratch at the age of 29-31 in a completely unrelated field, pitting yourself against fresh graduates who have yet to forget the things they learnt in their major. This is of course irrelevant for people who intend to remain within the eco-sphere made up by government-linked organizations and semi-private companies, but should be a major consideration for those who see scholarship as merely a mean to pay for college.
I personally cannot see myself either as a bureaucrat or a politician in the long run. I am not very good at following rules.
This brings me to my second point: your college major. The fact that you want to spend four years studying something (presumably in a decent college overseas) should mean that you have at least some interest in the topic. (You should reconsider your choice of major if you don’t.)
The college experience, particularly an overseas one, is a catalyst for great change in a person’s life. New sights, new sounds, new people and new experiences will change you, no matter how impervious you are to external influence. Many of the famous startups of our time came from ideas incubated during their founders’ years in college. During the four years of undergraduate studies, you may end up falling in love with journalism, philosophy, physics, politics or bio-tech. Most of these studies are unlikely to be put to any significant use during your time in government service.
My point is that a scholarship commits you to a bureaucratic career (albeit a well-paid high-flying one) at a stage of your life where you have probably next to no idea what your real talents are and what you truly want to achieve with them.
Although many would probably disagree, college to my naive mind is supposed to be where we find that certain elusive purpose that aligns with our natural and nurtured talents and interests. When I enter college, I wish to spend four (or five) years discovering and affirming my purpose in life, and I do not wish to commit blindly beforehand.
If one is lucky enough to discover that purpose and if it happens to lie outside the civil service, then the six-year bond that comes after graduation can only be seen as an unpleasant obligation, bringing us into the politically-incorrect realm of bond-breaking and all the passionate arguments it engenders.
I am personally against bond-breaking, but I do not subscribe to the blind patriotism message, nor do I believe that it is acceptable to accuse people who break scholarship bonds of being “immoral”. To me, bond-breaking is merely a pragmatic decision and a formalized part of the contractual agreement signed when one receives the award.
The whole of Singapore can be summed up by the word “pragmatic’. Every government decision has to be backed by facts in the form of spreadsheets and pie charts. Indeed, many of the talented scholars recruited by the government are put to use to churn out these reports and statistics on which critical decisions are made. The end result is a highly technocratic and prosperous nation, a classic success story that has instilled in the people a strong belief in the power of pragmatism.
Bond-breaking is therefore a natural outcome of such a fact-intensive system. If one stands to earn significantly more working in the private sector, then bond-breaking is the obvious logically-sound option after one weighs the facts. It is as simple (simplistic?) as the reasoning that if we raise our corporate taxes to provide better social welfare, foreign investments will run off to other countries — the government-promoted idea that we should not sacrifice pragmatism for sentimental reasons.
But if one, in spite of being a product of the system, happens to be a believer in the importance of the intangible irrationalities in life, such as compassion and social justice, then bond-breaking does seem like an unpleasant last resort. Of course, such a hypothetical person may not be best suited for the pragmatic culture of the civil service in the first place. After all, it is difficult to quantify compassion as a KPI in a PowerPoint bar graph. Stop me before I get too bitter. Heh.
While I personally see bond-breaking as a necessary evil that should not be encouraged, I find it offensive that bond-breakers are put in such a terrible light by the media when they are merely practising what has been preached. I mean even ex-PM Goh Chok Tong apparently broke his bond, so what gives?
All in all, the whole bond issue just seems to be a huge schizophrenic doubespeak mess that I don’t want to get myself into, so I decided not to.
At the end of the day, the intention of the PSC Scholarship is to recruit talented individuals to work in the civil service. The emphasis should therefore be on public service and not career advancement.
Unfortunately, the core purpose of the scholarship has been long lost in translation through all the glitzy publicity, scholarship talks and peer pressure. A lot of talented JC students become caught up in the idea that securing a prestigious government scholarship is the way to success, even though they have no prior interest in civil service and little understanding of what policy-making entails. Some may argue that this is an intended feature of the scheme: attract the talent first and then make them interested enough to stay on.
I personally find the merit of this methodology somewhat questionable. Given a limited pool of talents, the success of the PSC Scholarship in attracting talents will always come at the expense of something else. For every IPhO winner absorbed by the civil service, Singapore loses a potential future Nobel Prize winner. There is always a trade-off involved, a fact that is often overlooked when we talk about “grooming the next generation of leaders”.
If the PSC Scholarship becomes too effective in attracting top-tier talents, then what effect will that have on the rest of Singapore? The PSC Scholarship should therefore ideally strive to attract not merely talents, but talents whose passions coincide with its core purpose of public service.
It was once said that the economic boom of the nineties drew so many talented mathematicians and physicists into financial engineering that it might have statistically delayed the emergence of the next Albert Einstein by half a century. That may be a wildly simplistic guesstimation, but it describes the invisible economic balance behind talent management.
Before people accuse me of proclaiming myself the next Albert Einstein, my point is simply that I decided that the best I can achieve lies elsewhere. PSC can decide if a person is suitable for the civil service by offering him/her a scholarship, but it cannot determine whether the person might be better suited for something else. That is a decision that has to be made by the individual.
And from a larger perspective, I believe that Singapore would be better off as a whole if the best talents excel in the fields that match their abilities than if they were all concentrated in the government, even if we buy into the (debatable) basic assumption that the government is the most critical entity in ensuring Singapore’s long-term success.
The extensive bond-based scholarship system in Singapore is both a blessing and a curse. It gives poorer students the opportunity to study overseas and richer students the added incentive to join the civil service, but at the same time it also serves to discourage organic growth and innovation in Singapore. Creativity and entrepreneurship thrive in uncertain environments and the comforting and calculated certainties offered by scholarships to our top talents are, in my opinion, not entirely beneficial to Singapore’s efforts in cultivating future leaders. They grow averse to taking risks and that can only lead to complacency.
Having been through the system, I arrived at the conclusion that my life so far has been too smooth and well-planned. Though I do not come from a well-to-do family, my academic performance and luck have brought me to the top of the rat race that is our education system. I saw the PSC Scholarship as an opportunity offered to me to continue riding this boat to the end, and I decided that it’s time to try something else.
But ignoring all my personal ramblings about the macro-economics of scholarships and my somewhat unrealistic expectations of life in general, the overall take-home message is that it’s always a good idea for one to take a step back and seriously consider the personal motivations behind taking up a bonded scholarship. The excuse “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t work for drug abuse, and it won’t work here either.
Of course, reality is always imperfect. Parental pressure, peer expectations and financial constraints are ever present in the decision-making process of every scholarship applicant. The reasons for taking up a scholarship are sometimes beyond the individual’s control, occasionally resulting in unfortunate situations where both the scholarship sponsor and receiver end up unhappy… That’s life I guess — a reality which may yet catch up with me. Heh.
A Tale of Interest
Let me end off with an interesting anecdote.
In Japan, there is a bond-free scholarship for foreign students called the Monbukagakusho (or Monbusho) offered by the MEXT. The undergraduate award covers tuition fees and expenses for five years of studies, including one year of language and foundation courses.
Singapore sends around one to two Monbusho scholars to Japan every year. The Japan embassy in Singapore conducts selection tests here but, until last year, the applicants were pre-screened by PSC to only include PSC scholars selected to be sent to Japan. The end result was that these PSC/Monbusho scholars were bonded to the Singapore government even though their education was actually paid for by the Japan government.
This amusing system, which as far as I know existed for decades, was abolished last year (at whose volition I have no idea) and the Monbusho in Singapore is now opened to all local applicants. (The deadline for 2010 is over, by the way.)
I think there’s a moral-of-the-story in there somewhere about differing philosophies of scholarship in the two countries and Singapore’s brand of ultra-pragmatism. I’ll leave you to decide what exactly that is. :P
P.S. Longest blog post ever?