Thursday, December 08, 2005

Scholar cannot fail

There, there, another reason NOT to take up any of these 'scholarships'.

The Electric New Paper :
He refuses to pay, then...
# Scholar fails 2 exams in second year
# PSA counsels him, but he fails another exam in third year
# PSA terminates scholarship and asks for return of money
WHEN he started his course at the National University of Singapore five years ago, Mr Chong Kwong Ki's future looked promising.

By Karen Wong
09 December 2005

WHEN he started his course at the National University of Singapore five years ago, Mr Chong Kwong Ki's future looked promising.

He was awarded a scholarship by PSA Corp to study computer engineering. It would have eventually paved his career with Singapore's port authority and a world-class container transshipment centre.


But his plans fell apart when his scholarship was terminated in his last semester two years ago.

The reason: He had failed three of his earlier exams.

Then PSA demanded a refund of the scholarship because he was deemed to have broken the rules by failing his exams.

He refused to pay up, so PSA sued to recover the money.

It is the first reported case in at least 10 years of such a dispute between a scholar and a sponsor organisation going all the way to the High Court.

Last month, the High Court upheld a District Court ruling in favour of PSA Corp and ordered the return of the scholarship money.

Now, Mr Chong, who is working as a software engineer, faces a debt of over $50,000, and a hefty legal bill on top of it.

In April 2000, Mr Chong, who was a good student from a top junior college, was granted a local IT scholarship to study computer engineering at NUS.

Apart from tuition fees and an annual allowance, he was also entitled to other perks, such as an interest-free loan of $4,000 for a computer.

All was well until he failed two exams in his second year. In his court statement, he said this was because he had been concentrating on other major subjects and projects.

He subsequently retook these exams and passed.

It is understood that he was then counselled by PSA.


But in his third year, Mr Chong got another F. He retook the exam and passed with a C.

But it was too late.

In his last semester of the four-year course, in March 2003, the PSA told him his scholarship was being cancelled.

Then came the next blow for him: PSA wanted him to return all the money under the agreement, including tuition fees and book allowances, plus interest.

That came to nearly $63,000.

Mr Chong told The New Paper he did not expect such a drastic move and had refused to pay up. (See report on facing page.)

So PSA sued him for the money.

His two friends who stood as guarantors for him were also sued.

In court, Mr Chong's lawyer, Mr Leonard Loo, argued that while Mr Chong had failed three semester exams, he had redeemed himself by passing when he retook the exams.

He subsequently graduated with a third-class honours computer engineering degree.

But District Judge Valerie Thean disagreed.

She noted, in her judgment dated 20 Oct, that on 'plain reading', the agreement said that PSA was entitled to terminate upon Mr Chong failing 'any examination'.

'Any examination', she said, would also include the semester exams.

She ruled PSA was permitted to cancel the agreement.

Then came the part about how much Mr Chong would have to pay.

She noted that PSA had spent some $49,493 in tuition fees, annual allowances, book allowances and hostel fees.

So, he or his two guarantors, would have to pay this amount.

Judge Thean ordered that Mr Chong must also repay the $4,000 interest-free loan he took in November 2000 for a computer.

PSA had also wanted Mr Chong to pay compound interest of nearly $12,000 and $1,500 for administrative fees.

But the judge said she did not have the sufficient information to make a ruling on this.

In all, she ruled, Mr Chong has to repay PSA about $53,500. His two guarantors were liable to pay about $49,500, should Mr Chong fail to pay.

But Mr Chong appealed against her decision.

The appeal was dismissed in the High Court early last month by Justice Kan Ting Chiu.

A spokesman for PSA Corp said: 'PSA has a very well-established scholarship programme that provides opportunities for bright and worthy candidates to achieve their full potential.

'PSA needs to uphold the credibility, quality and integrity of its scholarship programme.

'As competition for scholarships is very keen, it is only fair to other applicants that scholars be expected to fulfil their obligations to perform with satisfactory results.'

She added: 'Before legal action is taken to recover the sum due under the scholarship contract, several attempts will be made to reach an amicable settlement.

'If the offers are not accepted, PSA regrets that it will be compelled to recover the sum through legal proceedings.'

The New Paper understands that PSA had counselled Mr Chong three times before it terminated his scholarship agreement.

No scholarships terminated before

WHILE most scholarship agreements have provisions for termination due to poor performance, this hardly happens because scholars rarely fail their exams.

When approached for comment, the Public Service Division (PSD), which awards an average of 50 Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships each year, said that in the past 10 years, it has not encountered a case of a scholarship being cancelled due to a scholarship holder's poor performance.

A spokesman for the PSD said: 'PSC officers are in constant touch with our scholars and provide support and advice to help them during their scholarship period.


'PSC scholars are expected to graduate with a good honours degree and the vast majority do.

'For the few who turn in lower grades, we will consider the circumstances leading to such grades.

'In addition, we will help them adjust and work at improving their grades.

'There has not been any need to terminate any scholarship in the past 10 years since those who needed help generally improved with counselling and assistance.'

Did not expect scholarship to be withdrawn

HE had only one more semester to go before graduation.

So Mr Chong Kwong Ki, 27, said he was quite shocked when he was told then that his scholarship would be withdrawn.

In a telephone interview with The New Paper, he said: 'When they terminated the scholarship, I had already cleared all my subjects. And I was in my last semester.

'I wasn't expecting the termination.'

Did he think he was doing well?

Mr Chong, who is now a software engineer, said: 'Not really. But then, I did not expect it to be so drastic.

'If I was not up to their scholarship standards, they should have terminated the agreement earlier rather than sue me only after I graduated.'

As a result of the case, Mr Chong is facing a hefty legal bill, which may add up to a few thousand dollars, on top of the scholarship bill he has to repay.

Nonetheless, he is taking full responsibility for what has happened.

'I just have to pay them.'

He added that he was not going to get the two friends who had signed the bond to cough up the money, even though they were also legally liable.

'There's nothing they can do. I'm not going to get them into trouble, or make them pay.'

He added: 'I'm paying the whole sum and my lawyer is now working on a repayment schedule.

'I have to find some way to pay them.'

What now?

He did not want to say more about the case, and sounded composed: 'Well, life goes on.'

Remember, your stellar A level (or poly) results are no guarantee that you will succeed at the undergraduate level. Or by extension, good undergrad GPA =/= shoo-in success in Grad School. Ironically in research, we learn by failing (most of the times).

Any wonder why scholars are under pressure to take 'easy' classes? Makes a mockery of the 'scholarship' process, isn't it? You become averse to risk (and the oh-so-interesting/in-depth/difficult classes), knowing that any failure on your part could result in a hefty financial penalty.

Oh yeah, also think twice about agreeing to be guarantors for your scholar friends. Be absolutely sure you got enough funds to pay if he/she fails exams/modules/courses or absconds.


Swiss Miss said...

Seriously, it's rather difficult to get an F grade for any module in NUS. Furthermore, Mr Chong came from an elite JC which implies his academic ability is well above average. The fact that Mr Chong attained 3 Fs really reflected badly on his work attitude. His excuse of 'concentrating on major modules' is extremely lame. He could only blame himself on his poor time management skills. PSA certainly did no wrong in withdrawing his scholarship.

Kevin said...

I don't know Mr Chong well enough to say assume anything about him. However, it's funny how things like PSC scholarships are so top of mind when it comes to finding tuition and living abroad funds.

Maybe not enough Singaporeans realize that you don't need these scholarships to have a good overseas education. Local scholarships tend to have bonds, but U.S. ones generally don't!

Not just myself, but a lot of Singaporeans are accepted into graduate (G.A.) or teaching assistantships (T.A.) in American universities. I think it's because we are naturally hardworking and have good communication skills.

Frankly speaking I intended to go home to Singapore after finishing my B.A. in Communication, but an American classmate who knew my web design skills recommended me a Graduate Assistantship position in the university. Since then, I've finished my Masters in Informatics and am now halfway through my PhD program.

All this while, I rarely needed to ask my parents for another dime.
- Kevin (theory.isthereason)

runebab said...

I didn't graduate from NUS, so I can't comment on whether it's hard to get an F grade or not in NUS. All I can say is:

1) Not everyone is an all rounder. Mr Chong could have been weak in those subjects that he failed. Otherwise, it could have been what swiss miss has suggested. He didn't try hard enough. Personally I would prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

2) Scholarship boards tend to overemphasise on academic results and fail to realise that other qualities count too. In this case, PSA did nothing wrong legally, but I have personal doubts about their ways of screening potential recipients.

3) As to why Singaporeans tend to place an importance on PSC scholarships, I think I may have an answer to that. Yes, it's true that US colleges do give out a handful of scholarships with no strings attached, and it's also true that many Singaporeans are actually on the receiving end of these scholarships. But what about those who applied and failed to get them? Also not to be forgotten is that Singaporeans live in very sheltered environments. Some Singaporeans say that once you go over to your overseas study destination, you can start to look out for scholarships over there. However, ask yourself how many Singaporean parents would allow their children to go overseas without assured financial assistance. In this case, PSC (or others) scholarships happen to be the most convenient, safe and obvious way that will path the roads for these overseas seekers.
I am presently studying in Japan, and I come across many international students (from other countries other than Singapore) who pay for their own studies and living expenses by taking on many part-time jobs, and at the same time without any financial assistance. More often than not, these students do not come from rich families, but that does not stop them from seeking their greener pastures. When they ask me why I come to Japan to study, I can't help but feel a little ashamed as the reason is I got a scholarship. It is when I come across these people that once again remind me that we Singaporeans lead very privileged and sheltered lives.

Missing My Friends said...

I remember talking to a (SG) scholar at wharton. He offered to tell me which were the easy classes i could take to boost GPA if I was going to wharton...Strange that the first thing they offer is how to game the system

-ben said...

Makes one wonder how things would have turned out if individuals like Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in Singapore and took up a government scholarship, doesn't it?

chainsawieldinun said...

Maybe it's just me, but terminating someone in whom you have invested for so long (and so much) *is* of course contractually fair, though somewhat uh, "mechanically-spirited?" I mean, the rationale for these scholarships in the first place is to groom and nurture future talent right? Sure, they appear to have at least secured the recovery of the capital sum invested, but to me, it looks like a lot more is lost there in the unsaid and publicly-perceived.

wah said...

I'll congratulate you then swiss miss, because you must be really brilliant.

But since I was from the School of Computing myself I do sympathise with Mr Chong a little, since I have had a F myself and a few other close shaves. I sure am glad that I no longer have to do any more Computing modules!

O2 said...

Some random thoughts:

First, I think the scholarship selection process is slightly flawed because one, it weighs heavily towards academic grades, which needless to say, is not always a good gauge of ability (I'm not saying it's lousy, just not a great way).

Second, and more importantly perhaps, JC subjects are very different from what one studies in college. As a law student, I can only comment on law school naturally, but it's fair to say that plenty of supposedly top students flounder in college because it rewards students with a certain aptitude. Unfortunately, A Level grades (not sure about poly) provide no insight into these students future ability.

But even if I am right, the question remains as to whether the system can be improved at all. How do you find out which students have these aptitudes? I suppose the scholarship boards can award some scholarships later on when some of the students are into their sophomore year.

And unfortunately, choosing easy classes is not a habit specific to scholars. Anyone who cares sufficiently about his class of honours will be tempted into doing so; I don't know about the civil service, but the legal service only accepts students with at least a 2.1.

Frankly, there are so many problems with the education system that I don't even know where to begin haha. But then again, who am I to criticise? I have been a beneficiary of the system after all.

chainsawieldinun said...

Well to begin with a 2.1 gets you into a higher pay-grade across the Civil Service... gaming the system becomes almost logical under such circumstances eh? Although I'm not quite sure if the malaise is really that of the education system, or our national penchant for streaming, pigeonholing, stratifying at work. It appears to have become a cultural logic of sorts all over.

L'oiseau rebelle said...

Something *interesting* that I noticed: Now, Mr Chong did sign a contract that stipulates that he shouldn't fail any exams, so PSA was within their rights to terminate him. However, the article says that he failed his exams in his second and third years, so why did PSA wait until his last semester of his four year program to terminate him? One would expect that the reasonable act is to terminate him just after he failed yet another exam in his third year, instead of waiting a full year, accruing compounded interest at some ridiculous rate (15%?) and misleading him into thinking that the scholarship board has, for some reason or another, allowed him to continue despite a few Fs on his transcript.

On the availability of graduate school funding: I know a number of people who long had ambitions to complete doctoral studies in whatever heavily funded field they're in, and one would expect that they'll find out as much information as possible wrt funding their education. And still, many of them are (or were, until it was too late) unaware of all these funding opportunities when they were in Singapore and had to make a decision wrt servitude.

Graduate school funding can't be entirely unknown information by now since a number of Singaporeans are (or were) at the receiving end of it, but yet there's almost no mention of it during, say, career counseling in JC.

And there are still Singaporeans (ie. my parents) who can't quite believe that an institution is willing to pay for your education without signing away the prime years of your life to them. Well, if you serve as underpaid laborers, I mean, teaching assistants.

And wrt taking easy classes: I know a scholar who double majored in two of the hardest majors the university has to offer, which resulted in a GPA that was *just* below that required by the scholarship board. The scholar was then advised by some bureaucratic idiot to, in less direct terms, take easy classes to boost the GPA. Well.

Chuang Shyue Chou said...

I have met enough scholars while working for the government, government-linked companies and so forth. Sometimes, one wonders about their abilities.

I guess doing well in studies does not equate with competence.