Saturday, August 18, 2007

Perpetuating the 'scholar' family

Two years ago, Mr Wang wrote:

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 Program by buying him books with MENSA IQ tests that he can practice taking.

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.

This was reported in the Straits Times on Friday:

Aug 17, 2007
President's Scholar follows in dad's footsteps
By Ho Ai Li

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Shot at 2007-08-18
'I think the President's Scholarship is, more than anything else, responsibility. It tells you you can't slack off, but have to try to enrich yourself in as many ways as possible.'
STEPHANIE KO, 18, on what it means to be a President's Scholar. She is seen here with her father, Mr Ko Kheng Hwa, 52, who also received the scholarship in 1974. He is now managing director of the Economic Development Board. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

IN 1974, then Raffles Institution student Ko Kheng Hwa received the President's Scholarship from the late Dr Benjamin Sheares.

Now managing director of the Economic Development Board, Mr Ko will return to the Istana tonight with his wife, Madam Hoong Suet Kun, to see daughter Stephanie, 18, receive the same award from President SR Nathan.

The Public Service Commission, which awards the scholarship, said Stephanie - from Hwa Chong Institution - is the first recipient to have a President's Scholar as a parent.

There are four President's Scholars this year. The others are Sergius Wat, 19; Kaan Hung Leng, 18; and Liu Chen, 21, all from Raffles Junior College (RJC).

Stephanie, who will study medicine at Cambridge University in Britain, said: 'It's the satisfaction you get as a doctor, dedicating your life to helping people.'

As former vice-president of the Hwa Chong Students' Council, Stephanie helped organise many events. She also represented the Singapore Chinese Girls' School in basketball.

Fellow President's Scholar Hung Leng also has a 'scholar dad'.

Her father, Mr Kaan Quan Hang, a senior engineer, studied in Australia on a Colombo Plan Scholarship. Her two siblings also went overseas on government scholarships.

Unlike them, Hung Leng is staying here and studying medicine at the National University of Singapore to keep her father and housewife mother, Madam Tan Bee Geok, company, she said.

Hung Leng, from Raffles Girls' Secondary (RGS), excelled in fencing and playing the piano.

Her former RGS and RJC schoolmate Liu Chen is also well-versed in sports and the arts. A national taekwondo brown belt champion, she also plays the piano and double bass.

She moved here from Shandong, China, in 1997 with her father, Mr Liu Luo Sheng, a business consultant, and mother, Madam Xu Bao Li, a private tutor.

'I had heard that it's hard for an ex-foreigner to get a government scholarship. I'm glad I proved them wrong,' said Liu Chen, an only child who became a Singapore citizen two years ago. She will study economics at the University of Chicago.

The thorn among the roses is Sergius Wat, whose father, Mr Wat Tat Chuen, is a general manger in a construction firm. His mother, Madam Ang Poh Choo, is a housewife. His older brother is a Singapore Armed Forces scholar.

Sergius, concurrently a Singapore Police Force scholar, said he wanted 'to help people in a very real way.'

Helping people comes naturally to Sergius, a scout and recent winner of the HSBC Youth Excellence award for his charity work. He will study government at Harvard University.

For all the crap these folks spewed in the interviews, how many still believe in them after several years or even within months of working in the Civil Service? I am sure you will know of someone who broke bond, either because of disillusion or in search of fatter opportunities in the corporate/private sector.


TriplePeriod said...

Yeah, it does seem like a pity that scholarship would be better bestowed on people who would reciprocate the kindness. After all, for each scholarship given to 1, it leaves 1 less for another. Its a pity really, for the next in line, who could have gotten it, might move on to serve the public for all its worth. Yet, by missing out on this, he probably won't get a 2nd chance as the next round will be reserve for the next "batch". He just have to move in life and bite his lips when he read about the bond-breaking of the one who had nip the scholarship from him.

young-pap said...

Ho Ai Lee is a lousy reporter; Were it not for her, you would not be able to write this article or quote Mr Wang. In contrast, her couterpart, 沈越 , is a good reporter. I shall invite the latter to join YPAP soon.

Ned Stark said...

Well Tak chek i beg to differ on ur last point. I do not deny that scholars have broken bonds and all that. But as she has not broken bond yet it is rather premature to say that she would do so.

What i find objectionable is the statement describing one scholar as a "thorn among the roses". That seems to smack of classism.

tabula rasa said...

I think "thorn among the roses" refers to gender.

Sillyporean said...

"thorn among the roses"

I think Singaporeans need to brush up on their English before they leave inane comments on blogs.

Ong said...

there's a reason why this is called a scholarship and not a bursary. worthy people should get the scholarship, even if they may well be able afford an overseas education.