CLEARLY, awarding government scholarships goes beyond enabling needy students to obtain a university education. Given that some of the more prestigious awards are for studies at the world's top universities, the aim is more than to attract our ablest students, be they rich or poor, to enter public service. It is about identifying and grooming future leaders and ministers.
But how successful is this scheme today?
We have been awarding scholarships for the past 40-odd years. We should have a pool of a few thousand, including a few hundred 'prestigious' scholars. Yet, leaders perennially lament that not enough good people are coming forward to serve.
Apart from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a few other scholars in the Cabinet, where are the rest? The Public Service Commission (PSC) has been silent on the bond-breaking rate. Do many break their bonds? Did the others leave after fulfilling their bond, or were they not up to mark? Indeed, a few have ended on the wrong side of the law.
Perhaps we should examine the selection timeline. Scholarships are given to young teenagers based on school records and A-level results, and on the promise and perception that they will take up, and are suitable for, public service upon graduation.
Clearly, a promise made today is not good enough. So, why not give out undergraduate and post-graduate scholarships at a later stage to working Singaporeans, who by then would be more exposed, experienced and wiser.
Selection criteria can also include actual efforts and contributions made in real - rather than solely on school - life. How many Sim Wong Hoos have we lost all these years with our current system of awarding scholarships?
Together with bond breaking, what is the loss to the country? The word 'merit' would have a more rounded, more comprehensive definition. More importantly, at this stage, one can better rate a scholar's character and integrity, and the important 'heart and desire to serve' factor. Should not the more prestigious ones, like the President and Overseas Merit Scholarships, at least be given out on this basis? After all, we are talking about selecting the best for Singapore's future.
Tan Soon Hock
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sep 19, 2008.
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