Wed, Dec 03, 2008
The Straits Times
Selecting the scholar

By Sue-Ann Chia, Senior Political Correspondent

MR EDDIE Teo makes no apologies for giving government scholarships to youngsters from rich families, including the Prime Minister's son. Why not, was his retort to critics who questioned the decision.

'If PSC scholarships are to bring in people who are suitable for public service, why should we discriminate against the Prime Minister's son?' he reasons.


PM Lee Hsien Loong's third child, Li Hongyi, received a Public Service Commission (PSC) Overseas Merit Scholarship in 2006. He is now studying economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

Mr Teo cites this example to refute suggestions that scholarship candidates from poorer families should be given priority over their richer peers.

The deciding factor is merit rather than money, he stresses, as PSC scholarships are not bursaries for the poor but a manpower management tool to bring bright people into the civil service.

But will it lead to more PSC scholarship holders coming from richer families in future?

He believes it does not matter.

'Whether in five, 10 years' time, we're going to get more people from bungalows than from HDB flats, is it something that we should really be very concerned about?' he says, his warm smile disappearing.

For Mr Teo, 61, who has witnessed Singapore's rags-to-riches story, more scholarship recipients from well-off families would simply be a reflection of a more affluent society.

On the rich having an edge over the poor, he counters: 'The poor who are brilliant and top students...haven't got a problem getting help somewhere else if they don't get a PSC scholarship.'

Scholarship saga

THE debate over family backgrounds was sparked by former Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) chief Philip Yeo in July.

All things being equal, scholarship applicants from poorer families should be given preference, he said at a forum.

The PSC, which was then chaired by Dr Andrew Chew, rebutted him swiftly. It placed no quota on scholarship numbers each year, so deserving candidates are not denied any opportunities, it said.

It also disclosed that 47 per cent of this year's recipients lived in HDB flats, and 53 per cent in private property.

While housing type is a rough, but not always accurate, gauge for wealth, the figures are still revealing. There are almost equal numbers from private and public housing, but the proportion is markedly different from the national situation where 80 per cent live in HDB flats.

The tilt towards scholarship recipients from richer families gave rise to concerns that candidates from poorer families are being squeezed out.

It was observed that the academically successful tend to come from more privileged backgrounds, as wealthier parents can afford to send children to private kindergartens, tuition and enrichment classes that less well-off ones cannot afford.

Should scholarships therefore tilt a little more in favour of the poor so that they have a chance of levelling up?

At issue was whether Singapore's pursuit of meritocracy - where everyone has an equal chance of success - had been compromised.

Asked for his views, Mr Teo, who took over as PSC chairman in August, says simply: Singapore's system works. So do not tweak the system when it is not broken.

It is not as if he has no empathy for the poor. 'We should all worry about the widening income gap and how to help the poor,' he concurs.

But the straight-shooting former civil servant, who went from being spy chief to encouraging Singaporeans to have babies at various points in his career, does not mince his words.

'To criticise PSC scholarships as hampering social mobility in Singapore is really barking up the wrong tree.

'PSC scholarships are based on merit; we want to choose the best and most deserving candidates for the public service regardless of race, gender or wealth.

'If PSC starts discriminating against the well-off...and gives scholarships only to the poor, we will deprive ourselves of a segment (of talent)...without necessarily advancing the cause of social mobility.'

The dilemma

STILL, those from poor families have not lost out.

'If there are two equally deserving candidates - one poor and one well-off - we will choose both,' he maintains.

But what if there is a quota? It is unlikely, but he indulges the question.

'Say, the recession continues for another five years, then we decide we got to budget,' he muses.

The PSC spends about $400,000 to send a scholarship recipient overseas.

The dilemma, he says, comes about only when there are two equally qualified candidates vying for the last spot.

'We may decide that since there's nothing to distinguish between the two, we will give it to the poorer one,' he concedes. But he was quick to add: 'If one candidate has, say, better leadership qualities, and although he or she is well-off, we may choose him or her instead.'

PSC scholarships, he reiterates, are given to only the very top students, who, rich or poor, are spoilt for choice when it comes to scholarships.

'I've seen quite a few candidates appearing before the PSC with a string of other scholarship applications, up to about 10,' he says, his usually placid voice booming.

Leading US universities also give top-calibre foreign students full grants.

'I had dinner with nine non-scholars in Boston recently. This was what they told me, 'I came, I got a grant from Harvard which includes even free tickets to the theatre',' he recounts with a chuckle.

Those who worry about social mobility should address other areas and not 'harp on continuously' about PSC scholarships, he says.

For example: Schools and charities should step in and do their bit by offering subsidies to needy students, say for overseas trips. He cites the Howe Yoon Chong scholarship fund, set up by PSA Corp in honour of its late former chairman, which gives bond-free scholarships to poor, but not necessarily top, students.

'If everybody chases after top students, you're helping only the top poor students,' he says.

'Those who truly worry about social mobility should also try to help all needy students to achieve their best potential.'

Certain aspects will change

MR TEO does, however, plan to improve the selection process to ensure it is as 'fair and objective' as possible.

'One way...is to enhance diversity in the PSC board membership so that I can receive a variety of views before arriving at a decision,' he says.

By diversity, he means adding women and younger members to the PSC board, which currently has eight other members - all men and above the age of 50. They are professionals or company chiefs.

The PSC Constitution allows for the appointment of up to 14 members by the President. Mr Teo can offer names.

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