Tue, Aug 12, 2008
The Straits Times
S'pore gave them a chance to study abroad

A decade ago, a shy 15-year-old boy from China landed in Singapore. The only English phrases he could utter, and which he spoke haltingly, were "Good morning" and "How are you?"

Mr Zhong Lei, a Harbin native, had come here on a Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) scholarship.

Last month, he bagged another scholarship. This time it was from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*Star, to do his doctorate in biosciences at Stanford University in the United States.

For non-citizens who accept the prestigious A*Star scholarship, there is a condition: They must give up their native citizenship.

Now 25, Mr Zhong, a former Chinese High School and Raffles Junior College student who aced both his O and A levels, did not have to think too long and hard about giving up his Chinese citizenship.

"I've lived in different countries and nationality is less of an issue these days. Everyone considers themselves a global citizen," he explained, speaking in perfect English.

Of the 101 students who received A*Star's National Science Scholarships and A*Star Graduate Scholarships this year, 22 hail from China, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The agency aims to foster world-class minds in biomedical sciences, physical sciences and engineering for the country. The scholarships are open to Singapore citizens as well as permanent residents and non-Singaporeans as long as they take up citizenship.

An A*Star spokesman said selections are based on "a passion for science and research, excellent academic ability and a commitment to contribute to Singapore".

Mr Zhong is grateful that his Singapore scholarships have given him the opportunity to study overseas - at Cambridge, where he did his undergraduate studies, and now at Stanford.

He said if he had stayed in China, he probably would not have had such a chance. His parents, a university professor and a journalist, could not have afforded the tuition fees. He also attributed his English proficiency to the years he spent in Singapore. He exemplifies the bright child who is allowed to bloom.

His feet remain firmly planted on the ground. "Compared to my Singaporean friends, I had experienced what poverty was like. So when opportunities present themselves, I feel more privileged to be able to take them on. Throughout the years, that has been my motivation in my academic pursuits," he said.

Displaying a similar drive is Mr Wu Yan, also 25, and another A*Star scholar. He is originally from Shantou, Guandong province.

Mr Wu, who will be heading for London to do his PhD studies at the Imperial College, also came here on an MOE scholarship. That was nine years ago. He had studied at Catholic High School and Hwa Chong Junior College before going on to Cambridge for his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

"If I hadn't left China, I'd be a normal student receiving a normal education and worrying about whether I could get a job. In Singapore, it's not that I don't have to worry, but I believe that after receiving education from these top schools, I gained a lot of confidence," he said.

Like Mr Zhong, Mr Wu did not feel there was an issue of split loyalties in having to give up his Chinese citizenship for a Singapore passport.

He too is grateful. "This Government and the taxpayers have sponsored me since I was in Secondary 3," said Mr Wu, who will get his citizenship papers next month. "Whether I'm Singaporean or Chinese, I can still contribute to both societies. And in the field of research, I can advocate for stronger collaboration between the two."

Mr Zhong agreed. "I've never seen my allegiance to either China or Singapore as conflicting," he said.

The duo may not have said so but a sense of belonging here seemed to have sunk in.

Said Mr Zhong: "I'm comfortable having dinner at a hawker centre here and listening to Hokkien songs, but I also enjoy talking in my native accent with my Chinese friends."


This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 10, 2008.

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