With a string of As and an impressive record as a student leader, Hwa Chong Institution's Poh Yu Ting, 20, could have applied for any scholarship.
But she narrowed it down to bond-free ones offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and ended up choosing the NUS Global Merit award.
More bright students here are forgoing government scholarships that come with a four- to six-year bond, to take up bond-free ones from local universities, private organisations and foundations.
Government scholarships came under the spotlight recently, after Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) scientist Eng Kai Er started an arts grant, partly to protest against her six-year bond tying her to a job she was no longer interested in.
She was roundly criticised for wasting taxpayers' money, but her case also sparked debate on whether people as young as 18 should be made to commit themselves to a bond.
The preference for no-bond scholarships could explain why applications for the prestigious Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships - which lead to top civil service jobs - have plateaued in the last four years at between 2,000 and 2,500 applicants yearly.
This, despite the bond period being reduced from six to four years for those doing their first degree here before heading overseas for a master's degree. NUS and NTU, meanwhile, saw demand spike.
For NUS, applications rose from about 2,300 four years ago to 3,300 this year. NTU saw the 6,600 applications in 2010 jump to 9,900 this year.
OCBC Bank, which received about 200 applicants for its scholarships for local universities, has seen this number increase to 800 over four years. Jardine Foundation, which gives awards for studies at Oxford and Cambridge, is seeing higher demand.
With more top students applying, the two universities have increased their awards. NUS, which gave out 340 scholarships in 2010, increased the number to 400 this year. At NTU, the number of recipients doubled from 133 in 2010 to 278 this year.
Scholarship holders said being bond-free is a major draw, although other attractions include special programmes and the opportunity for overseas stints.
NUS Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education Bernard Tan said that such scholarships allow young people to keep their options open, while not losing out on overseas exposure. NTU's Kam Chan Hin, Senior Associate Provost (Undergraduate Education), said: "Students can have their cake and eat it too."
NTU bioengineering student Jodie Tan, 19, turned down a government scholarship for the NTU one, which will allow her to do two stints at top universities overseas.
"I don't feel like I lost out in any way," she said. "I get a solid engineering education at NTU plus global exposure. At the end of the day, I am not locked into a specific career path."
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