Government scholarships should help tackle larger issues

SINGAPORE -The intentions of Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Eddie Teo are sound and long overdue ("PSC seeks more diversity in scholarships"; Wednesday). However, they are also limited.

To increase diversity only by "taking in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and sending them to a wider range of universities and courses" misses the larger issues confronting our society today. These issues include social mobility, affirming the Singaporean identity and dealing with unhealthy perceptions of scholarship holders within and outside the civil service.

First, government scholarships are generous and open up rich pathways for personal and professional growth. They are also effectively special transfers from the public balance sheet to the household balance sheet of the recipients' families.

But do high- and upper-middle-income families really need such transfers?

Government scholarships should be engines of social mobility and be awarded based on a mix of merit and need, and not just different kinds of merit.

In this way, children from middle- and lower-income households can have access to the best education that their families could not otherwise afford.

Second, it has been a practice to award scholarships to Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and those we hope will become PRs or Singaporeans, based on the mindset that our economy and public service need the best globally sourced minds.

However, recent political undercurrents suggest that the Government should recognise that, for the purposes of public service, the value of national identity is greater than that of simple academic merit.

We should be taking chances only on worthy Singaporeans and those willing to become Singaporeans from the onset - such commitment makes a material difference to the politics of how Singaporeans perceive the use of public monies.

Finally, scholarship holders represent a minority in the 140,000-strong civil service, but they are perceived to be given the best advantages and most development.

To gain diversity, the PSC should recognise that people bloom at different stages and, often, fulfilling potential is first a function of a sense of a level professional playing field.

The only advantage scholars should have is the benefit of education. Thereafter, assessment of potential, access to development opportunities and career progression should be subject to performance alone.

Devadas Krishnadas, Reader

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