The public service is casting its net wider to schools that do not traditionally produce government scholarship winners, in a bid to increase the diversity in its ranks and guard against elitism.
In an open letter on the Public Service Commission (PSC) website on Tuesday, its chairman Eddie Teo underscored the value of having diversity in the public service as governance and policymaking become more complex, and demographics and the education system undergo changes.
"We need a diverse public service to avoid 'groupthink' and to appreciate the needs of a diverse Singapore population," he said in a letter penned to mark the start of his second term as chairman of the agency overseeing civil service recruitment.
PSC scholarships are seen as a pipeline for future top senior civil servants. But the perception that they are given mainly to students from top junior colleges is a perennial problem.
Lately, the need to address it has become more urgent amid growing concerns over social mobility and elitism.
In his letter, Mr Teo sought to reassure people that this was not the case.
The PSC, he said, will guard against elitism by taking in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and sending them to a wider range of universities and courses.
The proportion of scholarship holders from traditional sources has shrunk, he added, using their schools as a proxy for socio-economic class.
In the last two years, 60 per cent of them were from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong, a drop from a peak of 82 per cent in 2007. In the last 10 years, these two schools produced 68 per cent of scholarship holders on average.
Joining their ranks in recent years are students from such junior colleges as Pioneer, St Andrew's and Nanyang.
Hoping their presence will dispel the popular perception, Mr Teo said: "A public service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will add to the impression that meritocracy leads to a lack of social mobility in Singapore."
But the PSC will not go for diversity for its own sake, he added. "We continue to subscribe to meritocracy and do not practise affirmative action or positive discrimination."
Mr Teo said the PSC has also been refining its concept of merit over the years, and now uses psychological interviews and psychometric tests to determine abilities such as leadership, character, interpersonal skills and stress tolerance.
The foremost qualities for a scholarship candidate are integrity and commitment to serve Singapore and Singaporeans, he added.
The shift in the PSC recruitment process comes in the wake of a new approach to governance and an education system that strives to provide opportunities for all. In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out a new direction to build a fair and just society.
Acknowledging this, Mr Teo said public service leaders recognise the need for diversity. "Just as the Government is changing the way it governs, public service leaders are learning how to manage a new generation of younger public servants, who want greater participation and more voice."
But the effort to have greater diversity would "come to naught" if these divergent views are discouraged, or those with different and non-conventional views are not valued and appreciated, he added.
On Tuesday, principals and students said the move for more diversity would encourage more students from other schools to apply.
Indeed, principals of some of those schools said the PSC has, in the past few years, been holding more information sessions.
"The message is getting through to our students that they don't need to be the top scorer in academics. If they are well-rounded in their achievements, they have a chance," said Mrs Tan-Kek Lee Yong, principal of Pioneer JC.
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