Should scholarships go to wealthy kids?

When I applied for a scholarship to go overseas for my university studies in 1971, I gamed the system.

I looked at past records of which particular course had the most number of scholars and picked it to increase my chances of success.

It wasn't a difficult decision to make.

Ninety per cent of Colombo Plan scholarships were given for engineering, so the choices were really between areas of specialisation.

There were more successful candidates who selected mechanical engineering. So that was how I decided, and graduated with the degree three years later.

Getting the scholarship was the only way I could get an overseas education, and the course didn't really matter to me as long as I got my studies funded. It wasn't the ideal way to decide one's career but, back in the 1970s, that was how most of us did it.

I didn't practise engineering on my return because I wasn't really interested, and was posted to the Economic Development Board and subsequently the Administrative Service to do policy work.

Many of my contemporaries followed a similar career path.

You could say there wasn't much diversity among scholarship recipients then - we came mainly from poor and lower middle class families, and mostly did engineering.

On the other hand, you could also argue that because most Singaporeans at the time came from similar backgrounds, we represented the large majority and whatever diversity was out there.

Singapore was a much more homogeneous society then - we were all poor - and no one made a big deal of the fact that we were so alike, in family background as well as in our life and educational experiences.

Even if you wanted to have a more diverse pool, you wouldn't know where to start.

Today's Singapore is completely different and the Public Service Commission (PSC) should be commended for trying to broaden its search for scholarship candidates.

Writing on its website, PSC chairman Eddie Teo argued that having a more diverse group of public service officers was essential to avoid "groupthink and to tackle the much more complex and diverse issues today".

"The PSC is also acutely conscious of the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, lest we end up breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathy.

While it does not follow that only those with a less fortunate background can empathise with the poor, 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," he wrote.

This is quite a departure from the traditional thinking of getting the best into the public sector regardless of family background.

As Mr Teo disclosed, the two elite schools, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong, dominated, with their proportion of scholarship recipients peaking at 82 per cent in 2007. It has since dropped to 60 per cent in the last two years.

It is well known that in these two schools, students from better-off households are over-represented, and critics say this shows that Singapore society is no longer as socially mobile as before.

And if the bulk of public sector scholars are from these schools, it will reinforce the perception of a closed and elitist system that draws its leaders from better-off segments of the population.

How though to put into practice Mr Teo's thinking, especially his wanting to get officers from all socio-economic classes?

The PSC says it will reach out to other schools and even to the polytechnics. That's worth trying though it remains to be seen if it will produce the desired result.

The most radical and effective way, put forth by a reader of The Straits Times in a letter published on Friday, is to discriminate against those from wealthy families.

Writer Devadas Krishnadas put it forcefully and I can do no better than quote him: "...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."

It would be interesting to hear the PSC's response to this. I suspect it will argue that government scholarships are not meant to achieve social mobility - there are other programmes for that - and that they are primarily to attract talent into the service.

But it still does not address the question of why public money is used to fund the education of someone whose family can afford it.

If that person were truly interested in public service, he could enter it after completing his studies, and let the scholarship go to someone from a less well-off family.

From a national budget point of view, that means two well-educated Singaporeans in the public service for the price of one.

Perhaps a hybrid system could be devised with a certain number of scholarships reserved for the poor.

If the PSC is really serious about having a public service leadership drawn from all socio-economic classes, I cannot see how it can avoid some sort of income criteria.

What about the issue of groupthink in the service which Mr Teo highlighted?

I am glad he raised it as a concern because it is a real problem in a bureaucracy like Singapore's that has been dominant for so long and which has such a close relationship with the political leadership.

The PSC's approach is to encourage its scholars to go to universities other than those in Britain and the United States, and to do a variety of courses.

But groupthink is a problem more of an organisation's culture than the background of its scholars.

It has to do with whether the leadership encourages critical thinking and questioning and is open to ideas from outside.

It requires officers with high levels of professionalism and expertise in all the different services who are able to make independent assessments and decisions, and not wait for or second-guess their bosses.

But this is really outside the scope of the PSC.

It's about the culture of the public service, of the political leadership and the relationship between the two.

But that's another story.

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