Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Singapore Government Scholarships: Poor minority representation and a way forward?

The weekend was noteworthy for two somewhat related bits of news. First, I received the July/August 2011 copy of Challenge (, a bimonthly publication of the Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office. The same weekend also saw the hosting of the SINDA ( ) Community Forum.

First, Challenge magazine. The July/August edition included a feature article with Chairman of the PSC, Eddie Teo entitled, “Scholars with Empathy, Please”  by A Makwana. Here is the bit that piqued my interest in that article (Blue represents the writer, A Makwana. Red represents the words of the PSC Chairman):

‘One potentially contentious issue brought up during the recent General Elections was the relatively low number of scholarships awarded to minorities relative to their numbers in the overall population.’

“As far as the PSC is concerned, anybody, despite his or her race, who appears before us and deserves a scholarship will get a scholarship. We do not discriminate against certain races and there are no quotas.”

‘While there is no official system to ensure more proportionate representation of races among scholarship holders, the PSC does give a nudge if it finds too few non-Chinese applicants in a particular year.’

“We go back to the schools and say so-and-so has done extremely well, we’d like to speak to the person to see if they want to apply.” ‘But some, he says may simply not want to join the Public Service.’

From my understanding, I was the only candidate in the last general elections who raised the issue of the relatively low numbers of scholarships awarded to minorities relative to their numbers in the overall population.  My remarks were made on the back of an article I wrote in February 2011, published on this blog. The title of that article was, “Singapore Government Scholarships: A case for greater representation of minority races” (

We now know that the PSC “nudges” if it finds too few non-Chinese applications. Even though the PSC Chairman was not quoted as using these words, the article is helpful nonetheless, as it acknowledges that the relatively low numbers of scholarships awarded to minorities is not a non-issue. The question is what can be done about this, going forward. In view of the egregiously low number of minority scholars, it would be helpful to know when this policy of “nudging” began. Because if it began from 2002 (click on table), then the number of successful minority applicants suggests that nudging may not be enough.

All said, the PSC Chairman’s remarks in the latest edition of Challenge are a step in the right direction. Separately, it may be unfair placing the burden of increasing the number of minority scholars on the PSC. Singaporeans, regardless of race want the best people leading the Singapore civil service. As many Singaporeans already know, “the best” are a mix of a number of traits, only one of which is raw intelligence. For a 21st century public service, powers of persuasion, commitment, drive and most importantly, integrity matter alot. The PSC Chairman also alluded to empathy as a central trait, and on this count, many would not disagree. But it is important to remember that such traits are not solely the domain of the intellectually gifted – in fact, some may fall woefully short in these areas with arrogance and self-righteousness representing their commonplace personality traits. The PSC would be far better off with a flexible criterion that encourages –  polytechnic diploma holders, entreprenuers who seek a new challenge and even late-bloomers – to apply for its top scholarships or to join the Administrative Service at the mid-career stage. After all, public service requires a diverse skill set. In view of a more diverse Singapore in the years to come – a more varied human resource pool would not be out of the ordinary.

For their part, minority students do not want to be told that standards were lowered for them or that they require a crutch to qualify for scholarships or worse, to be told they qualify on the basis of a quota system.  I reckon the PSC has a challenging job selecting suitable candidates, and from a policy-making standpoint, it would be more propituous if the quality and number of minority applications was raised several notches.

This brings me to the second bit of news I referred to above. SINDA hosted a community forum over the weekend (Straits Times, 3 July 2011, “Indian students catching up, says Tharman”) which was attended by top-echelon government ministers, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar. I understand MP Indranee Rajah was also present. The SINDA community forum represented “the last stage of a consultative process by a committee reviewing the progress and persisting problems of the community over the last 20 years and steps needed in the next 10 years.”

DPM Tharman also referred to the forum as a platform as “an opportunity to take stock, reflect, and think through our strategies afresh.”

With the DPM’s words in mind, it may be worthwhile for SINDA to consider benchmarking its new strategies against the number of Indian candidates who are awarded with Singapore government scholarships, and separately to track the total number of Indian applicants for PSC scholarships. I understand the Malay community is reviewing its educational strategies as well, and perhaps it may also consider benchmarking the future performance of its students similarly, and work on implementing programs that will get the community to its desired destination. The PSC Chairman was quoted as saying that some “may not want to join public service.” This ought to represent an opportunity for SINDA (any other minority self-help groups) to work together with the PSC to encourage more minority students to apply for government scholarships, especially since the civil service is a noble career.

But these benchmarks cannot be the only end goal. Not every bright Indian, Malay or Eurasian student may achieve the minimum requirements necessary to qualify for PSC scholarships. And SINDA, MENDAKI and other ethnic self-help groups have to an overarching duty to look after all students, regardless of their educational profile. Even so, drawing a connection between the number of minority applications and successful recipients of PSC scholarships would be one useful indicator of how far the minority communities have come in ten years time.

Written by singapore 2025

05/07/2011 at 3:28 am

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