Yesterday, I attended the inaugural Singapore Management University (SMU) Ministerial Forum, organised by the students’ political association, SMU Apolitical. The event was graced by the Mr. Heng Swee Keat, the Minister for Education.
I had previously attended a dialogue session, organised by the Young People’s Action Party (YP) Political Discussion Committee (here); therefore, I was interested to hear his responses to questions fielded by a different audience. However, without a properly defined scope or overarching theme, this SMU forum covered an extremely diverse range of issues: from the perils of income equality to the need for political education, et cetera.
The Value Of Scholarships
One of the most interesting remarks from the floor was on the value of public service scholarships, and there were two parts to the query: first, the gentleman asked Minister Heng whether it was fair and constructive to judge an individual’s abilities and suitability for public service at the tender age of eighteen; second, whether the presence of the scholarship system has resulted in the subtle construction of a “glass ceiling”, which is ultimately detrimental for late-bloomers, or individuals who join the service later.
Minister Heng replied, asserting that “[these scholarships] reinforce the ethos of public service”; it signals that the government is willing to sponsor outstanding students for prestigious overseas education, and eventually return back to Singapore to serve.
That is a proposition that I agree with to a certain extent. There is no “right” age: if one proves his or her worth convincingly, then he or she deserves the recognition. The competitive selection process – which looks at everything from academic performance, community involvement to character development – sieves out the crème de la crème. More significantly, many students aspire to obtain one of these coveted scholarship awards, and I think that is a good thing: it encourages the pursuit of holistic excellence, promotes healthy competition, and establishes a benchmark that is constantly raised.
Nonetheless, the status quo should not be taken for granted conveniently.
– There could be more transparency on the background of scholarship recipients (at the present moment, a Straits Times editorial in 2008 highlighted the disclosure that forty-seven percent of the scholars lived in Housing Board flats).
– It should be established clearly to hopefuls – through internships, programmes and talks – on the value and purpose of public service. The fear is that students may be blinded by the prestige and financial remuneration, and not be entirely cognisant of the bond and strings attached. Any notions of hubris or ignorance – hopefully – should be addressed.
– Greater awareness can be raised for scholarships such as the PSC Masters Scholarship, which allow undergraduates to further their studies, and constructively prepare for a career in the public service.
In addition, it is worth contemplating disproportionate advantages that may be granted to public servants who enter as scholars; anecdotally, in the military, there is the common perception – sometimes laced with indignation and frustration – that the latter enjoys speedier career progressions. It is only fair for every individual to be given the same opportunities, and the chance to shine with their roles and responsibilities.
Other slightly (more) intriguing questions include: whether an expansion of the university landscape would result in the dilution of the value of the degree, appreciating the strong and representative levels of education in Finland (here), continual emphasis on the need for a value-driven education system, introducing political education through social responsibility and active citizenry (here), as well as the quality of teachers.
Grading The Ministerial Forum: C-
Unfortunately, this forum lived up neither to its hype nor expectations. As stated in the beginning, the lack of a clearly defined theme (Minister Heng himself dictated two very broad ideas, on “aspirations” and having “meaningful, productive careers”) led to a considerably convoluted session. Minister Heng’s extended expositions were very lengthy, and sometimes monotonous (he did repeat a number of examples – such as the instance in the Chinese university – and points from previous forums).
I do not understand the predilection for hearing from different members of the audience, compiling the questions, before the guest addresses them collectively. Yes, it does help when there are overlaps, but most of the time ideas or perspectives simply get lost in the rhetorical mishmash because there are too many opinions and points made simultaneously. As a result, discussions were woefully shallow.
Credit should be given for the administrative organisation of the event, but there are definitely pertinent areas that warrant attention, and improvement in the future.