Over the past week, the blogosphere has been abuzz with an assortment of sentiments – many of which were, understandably, emotional – after Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng posted a FaceBook note explaining his perspectives on the Sun Xu controversy. Unsurprisingly, he received a lot of flak from Singaporeans from his exposition, which was widely perceived as a misguided defence of the indefensible.
I respect his willingness to engage in open discourse on his own FaceBook page, and spending time to clarify his stances (the sensitive issue of foreigners and immigration, when mixed with higher education, makes for a potent combination). However, the lack of precision in his propositions and the rather poor expression of opinions (for instance, using the title “By the Way, I Am Born in the Year of the Dog” was far from appropriate), meant that he was on the back-foot right from the beginning.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) must now decide on an appropriate course of action; for me, I believe the revoking of the scholarship would be constructive because it would set a strong precedent, and send out the message that unjustified, derogatory comments – from either side – would not be tolerated.
Scholarships For Foreigners: Some Thoughts
However, a bigger question did emerge: is it right for foreign students to be awarded local scholarships? My friend, Joel Yap, wrote this on Mr. Baey’s FaceBook page (here). He posted another follow-up comment (here), which yielded a reply from Mr. Baey himself explaining about clarifications on his earlier remarks.
As an MP, your primary responsibility is towards the people of Singapore. We, the citizens of Singapore, voted you into power because we expect our welfare to be placed first. Singaporeans should be given priority over foreigners when awarding scholarships. This is not to say that meritocracy is to be disregarded. Rather, nationality must be considered.
A government that does not put its own people first is a failed government. It has let its people down. The very people whom it pledged to serve.
Another friend, Loo Quanxiang, also penned a post on Mr. Baey’s FaceBook page (here).
First let me ask you what is the purpose of a scholarship?
A scholarship is not merely the grant of a lump sum of money for a student to get ‘free’ university education. It is given for a purpose.
For scholarships given by government, the purpose is to attract people who are not just talented, but able and willing to give back to society and serve our nation. If the scholarship is given by a private company I have no issue with judging purely based on meritocracy, since ultimately the purpose of the scholarship is to contribute to the profitability (and value) of the company. But for a scholarship given by the government: who is more likely to give back to our country with a spirit of loyalty? A foreigner (most scholars of which just use Singapore’s education as a stepping stone), or a Singaporean who has his family here, who spent at least 18 years living here and being part of our culture, and who sacrifices two years of his life (if he were male) to create a strong deterring image for our nation?
There is a tendency for scholars to think that they get their scholarships rightfully. That they have worked hard, studied hard, produced results, and deserve the scholarship based on their own merit.
[It does not end just there.] True, the scholar has worked hard and performed well, but we cannot forget the people and entities that contributed to the scholar’s success. Family and friends is one. Also, the teachers that gave him guidance throughout his many years of education, and the people involved in the public services that have served the scholar for the many years he has been around.
A scholarship is not just a medal of prestige. It is a trust of responsibility. It is saying: you’re good, and we trust that people like you can make our society a better place.
My Take: A Quota On Scholarships For Foreigners?
Like Quanxiang, I believe that private corporations have the prerogative to employ their own criteria to choose their scholars (with government-linked companies, I know that becomes more iffy); these scholarships are bonded, so their eventual contribution after college would then be a return on that monetary investment.
My issue is with bond-free scholarships that are awarded by local universities; the big question is, how many of these scholarships are given to foreign students?
With that, could we then introduce a quota system on these scholarships to ensure that Singaporeans are given priority? Presently in our tertiary institutions, about eighteen percent of the places are filled by foreign students (based on figures provided by the Prime Minister during last year’s National Day Rally speech). Based on this distribution, could we then introduce a scholarship quota system – say, set at five to eight percent, or customised based on current figures – to empower and encourage more Singaporeans. This is a cap, so if insufficient foreign students make the mark, the remaining scholarships would then be offered to the Singaporeans.
Before more information is released, this seems like a constructive strategy to consider in my opinion.