In the recent few weeks, there has been much furore over the words published in MM Lee’s new book, Hard Truths. One of the more hotly discussed topics is on the issue of race. In the book, MM Lee says that Muslims are distinct and separate, and that they should be less strict so as to bring about more interaction amongst the races. MM Lee was referring to issues like having to change one religion for an inter-racial marriage. The issue on race then branched into many different paths, with people deciding to sue MM Lee for “seditious” comments in his book, which, in my opinion, doesn’t seem too seditious. But back to the main point, one of the issues recently discussed was about scholarships awarded by the Public Service Commission.
The discussion was triggered when The Online Citizen posted a link to this article. In it, figures were shown that the minorities are under-represented. The article gives valid reasons for why this may be the case. But I do not wish to talk about the article, but on the responses generated on the internet.
1. The issue of Meritocracy
Meritocracy, in my own opinion, is about awarding the scholarship to the more deserving party, according to guidelines set by the commission. Some netizens claim that the system is not meritocratic, that it is similar to the Chinese method of selecting Imperial Scholars, making references to how it is insufficient to only get 4As; that one has to have good CCA records, good S papers etc. But I fail to see how all these isn’t meritocratic. Ultimately each and every person is awarded the scholarship based on their own merit, and not because of external reasons.
2. Fulfilling a racial quota
Is not meritocratic, in my opinion. It just means that the PSC would have to let in someone less deserving because of a certain race. For example, a Chinese student who is judged to be more deserving than a Malay student would be denied the opportunity because we have to meet the racial quota. This isn’t meritocratic. Similarly, if in a particular year, the Malay students have done exceptionally well, and because there are only 10 slots for Malays, the 11th Malay might not get the scholarship even though he has done better than the Chinese or Indian counterpart. Imposing a racial quota simply does not make it meritocratic anymore.
3. Give everyone who get 4As a scholarship
Does not make economic sense. I remembered writing a post titled “When perfect scores at A level is just average” in 2008. The feeling of getting a 4As in A level does not equate to much happiness or satisfaction when you find that about 1/4 of your cohort has obtained the same grades. In my year, there were about 700+ 4As students in HC and RJ combined, about 200 from NJ, and 200 from VJ and the same for TJ. That adds up to more than a thousand 4As students, and it is stupid to award every 4A student a scholarship. Are there even that many jobs in the public sector? When everyone is a scholar, there isn’t much prospects to talk about, making the worth of the scholarship drop. This is precisely the reason why people then look at S papers, or H3 in today’s terms, as well as CCA records and teacher’s opinion on the student’s character. In addition, the interview process further tests your thought process on policy making, and sieves out those who are smoking through and those who have given much thought to the system.
4. Interview Process may be abused
And that is true. There is always a potential for abuse since we are talking about human judgement according to the words people say. There is also a potential for abuse such that the interview process MIGHT be structured to disadvantage minorities. However, to question the interview process, one has to show that there isn’t any confidence in the fairness of the system. Showing that the numbers are not proportionate to the racial proportion in Singapore does not show that the interview process is biased. Had there be a bias against minorities, the bias could also be applied before the interview. Why waste time interviewing candidates in the first place?
5. The main issue lies not in the scholarships but..
In the universities, JCs and down below. The root of the problem is not about scholarships but about whether there is even a proportionate pool of minorities to select PSC scholars from. Any university student would be able to give a rough estimate, and that the minorities are not even represented properly in university. If the pool is smaller, the number of potential scholarship applicants would have dropped. It is therefore a no-brainer that the scholarship holders are disproportionate. In addition, scholarship is only awarded if you have a school that accepts you. For foreign universities, you have to be admitted into a good university before the scholarship would be awarded. There might be racial bias at the foreign universities end, or it could be that people do not get admitted based on meritocracy issues. If one cannot get into a local university, then the chances of getting into a top foreign university is significantly reduced, is it not?
Hence before even talking about whether the scholarship system is fair or not, maybe as a nation it is of greater importance to see how we improve the education level and social standing of the minorities. Once we have a sizable representation in our local universities, we could then relook at the figures again. Only then can we be skeptical about the scholarship process, or should I say that we can say with greater confidence that the scholarship awarding process might need fine-tuning or reforms.