How Can the Singapore Government Stop Scholars from Breaking their Bonds?

How Can the Singapore Government Stop Scholars from Breaking their Bonds?

Every Singaporean parent’s dream is to have a kid who grows up to become a “scholar”. Not only are they guaranteed a cushy, well paying job in the civil service when they graduate, you as a parent also don’t have to fork out a cent for their university education, enabling you to free up those precious dollars for your own retirement. Win-win, right? Well, parents don’t always know best, especially when they’re kiasu.

Most Singaporeans who hold government scholars in high esteem fail to think about the consequences of taking up such a scholarship and then being bonded to a job you’re not sure you’ll like for over five years. A quick google search will throw up a few websites set up by anonymous ex-scholars offering advice to their juniors who are thinking of breaking their own bonds.

After the big hoo-ha about foreign scholars breaking their bonds, the government has been a little wary about its own scholars. So recently, after handing out scholarships at the Foreign Service Scholarship Awards ceremony, Vivian Balakrishnan emphasised that the recipients would have to serve their bonds “as a matter of honour”, and that it was not “a transaction”, but a “commitment to serve the nation”.

It is quite obvious why some scholars end up changing their minds and breaking their bonds—when you’re 18 years old you have no idea what it means to sign away the greater part of your 20s to working for the Singapore government.

It’s also obvious that some of these scholars take up scholarships simply because they’re prestigious and will give them a career boost, rather than because they genuinely have a desire to contribute to Singapore by entering the public service.

So how can the government deal with this? Is the only answer to impose greater penalties on bond breakers? Here’s what can be done.


Make it harder for bond breakers to buy out of their bond

The cold, hard fact is that many scholars are from privileged families who can well afford to buy their way out of their bonds. Anyone who went to a “top school” will tell you that these institutions are overwhelmingly upper middle class.

But for the government, even if these scholars later pay back all the money that’s been spent on their education, the loss isn’t fully compensated. For every candidate who buys their way out of a bond, there is another candidate, perhaps more deserving and with a real drive to contribute via entering the public service, who was denied the scholarship.

Clearly, paying back the money isn’t enough to deter many students from blindly applying for and accepting scholarships. More severe consequences should be imposed on bond breakers to prevent that, and penalties that go beyond simply paying back money.

Bond breakers could be required to perform a period of community service or national service in exchange for depriving another student of receiving the scholarship they accepted. Faced with the prospect of another year of NS, I’m sure many potential bond breakers would just bit the bullet and serve out the damned bond.


Have a more rigorous screening process

Many years ago, a survey by The New Paper claimed that 3 in 10 scholars regretted taking up their scholarships and more than a third admitted seriously considered breaking their bond.

Clearly, the problem is that some students are applying for and accepting scholarships without giving real thought as to whether they want to work for the government, or in the fields in which they’ll be bonded. They’ve received stellar results in their exams, and in typical Singaporean fashion, apply for the most prestigious awards they could possibly receive.

Some of the scholars in the above article complained about the lack of career guidance, the focus of the education system on churning out scholars as an end goal, and an inadequate selection process.

The current screening process for government scholarships places a lot of emphasis on having perfect grades and stellar extra-curriculars. For instance, PSC scholars’ applications are evaluated according to their grades, CCA participation, school assessment and, if they’re male, their NS reports. They have to go for a psychometric test, psychological interview and a commission interview.

Now, that all seems to make a lot of sense. Technically, the psychological testing and interview should be able to weed out those who are just taking up the scholarship for the prestige, right?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be working, so it’s up to the government to revise their screening process in order to identify those who are truly committed to a career in the public service and who have the desire to improve the lives of the citizenry. Right now, it seems like the screening excels at picking out gung-ho types who make good leaders and are driven and ambitious.

A speech given by one of the people who interviews PSC scholars every year revealed that many of the applicants lack a knowledge of Singapore history and most are not interested in or knowledgeable about current and foreign affairs. Those are two areas that someone passionate about entering the public service should take a particular interest in, and his comments call into question the motivations of these scholarship applicants.


Find ways to retain potential bond breakers without losing them completely

Many scholars have a change of heart during their university days overseas. Living abroad, especially when you’ve never lived outside of Singapore prior, can be quite transformative. Often, these students find that they’re no longer the wide-eyed 18-year-olds they were before. Some of them realise they want to have the freedom to work abroad, while others discover they don’t wish to work for this government.

To a certain extent, this cannot be prevented. Even the most well-meaning scholar could have a complete change of heart, and considering these undergrads enter university on their scholarships between the ages of 19 to 21, you can’t really blame them.

The problem is that once these scholars break their bonds, they are lost forever. As shamed bond-breakers, it’s unlikely they’ll ever attempt to enter the civil service or government at a later stage in their careers, even if they have valuable contributions to make.

The government might want to consider encouraging bond breakers to work in the civil service despite having broken their bonds. Scholars who have a problem with the bonds being too long might be offered the option to break the bond partially by paying back a portion of the penalty, and then serving out a shorter bond.


Enable scholars to experience life in the civil service

If you’re a regular on local forums like the infamous EDMW, you’ll know that there are many negative stereotypes of scholar-civil servants. Singaporeans tend to think of them as stuck in their ivory towers, with no idea of what reality is like on the ground. The fact that most are from upper middle class backgrounds doesn’t help, either. Heck, there’s an urban legend going around that a bunch of scholars had to be taken on a tour of HDB flats because none of them had any idea of what one actually looked like on the inside.

In a sense, it is true that these scholars don’t know much about the realities of life. Not only do they have no private sector experience, when they enter the civil service after their studies they often get shuttled from one department to another without getting the chance to really dig into one area.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that upon graduation quite a few scholars don’t have a particular desire to work in the civil service. To them, it’s just an office job that pays decently, and that they’ll have to learn to rise through the ranks in, just as they learnt how to ace their A level papers.

It would be valuable to enable scholars to experience life in the civil service, perhaps during their summer vacations back in Singapore. This should be more than a meaningless internship where a bunch of undergrads twiddle their collective thumb until 6pm every day.

At present, the government does try to expose scholars to life in the civil service such as, for PSC scholars, a preparatory course and mid-course programme designed as a sort of crash course on community issues and public policy. There is also an internship at one ministry or agency, but it is questionable just how much exposure this really affords scholars, seeing as the entire mid-course programme lasts only 6 to 8 weeks.

Ideally, scholars should have some idea of the areas they’re most interested in, and have developed a sense of how they’ll be able to contribute before they graduate. This will reinforce the commitment to public service of those who aren’t totally indifferent to the notion. Those who still go ahead and break their bonds will at least be basing their decisions on first-hand knowledge that life in the civil services isn’t for them.

What do you think of government scholars who break their bonds? Tell us in the comments!