Forum Letter Replies

August 25, 2008

Equal Chances for All

Mr Nazry Bahrawi (“Scholarships, an uneven playing field”, Today, 25/8, p1-3), asked if “more could be done to give the less well-off an extra boost to rise to the very top”.

The Ministry of Education provides adequate resources to all our schools and institutions of higher learning to enable every Singaporean child to achieve his full potential. For each level, we spend what is needed to achieve a high quality education for all. No eligible student is deprived from entering our top schools, institutions or gifted programmes just because his family is poor. Admission is strictly based on merit and we have a wide range of bursaries and financial assistance schemes to assist students in need. For example, while there is a merit-based scholarship for top students entering Independent schools, MOE also provides the Independent Schools Bursary to students from families in the bottom 80% of household income.

Our schools go the extra mile to help students level up academically and develop holistically. All students can develop themselves in music, sports or the arts through school-based co-curricular programmes; participation in community service is part and parcel of school life for all students. Additional funding has also been provided to help students, especially those from less well-off families, to go on overseas exchange programmes and visits, buy computers and access enrichment programmes.

The article points out that “the student’s environment plays a large part in whether they make it into scholar ranks”. It is true that in all societies, successful parents tend to produce successful children and Singapore is not unique here. Many scholars do come from lower income households, but even then we should not narrowly define success only in terms of getting a scholarship. Thousands of students who graduate from ITE, Polytechnics and our Universities every year do not feel less of themselves or of their achievements because they have not received a government scholarship. Many go on to have successful careers in a variety of ways and through their own efforts. This is the broad-based meritocracy that has served all Singaporeans well.

Jennifer Chan (Ms)
Director, Corporate Communications Division

Scholarships, an uneven playing field?

With a laudable eight in 10 of students who made it to university last year coming from public housing roots, why are heartlanders under-represented in the top ranks of scholar elites — at least, going by the statistical profiles of A*Star and Public Service Commission scholars?

The answer, local observers believe, lie in the edge that tuition, enrichment classes and other extra-curricular opportunities provide, and which the well-off are likelier to afford.

And it leads some to ask if — while the education system with its plethora of subsidies and opportunities has succeeded widely in levelling up young Singaporeans across the board — more can be done to give the less well-off an extra boost, to rise to the very top.

The current busy scholarship season, with various Government scholarships being handed, was prefaced late last month by some intriguing figures from the Public Service Department, revealing that just 47 per cent of its scholars stay in HDB flats.

The figure was in response to SPRING Singapore chairman Philip Yeo’s comment that “a majority” of PSC scholars live in landed property.

Some 57 per cent of recipients of the prestigious A*Star scholarships, meanwhile, lived in public housing. About 84 per cent of Singaporeans are flat-dwellers.

Even if housing type is far from the most accurate indicator of household earning power, it is interesting that of this year’s five President’s Scholars, two used to live HDB flats; none, currently, live in public housing.

Of the latest four Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Overseas Scholars, one grew up in an HDB flat but all now live in private homes.

Since the scholarships are all given out strictly on merit, it begs the question: Why are students from public housing less likely to make the cut?

A recent study by campus recruitment specialist JobsFactory underlines this trend.

Out of 1,509 junior college respondents who did well enough to qualify for a scholarship this year, about 57 per cent are HDB dwellers.

Tuition an edge, but issue is ‘more than just grades’

Most analysts Today spoke believe the student’s environment “plays a large part”, as Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies put it, in whether they make it into the scholar ranks.

Dr Chong said richer parents can “afford better tutors”, along with being able to afford home computers. Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University pointed to the enrichment classes and travel opportunities that well-off parents can provide.

“These higher income students may also have less pressure to work part-time to supplement family incomes,” said Prof Tan, adding that such things translates to them having “the academic and competitive edge”.

Current Lee Kuan Yew Scholar Perry Lim, 36, grew up in a two-room flat supported by his father’s earnings as a taxi driver.

Now an SAF colonel, he pointed out that winning a President’s Scholarship has gotten far more competitive than back in 1991, when he earned his.

“Now you’re not only judged on grades, but your accomplishments in CCAs and voluntary work as well,” he said. Those from affluent backgrounds are more likely to be “exposed to community work, sports and the world”.

How to help more bright young people from lower-income HDB backgrounds qualify for scholarships today, then?

“Schools should continue to give more support to these kids in their CCAs and encourage them to do social or voluntary work,” said Col Lim, the former director for higher education in the Education Ministry, who stressed he was a believer in meritocracy.

JobsFactory director, Mr Lim Der Shing, however, thinks the issue goes beyond the resume, to the soft skills. Having dealt for years with JC and polytechnic students, he said wealthier students are more exposed “to what is happening in the world and in business”.

“Such students are also more comfortable dealing with, specifically, senior level people. All this translates to a better interview performance and also better overall maturity when dealing with scholarship boards.”

One thing, in all this, has been stressed: There has been no lack of effort in the education system to level the playing field.

South-west District Mayor, Dr Amy Khor, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Education, cited the $48-million Opportunity Fund introduced two years ago to provide “out of the ordinary” chances, such as overseas learning trips, especially for needy students.

More early intervention schemes needed?

Nonetheless, Dr Khor believes, things “could always be improved”.

The Government is aware that their top scholars come mainly from more privileged backgrounds, she said, and it should look at how it could give potential scholars from other backgrounds a leg up.

Such early intervention is best done in schools: One way is to offer bursaries — aimed at helping bright needy students — with the same monetary value as scholarships, suggested Dr Khor. She did not, however, specify if the cost should be borne by the Government, voluntary welfare organisations and self-help groups, or the private sector.

JobsFactory’s Mr Lim supports the notion of a needs-based scholarship — a norm overseas — because “life is not always about maximising returns and profit”.

The private sector should lead the charge as a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), he argued.

“Many scholarship givers do give back to society via other ways, like outright donations, foundations and other CSR activities.”

Still, he admitted, it might not be fair to expect this of companies which — like the Government — see scholarships as a way of recruiting talent and less a social mission.

Nominated MP Kalyani Mehta thinks the Government could consider implementing what Mr Yeo did at A*Star when he was helming it — add income level as a scholarship criteria alongside merit.

“In view of the fast-expanding income gap, it will be an excellent way to level up,” she explained.

As for addressing the soft-skills gap, Mr Lim Der Shing suggested this be addressed at the JC level where students should be offered “more career, social, business related information”, to help them “ better to handle the scholarship application process”.

Box insert:Social mobility and education

In March, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed that eight in 10 of university students last year — from the Primary 1 cohorts of 1990 to 1992 — came from HDB flats; one in eight were from poorer families in 1- to 3-room flats.

Noting that students whose parents were more successful were more likely to make it to university, Dr Ng — in a written reply to a question tabled in Parliament about social mobility — said this trend was seen in most stable, developed countries, and hence was “not surprising”.

“Able students from poor households have done well in their studies, risen in life, and now have children of their own who also tend to do well,” he said, stressing the financial help and subsidies given to all promising students at all levels.

Last year, former Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out that students from the bottom one-third of home backgrounds have a 50-per-cent chance of being among the top two-thirds of performers at the PSLE and O levels.