Thursday 19 September 2013

PSC seeks more diversity in scholarships

To guard against elitism, it reaches out to students from more schools
By Robin Chan Political Correspondent And Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2013

THE public service is casting its net wider to schools that do not traditionally produce government scholarship winners, in a bid to increase the diversity in its ranks and guard against elitism.

In an open letter on the Public Service Commission (PSC) website yesterday, its chairman Eddie Teo underscored the value of having diversity in the public service as governance and policymaking become more complex, and demographics and the education system undergo changes.

"We need a diverse public service to avoid 'groupthink' and to appreciate the needs of a diverse Singapore population," he said in a letter penned to mark the start of his second term as chairman of the agency overseeing civil service recruitment.

PSC scholarships are seen as a pipeline for future top senior civil servants. But the perception that they are given mainly to students from top junior colleges is a perennial problem.

Lately, the need to address it has become more urgent amid growing concerns over social mobility and elitism.

In his letter, Mr Teo sought to reassure people that this was not the case.

The PSC, he said, will guard against elitism by taking in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and sending them to a wider range of universities and courses. The proportion of scholarship holders from traditional sources has shrunk, he added, using their schools as a proxy for socio-economic class.

In the last two years, 60 per cent of them were from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong, a drop from a peak of 82 per cent in 2007. In the last 10 years, these two schools produced 68 per cent of scholarship holders on average.

Joining their ranks in recent years are students from such junior colleges as Pioneer, St Andrew's and Nanyang.

Hoping their presence will dispel the popular perception, Mr Teo said: "A public service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will add to the impression that meritocracy leads to a lack of social mobility in Singapore."

But the PSC will not go for diversity for its own sake, he added. "We continue to subscribe to meritocracy and do not practise affirmative action or positive discrimination."

Mr Teo said the PSC has also been refining its concept of merit over the years, and now uses psychological interviews and psychometric tests to determine abilities such as leadership, character, interpersonal skills and stress tolerance. The foremost qualities for a scholarship candidate are integrity and commitment to serve Singapore and Singaporeans, he added.

The shift in the PSC recruitment process comes in the wake of a new approach to governance and an education system that strives to provide opportunities for all.

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out a new direction to build a fair and just society.

Acknowledging this, Mr Teo said public service leaders recognise the need for diversity.

"Just as the Government is changing the way it governs, public service leaders are learning how to manage a new generation of younger public servants, who want greater participation and more voice."

But the effort to have greater diversity would "come to naught" if these divergent views are discouraged, or those with different and non-conventional views are not valued and appreciated, he added.

Yesterday, principals and students said the move for more diversity would encourage more students from other schools to apply.

Indeed, principals of some of those schools said the PSC has, in the past few years, been holding more information sessions.

"The message is getting through to our students that they don't need to be the top scorer in academics. If they are well-rounded in their achievements, they have a chance," said Mrs Tan-Kek Lee Yong, principal of Pioneer JC.

PSC reaches out to students from diverse backgrounds
It hopes to change perception that only top scorers get scholarships
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2013

NANYANG Junior College second-year student Ashwin Lee, 19, has never seriously considered applying for a Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship.

He plans to study at a local university and said that is also where the ambitions of many of his schoolmates lie. That is a situation the PSC hopes to change.

In an open letter published yesterday, PSC chairman Eddie Teo stressed that the public service needs and values diversity.

He said he was glad that students from Nanyang, Pioneer and St Andrew's junior colleges were starting to receive PSC scholarships, the bulk of which has traditionally been awarded to students from two top JCs - Raffles and Hwa Chong.

As a result, there is a belief that PSC scholarships "normally go to those from the top few JCs", said Nanyang JC principal Kwek Hiok Chuang.

Pioneer JC principal Tan-Kek Lee Yong said the PSC "tends to be associated with high standards", so students might not be confident of their chances.

But perceptions can change. Two Pioneer JC students who did not have perfect grades but were outstanding in their co-curricular activities have won PSC scholarships, said Mrs Tan. "So the message is getting through to our students, that they don't need to be the top scorer," she said.

Both principals said the PSC has reached out to them with briefings and urged them to prepare their students for scholarship interviews.

Since 2002, when a polytechnic student won a PSC Overseas Merit Scholarship for the first time, others have done so. Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Clarence Ching, 18, has taken note and plans to apply for one.

Though not from a top JC, 20-year-old Loh K.Y. received support from his school's scholarship development programme when applying for a PSC scholarship last year. He was not successful, but does not think a preference for students from top JCs was to blame. He said some of his peers are not interested in PSC scholarships and prefer scholarships that match their career aspirations, such as those given by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

In the last two years, 60 per cent of PSC scholars were from Raffles and Hwa Chong, lower than the 10-year average of 68 per cent. Raffles Institution principal Lim Lai Cheng said the strongest students have many options, including bond-free scholarships from US universities. The school has "encouraged students from diverse backgrounds and talents to consider public service; and we will continue to do so".

Tackle larger issues

THE intentions of Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Eddie Teo are sound and long overdue ("PSC seeks more diversity in scholarships"; Wednesday). However, they are also limited.

To increase diversity only by "taking in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and sending them to a wider range of universities and courses" misses the larger issues confronting our society today. These issues include social mobility, affirming the Singaporean identity and dealing with unhealthy perceptions of scholarship holders within and outside the civil service.

First, government scholarships are generous and open up rich pathways for personal and professional growth. They are also effectively special transfers from the public balance sheet to the household balance sheet of the recipients' families.

But do high- and upper-middle-income families really need such transfers?

Government scholarships should be engines of social mobility and be awarded based on a mix of merit and need, and not just different kinds of merit.

In this way, children from middle- and lower-income households can have access to the best education that their families could not otherwise afford.

Second, it has been a practice to award scholarships to Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and those we hope will become PRs or Singaporeans, based on the mindset that our economy and public service need the best globally sourced minds.

However, recent political undercurrents suggest that the Government should recognise that, for the purposes of public service, the value of national identity is greater than that of simple academic merit.

We should be taking chances only on worthy Singaporeans and those willing to become Singaporeans from the onset - such commitment makes a material difference to the politics of how Singaporeans perceive the use of public monies.

Finally, scholarship holders represent a minority in the 140,000-strong civil service, but they are perceived to be given the best advantages and most development.

To gain diversity, the PSC should recognise that people bloom at different stages and, often, fulfilling potential is first a function of a sense of a level professional playing field.

The only advantage scholars should have is the benefit of education. Thereafter, assessment of potential, access to development opportunities and career progression should be subject to performance alone.

Devadas Krishnadas
ST Forum, 20 Sep 2013

Should scholarships go to wealthy kids?
PSC may achieve diversity by giving less well-off students an education they otherwise can't afford
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 22 Sep 2013

When I applied for a scholarship to go overseas for my university studies in 1971, I gamed the system. I looked at past records of which particular course had the most number of scholars and picked it to increase my chances of success.

It wasn't a difficult decision to make.

Ninety per cent of Colombo Plan scholarships were given for engineering, so the choices were really between areas of specialisation.

There were more successful candidates who selected mechanical engineering. So that was how I decided, and graduated with the degree three years later.

Getting the scholarship was the only way I could get an overseas education, and the course didn't really matter to me as long as I got my studies funded. It wasn't the ideal way to decide one's career but, back in the 1970s, that was how most of us did it.

I didn't practise engineering on my return because I wasn't really interested, and was posted to the Economic Development Board and subsequently the Administrative Service to do policy work.

Many of my contemporaries followed a similar career path.

You could say there wasn't much diversity among scholarship recipients then - we came mainly from poor and lower middle class families, and mostly did engineering.

On the other hand, you could also argue that because most Singaporeans at the time came from similar backgrounds, we represented the large majority and whatever diversity was out there.

Singapore was a much more homogeneous society then - we were all poor - and no one made a big deal of the fact that we were so alike, in family background as well as in our life and educational experiences.

Even if you wanted to have a more diverse pool, you wouldn't know where to start.

Today's Singapore is completely different and the Public Service Commission (PSC) should be commended for trying to broaden its search for scholarship candidates.

Writing on its website, PSC chairman Eddie Teo argued that having a more diverse group of public service officers was essential to avoid "groupthink and to tackle the much more complex and diverse issues today".

"The PSC is also acutely conscious of the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, lest we end up breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathy. While it does not follow that only those with a less fortunate background can empathise with the poor, a Public Service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will add to the impression that meritocracy leads to a lack of social mobility in Singapore," he wrote.

This is quite a departure from the traditional thinking of getting the best into the public sector regardless of family background.

As Mr Teo disclosed, the two elite schools, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong, dominated, with their proportion of scholarship recipients peaking at 82 per cent in 2007. It has since dropped to 60 per cent in the last two years.

It is well known that in these two schools, students from better-off households are over-represented, and critics say this shows that Singapore society is no longer as socially mobile as before.

And if the bulk of public sector scholars are from these schools, it will reinforce the perception of a closed and elitist system that draws its leaders from better-off segments of the population.

How though to put into practice Mr Teo's thinking, especially his wanting to get officers from all socio-economic classes?

The PSC says it will reach out to other schools and even to the polytechnics. That's worth trying though it remains to be seen if it will produce the desired result.

The most radical and effective way, put forth by a reader of The Straits Times in a letter published on Friday, is to discriminate against those from wealthy families.

Writer Devadas Krishnadas put it forcefully and I can do no better than quote him: "...government scholarships are generous and open up rich pathways for personal and professional growth. They are also effectively special transfers from the public balance sheet to the household balance sheet of the recipients' families. But do high- and upper-middle-income families really need such transfers?

"Government scholarships should be engines of social mobility and be awarded based on a mix of merit and need, and not just different kinds of merit. In this way, children from middle- and lower-income households can have access to the best education that their families could not otherwise afford."

It would be interesting to hear the PSC's response to this. I suspect it will argue that government scholarships are not meant to achieve social mobility - there are other programmes for that - and that they are primarily to attract talent into the service.

But it still does not address the question of why public money is used to fund the education of someone whose family can afford it. If that person were truly interested in public service, he could enter it after completing his studies, and let the scholarship go to someone from a less well-off family. From a national budget point of view, that means two well-educated Singaporeans in the public service for the price of one.

Perhaps a hybrid system could be devised with a certain number of scholarships reserved for the poor.

If the PSC is really serious about having a public service leadership drawn from all socio-economic classes, I cannot see how it can avoid some sort of income criteria.

What about the issue of groupthink in the service which Mr Teo highlighted?

I am glad he raised it as a concern because it is a real problem in a bureaucracy like Singapore's that has been dominant for so long and which has such a close relationship with the political leadership.

The PSC's approach is to encourage its scholars to go to universities other than those in Britain and the United States, and to do a variety of courses.

But groupthink is a problem more of an organisation's culture than the background of its scholars.

It has to do with whether the leadership encourages critical thinking and questioning and is open to ideas from outside.

It requires officers with high levels of professionalism and expertise in all the different services who are able to make independent assessments and decisions, and not wait for or second-guess their bosses.

But this is really outside the scope of the PSC.

It's about the culture of the public service, of the political leadership and the relationship between the two.

But that's another story.

How candidates are assessed

WE THANK Mr Devadas Krishnadas for his letter ("PSC scholarships: Tackle larger issues"; last Friday).

We agree that students from less privileged backgrounds should be helped. There are government bursaries and financial assistance schemes to help them get a good education and enhance their social mobility.

A Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship has a different purpose. It is meant to help the Singapore Public Service get its fair share of talent.

As the scholarship is awarded based on merit, there are no quotas. What this means is that all deserving candidates, regardless of their family backgrounds, are awarded the scholarship.

In assessing applicants for scholarships, the PSC looks not just at their capabilities, but also their commitment and passion to serve Singapore and Singaporeans.

PSC scholarships are awarded only to Singaporeans. A permanent resident is required to take up Singapore citizenship before his award is confirmed.

Mr Devadas said a scholarship should provide only the benefit of education, and that career progression and access to development opportunities should be based on performance.

The Civil Service appraisal system rigorously assesses an officer's potential to do a bigger job as well as his performance in his current job.

Officers with good performance and potential are identified and groomed, regardless of whether they are scholarship holders or not.

This is why a good number of public service leaders, including permanent secretaries and chief executive officers of statutory boards, did not start off as scholarship holders.

Terence Chia
Public Service Commission Secretariat
ST Forum, 24 Sep 2013

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