Monday, 31 August 2015

To what end, all the President's Scholars?

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

When the A-level results of my cohort were announced in 1973, I was named the top science student. I did not expect it and was pleased and surprised. I remembered feeling that I had performed extremely inadequately after completing every paper.

My results also earned me a President's Scholarship. I don't know where the scroll is now, nor does it matter. I wonder as well now whether the scholarship had a positive effect on my life's journey subsequently. That may astonish some, given the acute prestige associated with being a President's Scholar. Yet, the same prestige exerts extra pressure on the recipient to perform. Winning the scholarship attracts jealousy as well, and I have experienced both.

I was among 11 students in the class of 1972 who received the scholarship. Since then, I am aware of the progress of six. Three - Teo Chee Hean, George Yeo and Lim Hng Kiang - were also Singapore Armed Forces scholars. As many Singaporeans know, the trio became household names after they entered politics and rose to become senior Cabinet ministers. A fourth boy, Chan Seng Onn, is currently a Supreme Court justice.

As for the female recipients I know, Lee Bee Wah and Yap Hui Kim, like me, joined the medical faculty of the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore). After obtaining our basic degree, all three of us specialised in paediatrics. 

Bee Wah and Hui Kim were inseparable best friends who had studied in Methodist Girls' School and National Junior College. By contrast, I was dubbed a "Martian" - a term medical students in the 1970s coined to describe students who went it alone. While I knew my classmates, I did not forge deep friendships until after medical school.

I don't know how others felt about me when I graduated top of my class with MBBS Honours. But I certainly knew that news of the only examination I have ever failed, a requisite part of the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) which led to a post-graduate diploma, spread swiftly here as soon as the results were announced in Edinburgh where I had sat the test. People were glad that I failed and subsequently decided I was likeable after all.

In my contacts with other President's Scholars over the years, I discovered that some did as well as they expected while others did not. One observation that dawned on me was that several of these scholars as well as their circle of family, friends and community expected comparable achievements to continue by default. If a scholar did not do well, or as well as perceived, a sense of betrayal over what was deemed an entitlement to success crept in.

Yet, receiving a President's Scholarship is not a guarantee of life-long success. Furthermore, we all gauge success differently. I abide by my own rules, but these may not be what most members of my society hold. So, passing a tough examination may be a yardstick for success to them, or being named head of a hospital, or being appointed to the highest court in the land, or attaining senior ministerial status, or becoming a billionaire businessman.

I failed one exam once and was adjudged to have failed regardless of the reason I failed. So I repeated the test to prove I could pass it. If I were not Lee Kuan Yew's daughter, I would not have needed to do so publicly. But I am, and am a President's Scholar to boot, so passing an exam I failed the first time assumed an exaggerated importance.

Truth be told, the subsequent outcome of being bestowed the President's Scholarship depends almost entirely on the recipient. After all, the scholarship represents a person's achievement for, at most, the first 20 years of his life, or roughly a quarter of the average lifespan of a Singaporean. So, the scholarship is hardly a predictable indicator of a recipient's long-term future, good or bad.

What that future should be depends on a person's personality and priorities. For me, it means valuable interpersonal relationships, as well as being a doctor because the outcome is almost immediate and beneficial to the patient.

While I may not benefit Singapore as much as being a minister does, it does not matter. There are others who are as happy and feel as productive being a minister as I do being a doctor.

I am also happy writing a column which many Singaporeans seem to enjoy reading. I know my achievements are minuscule compared to those of senior judges, successful politicians and high-flying businessmen, but my capabilities do not match theirs and my personal inclinations differ. 

To me, the President's Scholarship was a little award I picked up on my way to learning what I wanted out of life and how I would repay my country for the opportunities it gave me.

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