Government Scholarships for Tertiary Education in Singapore: Questioning the Singaporean Formula for Success in Achieving our Social Goals

Singapore has always been conscientious of its identity as an economic success story, and has drawn from its history a formula for success and a justification for its social and economic policies. Singapore’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew stressed the importance of escaping unfavourable economic conditions and increasing the welfare of every Singaporean, especially the least advantaged. This priority is evident in historically significant policies like setting up the Housing Development Board (HDB) to realise affordable government housing. Lee also formulated the Singaporean formula for success; Lee thought that providing every individual with the assurance of a fair shot at success and incentive-based policies of recruitment for the civil service were the best ways to maintain the upward trend on social welfare.

Singaporeans have accepted both Lee’s social commitments and his conception of the formula for fulfilling them. It is based on our acceptance of these vaguely articulated premises that Singapore’s present-day policies, such as ministerial salaries 210 times that of a cleaner[1] and a large budget for bonded government scholarships, make sense. But perhaps we should clarify what our social commitments are and examine the Singaporean formula more closely, because I believe that when subject to rigorous tests against egalitarian theory, the formula shows itself to be inadequate in fulfilling our social commitments, sometimes bringing them into conflict with one another.

Singapore’s commitment to raising the minimum welfare of society is best articulated by John Rawls’ difference principle, outlined in the essay A Theory of Justice. Simply explained, the difference principle states that inequalities (of social and economic conditions) are only justified if they bring about an increase in the minimum social welfare. The influence of the difference principle is clear in the rhetoric of Singaporean politicians; relaxed wealth and corporate taxes are explained away using potential benefits to the lower end of society via the trickle-down effect.

Singapore’s commitment to everyone getting a fair shot in winning a meritocratic system is best articulated by Rawls’ fair equality of opportunity. Offices and positions should be open to all, and beyond that, each individual should have a fair chance at attaining them.

We strive to realise these social commitments; they are a matter of justice in Singaporean society. Going further, we accept that incentivising the talented to work in the civil service is a good formula to fulfill these commitments. The incentives approach has, according to Lee, historically been a key cause of economic success and increase in welfare levels, so we must incentivise the talented at a competitive rate to keep this mechanism in motion. This was the blueprint for the aforementioned policies concerning recruitment for the civil service sector.

Carrying several-year bonds, government scholarships for tertiary education are supposed to guarantee talented individuals’ service to society. But the Singapore government has not simply provided an platter of incentives in order to make their winning formula work. It has laid these out in a pathway of incentives, with one incentive leading to another; this design aims to attract and sequester talent in the government. Having one’s tuition paid for and receiving an allowance is the first in the framework. Following their acceptance of the scholarship, scholars are guided to develop a long-term career trajectory, receive exclusive development opportunities, and are primed for a high-level position. They are fast-tracked for promotions[2] and a government job is known to be an ‘iron rice bowl’, meaning job security is high. These are responses to Singaporean students’ growing expectations of high salary, career success, and job security[3], and have been strategically laid out so the investment package reliably reaps results for the civil service talent pool. If Lee’s hypothesis is right, this policy would translate to increased minimum welfare.

How this policy meets Rawlsian demands for fair equality of opportunity is a question we are beheld to ask. Because these government scholarships are so tightly attached to high-level civil service jobs and scholars are groomed for accelerated upward career progression, we might question whether opportunities to occupy high-level civil service positions are being crowded out by government scholars. Some might object that fair equality of opportunity is attached to scholar selection, but the government scholar position is not the same as a ministerial position or a civil service occupation of similar duty and benefits; fair equality of opportunity should also apply to the second office. The incentives pathway is also a pathway of increasing opportunities. The Ministry of Home Affairs states its scholars “will be exposed to various areas of work through regular postings to acquire staff and command competencies [and] have the opportunity to be emplaced on the Public Service Leadership Programme where [the scholar] will acquire specialist knowledge and capabilities to take on key leadership positions”[4]. A government scholar may become worthy of their eventual office not necessarily because of previously identified ability, but because of the opportunities granted that created that merit. Access to such an office becomes highly contingent on getting one’s foot in the door through besting a selection process that, by virtue of being performed very early in an individual’s development, is potentially unreliable, and performed without everyone having equal starting positions in the first place. Many studies, including one by Singapore Children’s Society researcher Ong Xiang Ling, suggest “higher socio-economic status (SES)” Singaporean families produce children that go further in education[5], for one because the private tutoring industry in Singapore has created a pay-to-win system exploiting inherent flaws in how exams evaluate ability. Scholarships are also disproportionately granted to students from wealthier backgrounds who have already had greater opportunities for self-development in life[6]. Our recruitment policy may just be a more visible and deterministic extension of a less obvious, pre-existing pathway for success. Beyond being an unreliable method of selection, this policy could be a systemic injustice that reinforces other systemic injustices, endangering fair equality of opportunity.

Additionally, we should consider that there are problems with the use of incentives. Gerald Allan Cohen presents the moral argument against the use of incentives in a just society in in Inequality, Incentives, and Community[7]. Were we all equally committed to the principles of justice, we would not ask for additional incentive to fulfill the demands of justice. Why should the talented be given additional incentive to fulfill the difference principle? When ESM Goh says that “quality costs money”[8] and that Singaporeans will “pay” if we give fewer incentives to ministers[9], or when we say that talented Singaporean students interested in civil service work must be given ample financial incentive to join the government lest they run off to the private sector, we mean they are more committed to their own self-interest than to the principles of justice and we should specially accommodate this lack of commitment, rather than subject it to question. Cohen tells us that this essentially excludes these individuals from our moral community. It was Lee who endorsed the kampong spirit, whose essence is every individual’s commitment to each other’s welfare in a close-knit community, as the basis for the national community. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoes this sentiment by asking us to “nurture the kampong spirit where Singaporeans look out for one another, where the community steps up and works with one another and the government to solve problems”[10], but ironically, saying that some “cost” more means we treat some Singaporeans as outsiders and to the national kampong and give them a moral break they don’t deserve.

We should also consider whether incentivising the meritorious to enter the government is even a policy that works, since many have dismissed our moral compromise as a sacrifice we must make to achieve our ends. Incentivising the meritorious means providing financial incentives to those who have great academic merit. We believe that exams work and that academic achievement is a good, all-encompassing signal for performance potential in high-level government jobs. But surely this is not the only thing that constitutes the merit of an excellent civil servant. Lee championed consideration for social welfare and society before oneself as key values for civil servants. Beyond just being a value, there is support for the idea that altruism, selflessness, and sincere consideration for social welfare are performance-boosters for those who work in social and civil service. Yet, we use the incentives approach, moulding the government into a “model employer” and “private sector [competitor]”[11], and making “Moral Responsibility to Serve” a small section in the Ministerial Statement on Scholars and Scholarship Bonds that reminds scholars scholarships are “not simply a study loan”[12]. This strategy, by design, attracts those motivated mainly by financial incentives. Surely the incentives approach poorly selects for individuals with altruistic motivations and the disposition for service. Selection of those with such a disposition may occur, but would be accidental rather than by design, which is an uncharacteristically inefficient way of doing things for Singapore.

The incentives approach may discourage the altruistic disposition in future generations. By conditioning Singaporeans to look out for incentives before people, we injure the altruistic motivation already present in our current generation and breed new generations where the altruistic disposition is less common. We has already influenced the mould of individuals today. The crowding out of altruistic motivations does not exist only at the level of ministers, but has occurred at an earlier stage of the pathway. The scandals of government scholars breaking their bonds for more financially interesting career options signals the lack of social commitment our young individuals possess before they even enter the civil service. Is this not sufficient to dampen our mindless enthusiasm for the incentives approach?

Echoing then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee’s reminder that a scholarship is “not simply a study loan”, Vivian Balakrishnan warned at the Foreign Service Scholarship Awards Ceremony that a scholarship is not “a transaction” but “a commitment to serve the nation”[13], these warnings serving to complete the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. If we are to go beyond paying lip service to and renew our commitments to our Rawlsian goals of maximising minimum welfare preserving fair equality of opportunity, and treat every individual as responsible to these goals, we will need to amend our approach to civil servant recruitment, whether that requires us to reduce the use of incentives, institute multiple points of assessment of ability for scholars and non-scholars, and work to correct instances of injustice earlier in the established pathway. This may require us to break apart the previously unquestioned formula of success and our meritocratic procedure, but these are essential steps to getting ourselves out of a moral ditch and delusion of civil service excellence.

 

Notes

[1] Hugo, Justin. “SINGAPORE: Millionaire Ministers and Systemic Inequality.” The News Lens International Edition, 23 Oct. 2018, international.thenewslens.com/article/106583.

[2] Loi, Lionel. “Government Scholars: 3 Economic Reasons Why It Makes Sense They Are Promoted Faster.” DollarsAndSense.sg, 11 July 2018, dollarsandsense.sg/government-scholars-3-economic-reasons-scholars-generally-promoted-faster/.

[3] “Singapore’s Public Sector Scholarships Rise in Popularity.” The Edge Markets, 8 Sept. 2016, www.theedgemarkets.com/article/singapores-public-sector-scholarships-rise-popularity.

[4] How MHA Works, Ministry of Home Affairs, www.mha.gov.sg/join-mha/scholarships-awards/singapore-government-scholarship.

[5] Teng, Amelia. “Study: Kids from Affluent Families More Likely in IP, GEP Schools.” The Straits Times, 1 June 2016, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/study-kids-from-affluent-families-more-likely-in-ip-gep-schools.

[6] Hian, Leong Sze. “Too Many Scholarships to Richer Students?” The Online Citizen, The Online Citizen, 7 Jan. 2018, www.theonlinecitizen.com/2018/01/07/too-many-scholarships-to-richer-students/.

[7] Cohen, Gerald Allan. “Inequality, Incentives, and Community.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. May 1991, Stanford University, Stanford University.

[8] “Minister Goh Chok Tong: Quality Cost Money, Singapore Leaders Deserve Best Money.” States Times Review, statestimesreview.com/2018/08/11/minister-goh-chok-tong-quality-cost-money-singapore-leaders-deserve-best-money/.

[9] Toh, Elgin. “Cut Pay for Ministers? Singapore Will Pay Price: ESM Goh.” The Straits Times, 9 Oct. 2018, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cut-pay-for-ministers-spore-will-pay-price-esm-goh.

[10] The People’s Association: Annual Report 2014/15. 2014, The People’s Association: Annual Report 2014/15, https://www.pa.gov.sg/docs/default-source/others-documents/about-us-doc/pa-annual-report-1415.pdf

[11] Kim, Pan Suk. “How to Attract and Retain the Best in Government.” International Review of Administrative Sciences, vol. 74, no. 4, 2008, pp. 637–652., doi:10.1177/0020852308098472.

[12] Ministerial Statement on Scholars and Scholarship Bonds By DPM Lee At Parliament on 11 Mar 98. National Archives Singapore, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/speeches/view-html?filename=1998031201.htm.

[13] Poh, Joanne. “How Can the Singapore Government Stop Scholars from Breaking Their Bonds?” MoneySmart.sg, 20 Sept. 2016, blog.moneysmart.sg/opinion/can-singapore-government-stop-scholars-breaking-bonds/.

 

References

Cohen, Gerald Allan. “Inequality, Incentives, and Community.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. May 1991, Stanford University, Stanford University.

How MHA Works, Ministry of Home Affairs, www.mha.gov.sg/join-mha/scholarships-awards/singapore-government-scholarship.

Hian, Leong Sze. “Too Many Scholarships to Richer Students?” The Online Citizen, The Online Citizen, 7 Jan. 2018, www.theonlinecitizen.com/2018/01/07/too-many-scholarships-to-richer-students/.

Hugo, Justin. “SINGAPORE: Millionaire Ministers and Systemic Inequality.” The News Lens International Edition, 23 Oct. 2018, international.thenewslens.com/article/106583.

Kim, Pan Suk. “How to Attract and Retain the Best in Government.” International Review of Administrative Sciences, vol. 74, no. 4, 2008, pp. 637–652., doi:10.1177/0020852308098472.

Loi, Lionel. “Government Scholars: 3 Economic Reasons Why It Makes Sense They Are Promoted Faster.” DollarsAndSense.sg, 11 July 2018, dollarsandsense.sg/government-scholars-3-economic-reasons-scholars-generally-promoted-faster/.

“Minister Goh Chok Tong: Quality Cost Money, Singapore Leaders Deserve Best Money.” States Times Review, statestimesreview.com/2018/08/11/minister-goh-chok-tong-quality-cost-money-singapore-leaders-deserve-best-money/.

Ministerial Statement on Scholars and Scholarship Bonds By DPM Lee At Parliament on 11 Mar 98. National Archives Singapore, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/speeches/view-html?filename=1998031201.htm.

Poh, Joanne. “How Can the Singapore Government Stop Scholars from Breaking Their Bonds?” MoneySmart.sg, 20 Sept. 2016, blog.moneysmart.sg/opinion/can-singapore-government-stop-scholars-breaking-bonds/.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Belknap, 1999. “Singapore’s Public Sector Scholarships Rise in Popularity.”

“Singapore’s Public Sector Scholarships Rise in Popularity.” The Edge Markets, 8 Sept. 2016, www.theedgemarkets.com/article/singapores-public-sector-scholarships-rise-popularity.

Teng, Amelia. “Study: Kids from Affluent Families More Likely in IP, GEP Schools.” The Straits Times, 1 June 2016, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/study-kids-from-affluent-families-more-likely-in-ip-gep-schools.

The People’s Association: Annual Report 2014/15. 2014, The People’s Association: Annual Report 2014/15, https://www.pa.gov.sg/docs/default-source/others-documents/about-us-doc/pa-annual-report-1415.pdf

Toh, Elgin. “Cut Pay for Ministers? Singapore Will Pay Price: ESM Goh.” The Straits Times, 9 Oct. 2018, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cut-pay-for-ministers-spore-will-pay-price-esm-goh.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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