• The Convergence

On Ideology and Scholarships in Singapore

By Eldrick, Editor



Photo: Prime Minister's Office Singapore

Many would agree with the characterisation of Singapore as a tuition haven. As the longtime champion and producer of stellar academic results [1], Singapore’s education system is famous for being a fast-paced, pressure-cooker environment which, as a result, spurs many to take on additional tuition classes. As of today, there are close to a thousand tuition centres that are registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE) catering to about 180 primary schools, 131 secondary schools and about 11 Pre-University institutions (i.e. schools that cater to IB or A’ Levels certification). [2] This fact is well-known, perhaps even tautologous just to mention it. On the other hand, the phenomenon of scholarship recipients is largely neglected, although numbers wise, the number of scholarships given up to today amounts to roughly the same as the tuition providers, perhaps slightly more. In 2020 alone, 34 individuals received one of the most prestigious scholarships in Singapore – the Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarship. [3]


The PSC Scholarship has a long history, dating back to 1951 when the Queen’s Scholarship was replaced by the Singapore State Scholarship. Then in the 1970s, the PSC began to administer the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship as well as the Hong Kong and ASEAN scholarships. Its latest rendition among all the scholarships it offers is called the PSC Scholarship (Engineering). This was inaugurated under the PSC’s Professional Service Pathway in 2017. Evidently, Singapore, via the capacity of the PSC, has been engaging in the scholarship ‘business’ for a very long time. Aside from the PSC, numerous other scholarships are also given by what’s commonly called civil service organisations within the state. These civil service organisations include statutory boards like Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board and some research oriented ones such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A* Star).


The upshot of these statistics is that although tuition and scholarships are both elements of Singapore's educational landscapes that have roughly the same number of intakes [4], there seems to be greater attention on tuition in Singapore. We hardly consider the number of scholarship recipients or the number of scholarship providers as something to take note of, let alone as a cause for concern.

Most students attend tuition because they want to attain stellar results and increase their chances when applying for scholarships. As teacher and owner of The Economics Tutor tuition centre, Kelvin Hong alluded that "students who aren't weak would also seek out my services as they have very high aspirations such as entering top universities, securing admission into highly competitive programmes like medicine and law, or obtaining scholarships” [5]. Hence, tuition and scholarships feed on each other as if they were in a symbiotic relationship: Students go for tuition in order to attain excellent academic results which in turn, would grant them higher chances in securing scholarships. Yet, less weight is placed on the phenomenon of scholarship in Singapore. This fact is all the more salient given China’s recent crackdown on the tuition industry. As a result of this, the spotlight has been shifted once again to the tuition industry within Singapore, with some considering whether Singapore should follow in China’s footsteps. [6]


What ado about Scholarships


As mentioned at the start, most scholarships in Singapore are given out by local organisations, especially the ones administered by the PSC. At the same time, most of them come with a bond, which requires the recipient to work in the organisation for about 3 to 8 years, depending on the location of undergraduate study. Hence, as much as scholarships are an enticing package, it is also one that potentially entraps the recipient due to the bond. In fact, this is not a stranger-phenomenon. We often hear of recipients who break their bond and end up needing to pay back however much they were subsidised. The motivation behind this move is interesting; it is this to which we shall turn our attention towards.


For recipients who break their bond, some may find out that they do not like the jobs they would be doing at the organisation while some may be drawn towards greener pastures either overseas or at another company. These reasons are commonly heard and the recipients, at least by a common moral standard, are blameworthy for not having done their research properly or being so finicky that they deprive someone who might potentially be wholly interested a chance to work in the organisation which they refused. However, if we dig deeper regarding the source of distaste towards their future employer organisation, we can find a more fundamental reason that ought to be more salient and also considered by people who are intending to apply for scholarships.


Singapore’s scholarship landscape, which forms an element of the entire educational landscape, is commonly seen as a talent management programme rather than a reward or gift, let alone a scholarship that recognises “scholars” in the classical sense. [6] Hence, to be awarded a scholarship in the context of Singapore is to be recognised by the organisation as a talent that is worthy to be nurtured and developed. Now, organisations would not want to select individuals who lack the values or ethos that the company embodies. Take, for instance, the public service values of the CPF board which includes integrity, service and excellence. Without a doubt, these are very broadly-conceived values or virtues that can be plastered under the values column of any companies’ website. However, it still speaks volume about the kind of work that the CPF board engages in or hopes to engage in. Also, it suggests that the CPF Board would presumably prefer to have individuals who embody these values to work for them. In fact, it seeps into their mission, which is the practical manifestation of the values.


In other words, the values of the organisation is theoria, the term used to refer to contemplation or the theoretical aspect of life while the mission is the praxis, the term rendered as “action”. [7]. Now, this neat division allows us to understand why it is that scholarship recipients may choose to sever their bond and suffer the fate of needing to pay back.

Much ado about Scholarships


Given the cost of breaking bonds, scholarship recipients who do so probably already find that there is too much weighing against them with the scholarship as it is. Using the division of theoria and praxis just introduced in the CPF example, perhaps the job scope does not fit them or that they are no longer drawn to working to help people secure one’s retirement. In this case, we have merely a mismatch of practical concerns or practice and expectations in general. The more difficult part comes when they experience a mismatch in values as this reveals an internal conflict within themselves, that they are perhaps unable to reconcile and hence, end up miserable. Imagine being terribly passionate about justice while working in a place that puts innocent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) out of business. It is only through a kind of self-conditioning that one is able to reconcile with one’s internal disjunction, adopt the company’s value and eventually move on. Looked at it this way, the values that a company (or scholarship provider) stands for are not mere values, but a broad scaffold that can come across as ideology.


In his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, differentiates between repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). The latter forms the bulk of what is referred to here as ideology. It refers to the way by which religion, education, the family, the legal system, the political system, trade unions, communications/media, and culture function. [8] In the context of Singapore, the values that an organisation that also serves as a scholarship provider manifest on the front of theory, as ideology and on the front of practice, as the job that the employees (and naturally, the scholarship recipient) does. As mentioned earlier, it is easy to pick oneself up if one is unhappy with the latter. However, when one is disillusioned with the former, it is difficult to reconcile the negative reality with which one has to face.


At the same time, if one chooses not to confront the negative reality and adopts the values that one so disapproves of, this act would constitute the workings of ideology. Ideology conditions the individual through its material manifestation i.e. the organisation in this context. [9] What does all these show?

The decision to take on a scholarship, especially a bonded one, is not only a decision to have your hefty school fees waived in exchange for a stable job upon graduation. It is, instead, a much more insidious and potentially inimical process of being complicit to the ideology that the organisation stands for. Granted, not all ideologies are bad. For instance, a company that strives for environmental sustainability in view of global warming embodies the values of justice and fairness, which can seep into the kind of work they do in a positive fashion. However, the thing to take note is that ideologies inherently have the capacity to influence both the theoretical and the practical fronts, which is why it is difficult to ever step out of it. We are, as it were, drenched in ideology. For scholarship recipients, an endorsement of ideology is implicit within the undertaking of a scholarship tied to an organisation and by taking up the scholarship, they are announcing their complicity with the organisation’s stand. This complicity may be seen as harmless for the most part, after all, most organisations such as the statutory board in Singapore have a relatively clean track record. However, in the future where one of the organisations should ever taint its track record, the scholarship recipient’s initial complicity can be taken to be blameworthy under the lens of collective responsibility. [10]


Conclusion


Scholarship as a social phenomenon is hardly talked about in commonplace discourse [11], especially when we consider the educational landscape in Singapore. The fact that almost as many scholarships are given as the number of tuition providers, together with their symbiotic relationship, should hopefully help to emphasise the point that scholarship is as equally important a social phenomenon as tuition. Its degree of importance lies in its relation to ideology and the recipient's inevitable complicity when accepting a scholarship. In a capitalist society like Singapore, where much of what is desired are goals observable via certain metrics, scholarship is often seen as one such positive goal to which one can strive for. However, it also represents a subscription to an ideology that one may want to be more careful in accepting.


Indeed, getting a scholarship could at the end of the day, be less of an entirely innocuous act.




Bibliography


[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/singapores-15-year-olds-top-oecd-global-competence-test


[2] https://data.gov.sg/dataset/number-of-schools-by-level-and-type?resource_id=547baceb-4d8b-4d15-810f-bad85e58f6e6


[3] https://annualreport.psc.gov.sg/psc-scholarships/psc-scholarships/

[4] By “quantitative similarity”, I’m referring to the notion that the number of people going to tuition as well as the scholarship recipients each amount to approximately the same amount.


[5] Quoted from https://www.ntu.edu.sg/business/news-events/news/story-detail/lessons-from-the-business-of-tuition-are-we-paying-attention


[6] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/singapore-tuition-centre-teachers-parents-students-education-2114136


[7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13639080.2021.1943335


[8] https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/doi/epdf/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee539

[9] Haslanger “Disciplined Bodies and Ideology Critique”


[10] Louis Althusser “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”: “Ideology has a material existence”


[11] See Howard McGary “Morality and Collective Liability”


[12] It is, however, widely talked about in research literature. See Rebecca Ye (2021) Schooling for government: institutionalised sponsored mobility and trajectories of public service scholarship recipients in Singapore (1979–2018), Journal of Education and Work, 34:4, 518-532, DOI:10.1080/13639080.2021.1943335; Ora-orn Poocharoen & Celia Lee (2013) Talent Management in the Public Sector: A comparative study of Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, Public Management Review, 15:8, 1185-1207, DOI:10.1080/14719037.2013.816525




 

Eldrick is a Y3 Philosophy student who likes films, music and literature. “To rejoice in one’s heart and to love, one needs solitude, but to be a success one must get about in society.” Stendhal