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Government Scholarships – A case for greater representation of Minority Races?

by Pritam Singh

Earlier this week, Yahoo! Singapore ‘Fit to Post’ (FTP) published an article that generated in excess of 900 user comments within 24 hours. Written by FTP Singapore’s blogger Angela Lim, the article was entitled, “Dr Mahathir: MM Lee does not respect religion.” Dr Mahathir’s comments were a result of some observations made by MM Lee in the book, Hard Truths, about the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore – remarks which were met by an acerbic response from a significant number of local Malay institutions and individuals. So disenfranchising were MM Lee’s remarks that even Yacoob Ibrahim, the PAP Minister for Malay-Muslim affairs disagreed with them, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wisely distancing himself from his father’s caustic musings.

A number of themes ran through the comments thread that appeared after the aforesaid article. Many agreed with Dr Mahathir, while an equal if not greater number, disagreed.

What struck me was the substance of comments that disagreed with Dr Mahathir’s views. An overwhelming number responded to defining Singapore’s multi-racial social compact, not in terms of what it is, but rather oddly, in reference to the ills afflicting race relations in Malaysia. As a consequence, the strength of the Singapore system, in spite of a loud commitment to meritocracy, became nothing more than a function of the lowest common comparative denominator – race relations in Malaysia.

From a policymaking standpoint, it would seem as if the Singapore government is in a more privileged position to drive a robust and enduring social contract that accommodates Singaporeans of every race and creed fairly and equitably, especially since there is no overt political arrangement between the races in Singapore unlike in Malaysia.

It my argument that comparing Singapore’s race relations against Malaysia sets the bar for the Singapore system too low, and ultimately represents a meaningless comparison. Worse, the blind confidence in the Singapore state’s meritocracy mantra may operate to dilute and distract Singaporeans from making serious enquiries into the substance of our multi-racial society.

Legitimate queries on the relative lack of educational progress made by the Malay community over the last 25 years in Singapore, the educational stagnation of the Indian community and the brain drain of 1000 of our brightest students yearly according to MM Lee, amongst others – portend a serious and apolitical study of the apparently successful Singapore system and durability of our multi-racial social compact. A specific and long-standing frustration among Singapore’s minority races has been the abject under-representation of minorities as recipients of Singapore government scholarships. The figures in Table 1 below speak for themselves.

* The above data was culled from information available on the Public Service Commission (PSC) website at:http://www.pscscholarships.gov.sg/SCHOLARS_SPEAK/SCHOLARS.htm In tabulating the data, some difficulties arose in accurately categorising a scholar against his/her race. E.g. Asif Iqbal [Malay or Indian?] or Morris Natalie Yu-Lin [Chinese or Others?]. As such, I have listed the name of each non-Chinese PSC scholar in good faith and labelled each according to his/her most likely racial category. Although unlikely, there could also be the prospect of a Chinese name listed officially under the ‘Others’ category, a possibility that is impossible to extrapolate from the available data.

The PSC webpage which hosted the aforementioned data boasted a column (see image) titled “Giving back to society” where the PSC profiled five scholars – three Chinese, one Indian and one Malay. In profiling the scholars as such, it is argued that the PSC acknowledged the need to portray holders of government scholarships as transcending racial boundaries. Critically however, this politically correct profiling operates to misrepresent the actual number of minority PSC scholarship recipients.

Singapore government scholarships are amongst the most sought after as they systematically groom young Singaporeans to take up leadership positions in government, such as permanent secretaries of government ministries, to CEOs of statutory boards such as Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the Central Provident Fund (CPF), amongst others.

For a country that hosts a non-Chinese population of around 25%, the consistently disproportionate representation of minority government scholars is not only worrying, but also very revealing as to the grist of Singapore’s multi-racialism. Prima facie, the often heard of Malaysian Chinese complaint of under-representation at the highest levels of the Malaysian bureaucracy can be argued to operate similarly in Singapore, with minorities – beyond token representation – excluded from top-level bureaucratic appointments by design, if Table 1 is a guide.

In the absence of additional data and empirical evidence from the authorities, the poor representation of minority scholars is a problem that calls out for serious study and enquiry. I was particularly shocked to discover the relative absence of scholars from the Tamil community, even though it is the largest of all Indian ethnic groups in Singapore.

There could be very logical reasons for this under-representation – perhaps very few minority students score four As and ‘S’ / H3 paper credits, dwindling the number of applicants in the first place – reasons only the Public Service Commission is best placed to answer. But if many minority students do not qualify for top government scholarships in the first place, a separate enquiry on the educational performance of minorities should automatically ensue.

Even so, grades can only mean so much. In 2009, PSC Chairman Eddie Teo in a speech to NUS Business School students was quoted as follows: “…..more and more people now believe that EQ and soft skills will get you further in life than IQ.” In the same year, in an open letter on PSC Scholarships, he alluded to qualities that went beyond grades and spoke of a selection process that hosted broad requirements:

“While we do select from students who are at the top in terms of academic performance, our experience shows that above a certain cut-off point, academic results cannot help us differentiate between candidates. We need to look for other qualities, such as leadership and whether he can work with others.”

“There is no single leadership model we favour because the Public Service is looking for a diversity of leaders to help manage different problems and situations in an uncertain and unpredictable future.”

“While IQ is generally not a bad predictor of success in life, it is not the only relevant factor. Which is why some people with very high IQ do not make it in life and may even drop out of society altogether. For our purposes, high IQ and top academic results are not enough. To assess whether a candidate has the potential to make it to the top of the Public Service, we need to look for non-cognitive skills as well.”

“However, no candidate is likely to have all the desirable traits and qualities in equal abundance. All candidates, being human, will excel in some areas and will not excel in one or more of the qualities we are looking for. It is a given that all the candidates we interview excel academically. But because candidates will vary in everything else, the PSC will have to exercise judgement in making trade-offs. This is why recruitment is an art, not a science.”

“The PSC will need to be mindful of the fact that women generally perform better at interviews; they are generally more mature (at 18 years old) and confident and they often speak better than the men.”

“Candidates who come from humbler backgrounds may lack the polished exterior of their more privileged colleagues. We must look beyond appearances to determine the substance and depth of the candidates.”

In view of what appears to be a very broad selection criterion underwritten by strong academic performance, the apparently systematic under-representation of minorities becomes even harder to explain. What emerges is a perceptible pattern that indicates minority representation at the highest levels of the Singapore government will be disproportionately low for the foreseeable future.

The central question now is what can be done to bring this problem to attention of government decision-makers. For the immediate term, the expectation ought to fall on two categories of individuals. Firstly, minority PAP MPs cannot ignore the fact that the onus falls on them to raise this matter to the government. If anything, the multi-racial integrity of a Singapore 10-20 years down the road demands it. In addition, as representatives of their various communities, they cannot abdicate their community specific responsibilities especially since their political presence has been statutorily enshrined by the electoral – specifically GRC – system.

A second category of individuals that ought to be concerned are the members of the PSC commission, current PSC scholars, and private sector representatives who belong to the minority communities and who occupy leadership positions within and outside the bureaucracy. They are in a strong position to petition the government for a fairer representation of minority PSC scholars with a view to the political and multi-racial stability of Singapore.

These demands upon PAP MPs and PSC members are not particularly onerous. Minority Singaporeans are not expecting an affirmative action program, a pound of flesh or scholarship quotas, but an equitable representation that befits their status as equal Singaporeans – nothing more, nothing less.

Equally, it must be iterated that the minorities should not expect equal representation relative to their population numbers (i.e. 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, 10% Indian etc.) as far as PSC scholarships are concerned year on year. There could be some years where the numbers vary, greatly even, but over the course of an extended period time, a discernable pattern ought to emerge, one that broadly corresponds to the national demographic. As it stands, the current figures are eye opening and incongruous when cast against Singapore’s commitment to multi-racialism. From 2002 – 2010, Indians accounted for only 2.3% of all scholarship recipients, Malays – only 1.2%, while other minorities such as Eurasians and mixed-race scholars accounted for the remaining 2.3%.

In conclusion, I could not help but to opine that the comments that followed the FTP article referred to the introduction revealed an “end of history” slant to them. Francis Fukuyama in an oft-quoted 1989 thesis entitled “The End of History?” argued that the end of the Cold War corresponded with the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of liberal democracy as the final form of government. Fukuyama’s critics countered that a deeper analysis that went beyond the superficial revealed many capitalist democracies ridden with corruption, class disparities and the like, debunking any claim to the West having “arrived”. Likewise, it would be shortsighted, expedient and ultimately inaccurate to think Singapore has achieved the status of an equal and multiracial polity.

On the back of MM Lee’s poorly conceived comments about the Malay community, PM Lee remarked, “We have made tremendous progress in making Singapore more integrated, in bringing the different communities closer together. So let’s continue to move forward together and carry on making progress. We are always work in progress, the job’s never done.”

To some extent the PM is correct, but to say that the “job’s never done” appears to favour an indifferent approach rather than pursue tangible benchmarks that measure the quality of our multi-racial compact. This can lead to a “tidak apa” and “bo-chup” shrug of the shoulders when race related issues come up for consideration, especially since they do not affect the majority, while the handful of successful minority representatives selfishly marvel at their own achievements. Rather than see the glass as half-empty, Singapore is best served by a political leadership that commits to strengthening the multi-racial bonds that bind us as Singaporeans by returning to basics in times of doubt. For a start, the poor representation of minorities at the highest levels of government represents an immediate problem that requires urgent looking into.

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Pritam Singh is the founder of OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.com). He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at the Singapore Management University and a member of the Workers’ Party (http://wp.sg). The views expressed here are his own. Pritam also blogs at singapore2025.wordpress.com.