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Rethinking civil service scholarships and the entrepreneurial spirit

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Pritam Singh has written an interesting post here. He brings up statistics from the Public Service Commission website to show that for much of the last decade the overwhelming recipients of PSC scholarships are Chinese students. Since 2002, minority recipients of the PSC scholarship has always comprised less than 10% of total scholarships awarded. In comparison, non-Chinese races make up some 25% of the population, which implies minorities are vastly under-represented in PSC scholars.

For non-Singaporeans, PSC scholarships are often considered prestigious because they guarantee a job in civil service which is often regarded as an iron rice bowl; a secured salaried job which usually pays better than most of the jobs in the private sector. As Pritam explains:

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.

This is certainly cause for concern, especially since  these scholarships determine how much racial representation an ethnic group gets in government. While Pritam did not explicitly call for an affirmative action programme to ensure greater minority representation in PSC scholars, some who commented on TOC’s Facebook link to his post did so, as did those who commented on TOC’s reproduction of his post here. Others have argued that doing so would undermine meritocracy in Singapore, which judges individuals’ calibre based on their academic merits and achievements rather than by the colour of their skin.

But does one really have to choose between maintaining the status quo or introducing affirmative action? I argue that no one should have to do so if one is willing reform the scholarship system and practice of appointing top scholars to policy-making positions.

To start off on this argument, we must ask ourselves what is the role of government? It is to oversee the country, make important policy decisions affecting the millions of people who reside on a small island. But yet it is not obvious why the individuals who populate the policy making panels and board must necessarily be scholars.

The scholarship system in Singapore is also responsible for selecting high calibre candidates to fill top military posts in the army, which arouses the usual criticism that those in charge of national security and defence are little more than paper generals in contrast with the academically mediocre but operationally experienced regular servicemen who spend most of their lives serving in the army but whose advancement are limited by a glass ceiling they would never breach.

As Lucky Tan explains in a recent post, what should matter in government is not the academic qualifications of those who serve but the intent of their policies. Whether those in power will serve the interests of those who voted for them is far more important than having intelligent and highly capable office-holders who can think up novel and innovative ways to make Singaporean workers work cheaper, better and faster. Who would want their civil servants to be individuals who are highly accomplished in many ways but spend their time crafting regressive policies to enrich the wealthy and screw the middle class and poor?

Many have also blamed the scholarship system and over-emphasis on academics in Singapore for the utter lack of a thriving entrepreneurial culture. Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology, Singapore’s best known and perhaps most successful entrepreuner fingered a culture of excessive rule-following and fear of venturing outside the box for being responsible. He coins the term NUTS while doing so:

In his book Chaotic Thoughts from the Old Millennium, he uses a comparison of traffic rules in Singapore to those found overseas, to describe the phenomenon : In Singapore, drivers are not allowed to make a U-turn unless a sign specifically allows them to do so, while in some other countries drivers may make U-turns freely so long as the ‘No U-turn’ sign is not present. Following that, this analogy is used to explain the red tape he has encountered with hard-nosed bureaucrats, which in turn stifles the very creativity that the Singaporean government has been trying to promote in the recent years.[1]

NUTS is also considered as one of the minor criticisms of the rigid Singapore education system, where students are taught from a young age to obey instructions in an unquestioning manner, in a society where grades and paper certification are emphasised at the expense of some life skills.[2][3]

Although Sim Wong Hoo’s book was written in 1999, much of it still reads relevant today. A Nov 2010 BBC broadcast on the the lack of entrepreunerial spirit in Singapore was likewise attributed to risk-adversity, and also highlights why existing government policies in providing easier access to start-up capital has failed to achieve its goal of fostering entrepreneurship:

The prime ambition of a bright local remains a job in the very well paid civil service, says Lyn Lee. Or a big multinational company. Another entrepreneur told me that he thinks the availability of official funds for start-ups encourages an industry of grant-getting, not risk-taking.

Gilbert Goh has an excellent article here attributing the lack of creativity necessary for an entrepreunerial spirit to a typical Singaporean scared-to-lose-out mentality fostered by an exam-based “meritocratic” system.

It is time the Singapore government acknowledges that entrepreneurship is not something which starts trickling downwards from the government to the people but rather bottom-up. Long before the PAP won the 1959 elections and set up much of the present-day rigid education system there were the Chinese entrepreuners, the likes of Tan Kah Kee, Gan Eng Seng and Tan Kim Seng. These legendary entrepreneurs of the past were poorly educated completely unlike today’s MBA-equipped scholars who have yet to achieve similar standards of success in British-held colonial Singapore where the colonial government cared far more about protecting British trade interests than developing a vibrant local economy.

There are other reasons of course, why these people could succeed where most would fail today in making it big and successful. These entrepreneurs had the whole domestic market to themselves and didn’t have to contend with today’s giant GLCs and MNCs which crowd out small start-up firms. As explained in an earlier post, the existing economic situation in Singapore is one where wages are deliberately depressed as a share of GDP to maximise the GDP share of corporate profits is one which leaves households with lesser to spend on private consumption, which limits the potential growth of entrepreneur SMEs which are catered towards the domestic market.

Similarly for public service, if the Public Service Commission wasn’t so fascinated by straight A’s,  it would have listened to the words of degree-less Singaporean minister Lim Kim San who was HDB’s first and most successful chairman and had similarly criticised the unhealthy fixation on top degrees for government positions:

His comments also continue to ruffle feathers in politics, where he is unafraid to buck the PAP line. For instance, he disagrees with the exceedingly high salaries paid to Singapore ministers -a policy fervently defended by his chum Lee. “It’s too much,” Lim says, shaking his head. And he is critical of the composition of the cabinet, openly lamenting that in today’s Singapore there is no way a savvy, practical -but degree-less -man like himself could ever be chosen as a party candidate, let alone become a minister. “That’s why we will never get another cabinet like the one Lee had,” he says. “We had various qualifications and backgrounds. That’s what makes a good cabinet, not just 1st class degrees.

Hence to conclude, unless one is willing to re-examine the rationale for why only scholars are largely considered for government positions it will be hard to break out of this dependency on this system which is hindering Singapore’s attempts in genuinely re-inventing itself.


Written by defennder

February 6, 2011 at 1:51 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

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4 Responses

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  1. A couple of comments:

    1. If you take the award of scholarships to be dependent on academic results, then the underrepresentation of minorities is probably due to their lower level academic achievement. (See http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/files/2010/chart-c1-ethnic-groups.pdf). The data suggests that the average A-level score of Indian and Malay Singaporeans is below that of Chinese Singaporeans. Given that PSC scholarships are given to the 90 something percentile of A-level exam taker, the difference in representation is bound to be very large.

    2. The smaller share of wages in the total GDP is not likely to be a major factor. The same thing is true of Malaysia, Thailand and probably Singapore in the past. One could reasonably argue that the Chinese community in those societies is more entrepreneurial.

    There must be some other socio-economic factors to explain the current situation.


    February 6, 2011 at 6:57 PM

  2. I agree with Fox’s point 2.

    Obvious social factors that apply less to Malaysia and Thailand:
    1. More prevalent idea in Sg that govt jobs are ‘iron rice bowls’.
    2. More fear of failure in Sg. This has many sources, including social engineering, and the lack of social security combined with high living costs.
    3. More conformist culture. Many people decide to take up ‘standard’ career tracks just because everyone else is doing so.

    Obviously the presence of GLCs, as mentioned above, is also a major factor.


    February 6, 2011 at 10:04 PM

  3. […] Singapore Coloring – Singapore 2025: Singapore Government Scholarships: A case for greater representation of Minority Races? – Furry Brown Dog: Rethinking civil service scholarships and the entrepreneurial spirit […]

  4. Fox & twasher

    Your comments made me wonder about what exactly killed the entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore. I went to do some research into this. After looking at some old books and papers (dated from the 1990s and 1980s), I realise there were quite a number of factors post-1959 (ie. after the PAP won power in Singapore) which were decisive in killing Singapore entrepreunership.

    That’s not to say all these factors were bad ones. Some of them were borne out of good intentions such as lowering the unemployment rate through rapid job creation. I hope to address this in a future post after I find enough time to collect all my thoughts and write a coherent article about it.


    March 17, 2011 at 1:19 PM

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