The scholarship bond

I was on a scholarship from a Singapore government agency known as International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore) which has since been merged into Enterprise Singapore. The scholarship allowed me to attend my dream school, The London School of Economics, taking the dream course which I managed to get into, BSc Economics. It was almost poetry that the one who inspired this dream of mine is Dr Goh Keng Swee, the economic architect of Singapore.

He was one of our forefathers who had the idea of using scholarships to train our brightest minds and keeping them within government. And I shared his dream of crafting the economic strategies for Singapore, for our next century of growth and prosperity. So I was convinced the scholarship bond was no big deal for me; I would be happy to serve in an economic agency and in public service. After all, my objective for studying economics, and understanding the causes of things, was to serve in the government of my country!

Of course, serving in the government is a rather vague notion for someone fresh out of Junior College or two years of full time National Service. Influencing policy, interacting with brilliant civil servants and ministers would no doubt be a great experience for a fresh graduate.

What I underestimated was how difficult it was for me when I did not share the same conviction for ideas and actions that were translated into policies. It was really hard for me to continue my work when I did not appreciate the intellectual foundations they were build upon. I admit that policy decisions weren’t the easiest or most straight-forward things, and there would be trade-offs.

I eventually realised that after investing in people to have a great education and experience, the preference for the organisation or bureaucracy was still for you to be a cog, to be outstanding in ways you’re expected to. Being a good student was about sitting still, raising your hands before you speak, doing your homework, getting good grades. It wasn’t about thinking differently, challenging authority, breaking things. I like to joke that Philip Yeo broke enough things that most loopholes were mended after that.

It took me long to realise it because I had the chance to spend most of my scholarship bond serving in areas I was interested in, doing things I really believed in. That alignment is so important but not to be taken for granted. I count myself fortunate; but that would not be the case for everyone.

Today, I’d encourage students to consider only scholarships without bonds. Not because there are issues with these organisations but at the age of 18 or 20, unless your family is unable to afford a university education or to send you on exchange, those opportunities that a scholarship can afford you is probably not worth the weight of this missing option to just resign.

If you want to study overseas and your family can afford it, by all means. If your family cannot afford it, studying locally in Singapore is just as good if not better especially when there’s the option to go on exchange. And if you cannot afford the exchange, find work overseas, go on work holidays, hustle.