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Of scholarships and not getting one. May 27, 2011

Posted by Siew in Education, Uncategorized.

Much has been said about the allocation of scholarships from the Public Services Department recently. Somehow, a media storm has emerged from the unfair allocation of such scholarships. It is a somewhat curious thing to note that the all the hoo-ha is only starting now when the skewed nature of the allocation has been clear as day for many, many years. Someone important must have gotten passed over.

But that is not really what I want to say. I have 4 points of contention.

1. Scholarships are not a divine right

I think a popular perception is that scholarships are the domain of the best and the brightest. I disagree. The point of Government scholarships is not to pay for the smartest kid’s education. It is to pay for the neediest kid’s education. If I look at the people who have grouses with the system, they are inevitably from the middle class with a decent income. The gripe is that my son/daughter scored perfect scores in the SPM and was a national junior something. He/she deserves to study medicine in Ireland. Their proof is that someone with an inferior record (inevitably, this example will be Bumiputera) managed to secure the place, and therefore, there is foulplay.

I do not deny that foul play very likely happened there. The lack of transparency at all levels of Government ensures that this will always be a problem. But I find this notion that a scholarship must be awarded purely based on merit to be a little arrogant and selfish.

We have to remember that these scholarships are awarded by the Public Service Department. Key words in that phrase being PUBLIC SERVICE. That means they serve the public, and while I am sure that a middle class family with a house in USJ and 2 cars can claim to be part of the public, they would do well to remember that we have a population of 27 million. Ultimately, the department’s job is to serve the greater good of the public, and I do believe that giving impoverished families a chance to get out of a cycle of continued poverty is a responsibility of the government.

2. Not getting a scholarship is not the end of the world

This is a point that I feel particularly strongly about. I was one of those passed over by the PSD. Thankfully, I wasn’t particularly bothered due to a complete lack of ambition. I went on to study at a local university, funded by my middle income parents. I could have gotten a student loan that charges a very low interest from PTPTN, but my parents were nice enough to foot the entire bill. I am now working as a professional, and supporting myself just fine. I contrast this with friends who have returned from overseas on PSD scholarships. They are doing the exact same thing as I am. If the whole point of a scholarship and an education is to raise your kid’s standard of living, then I really don’t see why the PSD scholarship is seen as the one and only ticket to a decent job.

The Government is not the only entity giving out scholarships. There are corporations out there that give out scholarships too. Funnily enough, most do not demand perfect results, only a reasonable level of character that would see a fresh graduate through the working world. I suppose it would fit that any kid that would kick up a ruckus and claim the end of the world just because life is unfair would end up failing a test of character.

3. The ‘deserving’ won’t be anywhere close to getting a scholarship if the rules of allocation were really applied.

If you look at the requirements for getting a scholarship, it is explicitly stated that people of a certain standard of living are not qualified. This is separation is normally done by checking monthly income, and as it stands, I do not know of a single person who has ever gotten a PSD scholarship who fits that criteria. Their parents’ combined income far surpasses the minimum income to qualify. It is a virtual certainty that those that are complaining of not getting a scholarship now are in the same boat. They are not impoverished, they are well off enough to have an internet connection. Sure, the system is broken.  None of the rules are really followed in the first place. The point is, we cannot pick and choose the rules we want to follow. We have to take them all, be they rules that dictate qualification based on grades or based on socio-economic backgrounds. Assuming that the Government cleans up its act and applies the rules as they should be applied, none of the people that are being denied now are going to get anything anyway.

Lets just assume, for the sake of pretending that its possible, that we revamped the entire PSD scholarship system and staffed it with fair personnel. What would you say is a fair income threshold before someone is disqualified? Lets give it a very generous RM3,000. That is far more money than any unskilled labourer will ever get in this country. (And those are the people whose kids that the money is for in the first place) Nobody who is now currently posting their frustrations on the internet now could possibly be earning less than that by the time their children are of university going age. So their application will get thrown out anyway. The reality is this: A middle income family cannot send 3 kids to study in the UK without making some very painful sacrifices. And yet, they want the best for their kids, and there is an avenue to get the taxpayers to pay for their education instead. Over time, the privilege of the PSD scholarship has mutated into a divine right. It doesn’t help that Asians tend to think that the only yardstick for intelligence is exams, and that the government officers themselves abuse the system for their own gain. I think the people who are protesting now should realize that they are also trying to exploit the system themselves. The difference is, they want to do it breaking a different rule.

Its even more interesting then the PSD offers them a local scholarship instead. They get all up in arms that they don’t get to go to the USA to study but someone else who did worse did. They are still getting an education. But that isn’t enough. They want an education abroad. Apparently, the quality of education there is better. Since they got better results, they deserve the better quality. Makes sense, but I cannot seem to shake off the feeling that it has more to do with the glamour of an overseas education and the four year holiday that comes along with it.

4. Wrong placement of scholarships is causing a brain drain.

I won’t deny that it contributes. But to pin this one problem on a much larger issue of talent flight is a bit of an over-reaction. People leave Malaysia for a huge number of reasons. Unfair policies do not only affect scholarship awards. It runs deep in every aspect of Government. I get very amused when I read responses from disgruntled parents who have had to spend their own money to educate their kids overseas. They say that the children deserved scholarships and didn’t get them. They were devastated. Now they are working overseas and are never coming back because the government was unfair to them before.

There are countless cases of scholars who flat out refuse to return to the country to serve even though they have used half a million ringgit of tax payer money. These parent write as if a provision of the scholarship would have ensured that their child would have returned to serve like a responsible citizen would. In reality, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference at all.

The PSD scholarship system is broken and needs to be fixed. There are likely to be some legitimate complaints in that big mess of voices claiming injustice. But I can’t shake off the feeling that a lot of the people complaining haven’t really thought it through.