Scholarships: Too many richer students?

Photo credits to Smuconlaw. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.Photo credits to Smuconlaw. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Are we giving too many scholarships to richer students?

I refer to the article “Making a Mockery of Meritocracy” (The Independent, Jan 6).

It states that “Over the years, how many government scholarships have been gifted to children of those at the top echelons of government and public service? For every one that is given out, another deserving Singaporean loses out – and that Singapore could be in dire need of a scholarship because he or she comes from a not-well-to-do family.”

In this connection, I believe that the last time that arguably – a very comprehensive analysis and commentary on the “meritocracy” of awarding scholarships, was published was in 2008.

There were media reports then, about the break-down of scholarship awardees who stay in HDB and private property.

I would like to suggest again that the percentage of scholars from HDB flats be further broken down to the different flat types, i.e. 1 – 2 room, 3-room, 4-room, and 5-room and bigger. Since the private property data was broken down to landed and condominiums, why not the HDB data ?

I understand that the statistics last reported in the media was that more than 60 per cent of scholars comes from HDB 5-room and bigger, and private property.

According to the Department of Statistics’ (DOS) 2008 Yearbook of Statistics, 69 per cent of HDB flats were 4-room and smaller.

Since more than 80 per cent of residential dwelling units are HDB flats, the proportion of scholars from private property is disproportionately high.

Even the proportion of landed property at 26 per cent is disproportionately higher, compared to the 27 per cent for private non-landed property, as only 29 per cent of all private property are landed.

Another way of looking at it may be that students from private property have about a two times higher chance of getting a scholarship, and those from HDB 5-room and bigger about a one and a half times higher chance.

In this regard, even those in landed property have about a two times higher chance than non-landed.

Clearly, at least from a statistical perspective, the odds may be stacked against HDB 4-roomers and smaller.

What is perhaps an even more important statistic is the breakdown of the household and per capita income.

The type of residential dwelling may not necessarily reflect the financial need and affordability of the scholarship applicant.

If this trend continues, it may lead to a further widening of the income gap. Singapore’s GINI co-efficient has been deteriorating over the years, and is now near to historical highs.

Route out of poverty

Throughout history, I believe the most common route out of poverty has been education.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with awarding scholarships primarily on academic achievement, the current selection criteria and system may be further skewed against lower-income households, as their children may have less in the areas of co-curricular activities, leadership track record, etc, because of their limited financial resources.

This may further stack the odds against the lower-income, who have less resources to access tuition, enrichment programmes, learning aids, etc.

In countries like the United States, many scholarships are awarded based on financial need. Those who can afford get less money, and those who are rich are given a Honour Scholarship, i.e. in name only without money.

I support Mr Philip Yeo’s remarks about his preference to give scholarships to the lower income. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that most bond breakers come from more affluent families. So, the perennial problem and increasing trend of more people breaking bonds may be diminished if more scholarships go to the less affluent.

As to the remarks that the family background of applicants are not taken into account, I would like to ask whether the selection panel are able to see such information. If so, I think those involved in the selection and interview process should not be allowed to see such information.

The issue of elitism in Singapore has been much debated in the media. Let’s try to do something more about it, in the true spirit of one of the five stars of our national flag, which represents equality for all.

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.