Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ST Forum: Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

From the Straits Times on 20 Feb 2008:

Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

RECENTLY, I befriended a group of scholars from China studying at my alma mater, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They were in their late teens and were attending foundation courses in English and maths before starting their undergraduate studies. In their five-year sojourn at NTU, they will be given free lodging and a monthly allowance of $500 each. Needless to say, they do not have to pay for their tuition fees. When they graduate, they must work in Singapore for six years as part of their 'payback'' bond.

A highly conservative calculation of their five-year tenure at NTU suggests that each will cost the Government or NTU some $70,000. That is, $30,000 for their five-year tuition fees, including the charges for their foundation courses, and some $40,000 for hostel accommodation and their monthly stipends. I graduated from NTU five years ago, with a good honours degree.

I was in the top 15 per cent of my cohort - and performed better than some of these scholars. While studying at NTU, I had to work as a pizza delivery boy to earn my allowance. Upon graduation, I had to start paying off a $24,000-student loan.

Why are Singaporeans like me not treated as considerately as such scholars? My study loan took five years to pay off after I started working. The China scholars receive financial support, a free education and start their working lives debt free. Their six-year bond is seen as a contribution to Singapore.

Am I not contributing as much, if not more? Non-scholar Singaporeans are not treated in quite the same way as foreign talent, regardless of how well we perform. The disparity is disheartening.

Don't Singaporeans like me who have done well deserve some relief? True, local scholarships are available. But not every Singaporean who graduated well, gets one.

Can the NTU or the Education Ministry tell me why graduates like myself don't deserve some relief or reward for doing as well as, or better than, some of the foreign talent?

Zhou Zhiqiang

At first glance, in a cynical cold-blooded way, a foreign talent policy that provides extra benefits to talented foreigners would make sense. After all, Mr Zhou is presumably a Singaporean and there is no need to be equally generous to people like him even if he is as capable as his foreign friends. To paraphrase an overeducated hawker I once knew, he is a captive of the system. So, because he is a Singaporeans, the government takes him for granted.

Yet, this is not the way to draw in young mobile foreign talents. Yes, generous scholarships to foreign students are a way to get these people to come. That's not difficult. The problem is, how do you get them to stay. Any foreign talent worth his/her salt will be able to infer that the reason he/she is a beneficiary of Singapore's generous foreign talent policy is that he or she is a potential immigrant i.e. not a Singaporean. Of course, it remains his/her advantage to stay a potential immigrant.

Don't get me started on the unfairness of it all to Singaporeans. How does the government expect Singaporeans to show goodwill towards their country when they can see that the system rewards bright talented foreigners better than it does bright talented Singaporeans. No bloody wonder we lose 1000 of our brightest every year. Yes, it is true that most of the 1000 leave Singapore because of better opportunities elsewhere but those 1000 too would have friends and family in Singapore. They may even care and feel outraged that the government treat those friends and family so shoddily. It is also this discriminatory policy that might push Singaporeans like Mr. Zhou to join the exodus.

The Goatherd And The Wild Goats

A GOATHERD, driving his flock from their pasture at eventide, found some Wild Goats mingled among them, and shut them up together with his own for the night. The next day it snowed very hard, so that he could not take the herd to their usual feeding places, but was obliged to keep them in the fold. He gave his own goats just sufficient food to keep them alive, but fed the strangers more abundantly in the hope of enticing them to stay with him and of making them his own. When the thaw set in, he led them all out to feed, and the Wild Goats scampered away as fast as they could to the mountains. The Goatherd scolded them for their ingratitude in leaving him, when during the storm he had taken more care of them than of his own herd. One of them, turning about, said to him: "That is the very reason why we are so cautious; for if you yesterday treated us better than the Goats you have had so long, it is plain also that if others came after us, you would in the same manner prefer them to ourselves."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is your religion?

One of the things that strikes me as somewhat odd in America is the almost Talibanish national obsession with religion. Well, not really religion in general but just one particular persuasion, Christianity. The majority of Americans are religious to the extent that an ordinary Singaporean who does not share their beliefs would find it almost fanatical and irrational. I've had one who've tried to convert me, very gently, but he inevitably failed.

However, I've long since learned that amongst Americans, there is a strong social stigma against people who have no religion; 'atheist' is a taboo word in many social circles. The lack of belief is practically synonymous with immorality in this country. So, I try not to mention that, for most of my life, that is after the age of seven, I've been utterly irreligious. Actually, I wasn't very religious before the age of seven. I only went to church because my mother's mother insisted that she go to church and that we were to accompany her. After my maternal grandmother's death, we simply stopped going. My mother and her brother were probably not very ethusiastic churchgoers to start with. My father's family is Buddhist but Buddhism is something I know very little about. As a result of both my parents belonging to different faiths, religion wasn't and still isn't something much talked about at home. It was something that other families do but ours don't.

Personally, based on my personal observation of Americans, I don't think that there is a particularly strong correlation between religiosity and human decency. There are some very nice, unselfish and helpful people in my building and they sometimes schedule their experiments on Sunday mornings. There are decent people of every and no persuasion. So, for me personally, it's hard to accept the idea that you cannot have morality without religion.

Besides, it is so damn obvious that those holy books were penned by humans.