Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ST: Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds

From the Straits Times on 24 July 2008:

Still adamant that scholarship holders serve their bonds
By Zakir Hussain

MR HECTOR Yee, one of three public-sector scholarship holders who were named and shamed for breaking their bonds 10 years ago, now works at Google's headquarters in California.

So does Mr Philip Yeo consider him a loss to Singapore?

Clearly not, suggests his answer to the question. In fact, he is glad Mr Yee is not here.

Mr Yeo, chairman of Spring Singapore, is well-known for taking a tough line against government scholars who do not return to serve a single day of their bond.

Mr Yee, now 32, was such a bond-breaker. He had accepted a scholarship from the National Computer Board (NCB) to do an undergraduate degree in computer science at Cornell University in the United States.

In 1998, when he was 22 and about to complete his four-year course, he decided to stay on - sparking a controversy when his name was made public.

The issue was widely debated in the press and in Parliament.

Recalling the incident yesterday, Mr Yeo said: 'He wrote back by e-mail: I'm not coming back because I want to stay in America for the next 15 years. I see my role in life to serve the world and not Singapore alone.'

Then, in a typical no-holds-barred retort, Mr Yeo added: 'What bullshit is that, right?

'I don't think he's a loss. Thank goodness he's not here.'

Mr Yeo then went on to explain what got his goat.

'It's the attitude,' he said.

Mr Yee had asked for - and was given - an extension of one year to do a master's degree. But he later said he was considering a PhD after that. NCB advised him to get work experience first.

He then broke his bond.

Mr Yeo, then chairman of the Economic Development Board, had warned that bond-breakers would be named in public as a deterrent because of their growing numbers.

He remains adamant that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

Mr Yeo was himself a Colombo Plan scholar who did engineering at the University of Toronto in Canada. He returned in 1970. 'Because we are forced to come back, we helped build Singapore.'

To further underline his point, he gave this example: 'I got 100 scholars. I allow one to stay for five, 15 years, I make a mockery of the 99 guys who come home.

'At the end of the day, there's a thing called equity. If you don't want to have the obligation, don't take the scholarship...Borrow from Citibank if you want to.'

Philip Yeo's view on scholarship bond breakers are well-known but I'll just comment on one of them: namely, that scholarship holders have a 'moral obligation' to serve their bonds as the money comes from taxpayers.

I'm not really sure about the cogency of this argument. Government scholars who break their bonds usually pay the monetary penalty (principal plus interest which is above the prime rate). So, where is the actual loss to the taxpayers? PRC students absconding to the US without serving a day of or paying off their bonds are a greater loss to the Singaporean taxpayer.

Also, it's not as if the government had to cut social welfare spending in order to fund the scholarships. For some reason, I'm not convinced that the we would have fewer septuagenarians collecting old cardboard boxes in Singapore if Hector Yee didn't break his bond or that when he paid off his scholarship bond, the sum was paid back with interest to the taxpayers.

Now, if people are breaking their scholarship bonds, doesn't that suggest that there is something wrong with the scholarship-awarding organization? If your employees are resigning left and right after one month in your company, I think you should examine your HR policies rather than call people ungrateful. Maybe you shouldn't award so many scholarships.

Or even have a scholarship scheme in the first place.

Or you can redirect the funds for scholarships towards raising starting salaries or improve staff welfare.

Or hire more competent HR officers.

Or re-examine your scholarship policies.

There are so many ways to skin a cat. Calling people immoral or ungrateful certainly isn't one of them.


Hector Yee said...

Thank you for the kind comments :).

eileen chew said...

Hmmmm... I've seen this tactic used by some managers with high attrition rate: leaving staff are considered fickle minded job hoppers who can't bear a little hard work.

Could it be the same thing on grander scale? Put the blame on the scholars' personality (eg having no morals), it could work to deflect attention away from certain performance indicators that had gone awry.

Fox said...

I personally think that organizations in which there is a large number of scholars breaking bonds have problems with the way they handle their human resources.

For example, suppose you have female doctors who resign from public hospitals in order to have families. Does that mean those female doctors are wicked immoral people? No lah. It simply means that their working environment is not family-friendly enough.

Fox said...


Actually, I think the reason for your departure from NCB was pretty unconvincing. Serving the world and not Singapore alone? Seriously, whom were you trying to kid?

Just be honest lah. You discovered that your personal interests (research in computer science, graphics) were better served outside of NCB and in America. OK, there nothing wrong with that.
Few of us can predict or fully explore our interests at the age of 18. Especially in Singapore. It was a good thing that you discovered your interest and were resolute in fulfilling it.

Unlike Yeo, I don't believe that you had any moral obligation to serve once you paid off your bond. I also don't believe that the parting of ways had to be so acrimonious and people should have been more big-hearted about things.

testtube said...

What has happened in A* is that people who disagree with PY's view on how to treat scholars are blacklisted or harangued into submission. They will listen only to those who already agree with the official line. This ensures that nothing will change (until there is a major leadership upheaval, etc. --- unfortunately PY has installed enough of 'his' people there that his departure isn't enough). There is a total lack of self-examination that is not self-congratulatory, at least on the human resources front. (On the scientific side, the individual research institutes have external scientific review boards that come in every so often and recommend changes. These people actually recognise the failings on the HR side of things, but they say they can do nothing about that, because their job is to give advice only on scientific matters.)

A*GA, the part of A* in charge of scholarships, does not seem to have external evaluators like the A* research institutes do. Scholars have never been asked for feedback by anyone external to A*. So, people are afraid to speak up, and those who do find themselves labelled as 'brats' or whatever. Really, they just have to ask themselves: is there any reason to think that the A* scholarship attracts more 'brats' than, say, PSC? If not, then why do they have such a high proportion of 'brats' in comparison to PSC? This is the kind of self-examination they should be carrying out but won't.

koko said...


a contract is enforceable across international boundaries. Why can't stat boards/government sue these "FT" overseas when they leave Sg?

Game1980 said...

I think it is important for Mr Hector Yee to clarify whether he had promised to return home when he took up the scholarship.

If he had promised then, he broke his promise.

If he had not, then all is well.

PSC should ask all scholars to sign a form saying they wont break bonds and then they will have the moral advantage but whether it is morally correct to do so is debatable!

Fox said...


Most bondbreakers pay off their scholarship bonds when they break their bond. So, in fact, they have kept to the terms of their contracts.

koko said...


i was referring to the PRC and other FT bond breakers who abscond studying in Singapore before the completion of their 3 year bond to a singapore company.

Game1980 said...

In response to fox, the point is not whether they have kept to terms of contracts, the point is whether they have promised to return back to serve.

If so, that promise has been broken.
If not, then u are probably rt.

Is integrity worth anything?
I think PSC should ask the scholar to swear to return home. Then they will have the moral advantage but whether they have the moral right to do so is debatable.

Fox said...

Why should the scholars swear to return? Do the sponsoring organizations swear oaths or make any promises to their scholars outside of the contract?

Game1980 said...

well the point is the the organisation wants to shame the scholar

so either they be the bad guy and ask scholar to swear to serve them or they be gracious and let them go.

The one who provide the money gets to provide the term

Anonymous said...

PSC should just be greatful that most people are paying back their fees plus interest when choose to stay overseas. Just look at New Zealand, most of the student loans would never be paid back.