I read reports regarding Dr Eng Kai Er and her views on scholarships and scholarship bond, somewhat bemused. If we were completely honest, these views are nothing new. Every scholar might possibly entertain similar thoughts when serving their bond, though few (maybe none) have been so public about it. Perhaps that’s why many are affronted, these thoughts if they exist, should be kept private, and perhaps never acted upon?
I was tempted to make generalizations about scholars, their attitudes and their choices, on the basis that I too have embarked on both undergraduate and postgraduate studies on scholarship. However, I eventually decided not to do so because every journey is unique, as is every scholarship recipient; therefore, the only thing I can add to this discussion would be my story, my journey with scholarships.
I accepted the Public Service Commission (PSC) Local Merit Scholarship (Teaching) when I was 19. I would always remember that fateful day where I received two packets in the mail: a scholarship offer for me to pursue an Arts degree and a letter of offer from NUS Law School. I placed both letters side by side on my bed and stared hard, wondering what should I choose? Going to Law School was for me a childhood dream come true, but going to college on scholarship would release my parents from additional financial burden. We were dreadfully poor then and a scholarship would help ever so much, with my younger siblings heading to college soon after. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure if I would do well in Law School. What if I fail and have to repeat? That would mean more money to be spent on school fees. I was also working then as a relief teacher in a secondary school and some of what I witnessed placed a burden in my heart for teaching. Finally, with the naive thought that the world needs more teachers than lawyers, I accepted the scholarship.
As evident above, when I accepted the scholarship I was really not thinking about the bond. Whether it was four years, five years or six years, it was just a number. At 19, really, years did not matter, I always felt like I had forever. However, I was aware, when I made that decision, what I was giving up. I would be giving up my aspiration to be a lawyer and instead be a teacher upon graduation. I did not then have a good idea of what being a teacher meant, but I knew I would have to be a teacher. And to be honest, throughout my four years in college, my primary concern was not about life after graduation. The issue of a bond never quite came up. Instead, my focus throughout college was keeping the scholarship with good grades. If I did not meet the GPA requirements, I was told my scholarship would be taken away and I would need to pay back whatever amount I received. Knowing that I could not afford for that to happen, my immediate concern therefore was grades, not the bond.
The reality of the bond only hit after a bad relief teaching experience that gave me phobia of standing before students in a classroom, when I was about to graduate. Breaking the bond was not an option for someone like me and all I could do was to do my best to psyche myself up for the job and bite the bullet. I lasted 2.5 years in a school before I asked for a transfer to a division in HQ, still within the Education Service, where I served till the end of my bond. So, what happened when my bond ended? I did try to look for another job at 30, still young enough to make the switch.
Unfortunately, nothing surfaced. The jobs that I qualified for, I was not interested; the jobs that interest me, I did not possess the required qualification. That was the harsh reality. In the end, the job search amounted to nothing, which led me to look within Education Service for a change. I eventually opted for a posting to a school as Head of Department, which turned out to be one of my best posting, where I discovered the true joy of teaching and met some awe-inspiring teachers whom I continue to respect and emulate. However, I became restless again a few years down the road and was going to resign from service when I was offered a postgraduate scholarship. By then, I had served more years than required by my undergraduate scholarship bond.
I did take up the postgraduate scholarship because I felt then that I was not done with teaching and would certainly return some day even if I were to leave service for now (then). To cut the long story short, I have since completed my postgraduate studies and completed my second bond as well. At the end of my bond, I resigned from Education Service. Was the decision made when I took up the scholarship? In truth, No. In the three years that I was with Education Service upon returning from my postgraduate studies, I poured myself into my work, trying my best to apply all I have learnt to my profession. I mean, that was the point right? Why would anyone spend a huge sum of money and send me overseas to learn if I were not going to contribute and make a difference upon my return? In the end, I was burnt out and could no longer carry on. Thankfully, I managed to keep going till the end of my bond.
When I left, I was honestly relieved and thankful for a break from full-time work. However, there is also quite an immense amount of guilt because while I have discharged all legal obligations, as a beneficiary of public money, I feel a moral obligation to contribute to society. Leaving public service was a difficult decision. The work has been meaningful and challenging. Yes, there were ups and downs, but it also allowed me to live out my belief of helping the underprivileged in society, and I don’t think I have stopped wanting to give back to society after I left. I continue to feel a moral obligation to Singapore and fellow Singaporeans who have supported my education, which offered me many opportunities, through two scholarships. At the end of the day, I cannot deny that I have more options in life now because of the quality education I received, a direct consequence of the two scholarship awards.
I do not judge Dr. Eng Kai Er because I once harboured thoughts that might sound pretty similar. Unlike her who is still serving her bond, I have exited public service. Yet, as I spend time out of the system, I am increasing missing the good parts of it. I am now beginning to see the reality of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side.’ Will I return to public service some day? I am not adverse to the idea, though I just would like to be completely sure that this is something that I really want to do.
As a parting shot, I would like to say that scholarship agencies have always been transparent about the terms and conditions of each scholarship, the amount of the award and the consequential bond. It was not like we only found out about the bond after we took the money. Given that there is no free lunch in this world and it is public money we are talking about, I honestly think a bond is really not a bad idea (even though I too gripe about it when I was serving out my bond).
Yes, what I think and how I feel about an issue do not always match up, but no one ever said life is neat. Life is messy, as are humans.
P.S. Perhaps Dr Eng would like to consider this: if not for her bonded state, she might not have the disposable income to support her artistic endeavours, much less support that of others.