As mentioned in my earlier post Smoking out tobacco control and foreign student scholarships, when non-constituency member of parliament Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education about the numbers of government-funded scholarships for foreign students, what he got in reply were a few numbers about scholarships given to students from Asean countries. Heng Swee Keat, the minister, said, “MOE [the Ministry of Education] awarded around 150 scholarships annually to students from the ASEAN countries at the pre-tertiary level and another 170 at the undergraduate level.”
It was strikingly obvious that the numbers provided in parliament were nowhere near the number of foreign students we see in our universities. I had remarked then that follow-up questions were called for before we could judge the significance of the answer given.
That’s clearly what Yee did in a recent sitting of the legislature — ask a follow-up question. While the Hansard has not yet been updated to record the exchange, the Straits Times carried a report. It said:
Around 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate students from non-Asean countries are awarded scholarships to study here each year, with these scholarships covering tuition and accommodation.
These study awards cost $14,000 for pre-tertiary students and between $18,000 and $25,000 for undergraduates.
The figures were disclosed by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Sim Ann in Parliament yesterday in response to a question from Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.
— Straits Times, 18 Feb 2012, Foreign scholars closely tracked, by Lin Zhaowei
Straight away you ask, why weren’t these numbers disclosed the first time Yee asked the question? Why did Heng restrict himself to talking about scholarships for Asean students in the earlier session of parliament when Yee’s question did not confine itself to the region? Yee had asked about “the annual number of foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Ministry to study in our schools and universities and the annual cost of these scholarships”.
It’s a mystery to me. One possibility is that Heng was fed the wrong answer by his (highly-paid) civil servants. If so, he should apologise to Yee for giving a misleading or incomplete answer. The other possibility is that scholarships given to students from non-Asean countries were not given out directly by the Ministry of Education, but by other bodies. If so, one would at least expect Sim Ann to say so in order to contextualise her answer. She might have, but the Straits Times didn’t report it; or maybe she didn’t. We shall see, when the Hansard is updated.
However, a clue can be gleaned from the ministry’s website itself. On http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/scholarships/ you will see various scholarship schemes mentioned, including those offered by Singapore Airlines and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). Here’s the blurb for A*Star’s scholarships:
A*Star India Youth Scholarships
The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (Singapore) Scholarships is offered to outstanding students (completing Standard 8 in the year of application) in India for studies at Secondary 3 in secondary schools in Singapore which offers high education standards and rich opportunities for research and higher learning. The Scholarships are for those with more than just excellent grades – individuals must want to make a difference with their zest for science.
However, the Hong Kong scholarships scheme does not mention (like the Asean scheme) any third party sponsor, so one presumes they are given directly by the Ministry of Education. But here’s the funny thing: Why is there no mention on that page about scholarships for students from China? There are loads of them in our schools and universities.
Ultimately you are left with a strong feeling that the government is deliberately engaging in disinformation. They are trying to hide something. They are giving us half-answers and their websites tell us only parts of what’s going on.
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Before readers think that I am against having foreign students in our schools and universities, let me say outright: I am not. I believe that having students and teachers from different countries and cultures in our educational system enriches the learning experience for Singaporeans. It is quite acceptable to me that 20 – 25 percent of places in our tertiary institutions are taken by foreigners, especially if most of them are either full-paying or on corporate scholarships.
The public policy question is this: what percentage of these are here because of taxpayer-funded scholarships?
Should it be nil? I don’t think so. I accept that having young foreigners spend some of their formative years in Singapore will help us build the social, economic connections that we need with the outside world. It may even enhance our “soft power” if their experience in Singapore is not altogether negative. For a bright young student from a foreign country and without rich parents to get a good education because of the largesse of Singaporeans (via our government), builds goodwill in a way nothing else can. There is a benefit to Singapore to continue to do so.
What I object to is the way this policy is being implemented on the sly with obfuscations and half-truths. Tax-payers have a right to know where their money goes, and the government should not be trying to avoid an accounting. Moreover, all this slinking around by the government makes it seem as if the policy is indefensible and shamefully wrong, giving wind to small-minded isolationists and making it even harder for right-minded people to defend the policy.
The half-answers are frustrating. The complete lack of spine on the part of the government in resorting to half-truths is even more so.