Frustrating numbers: scholarships for foreign students

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 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.

Once you start to ask these questions, you tell yourself: Better save a screenshot of that webpage before the ministry takes it down. (Thumbnail at right)

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.

* * * * *

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.

This essay is the first of three on ‘frustrating numbers’.  The others (coming) are on foreign immigration and household income gap.

46 Responses to “Frustrating numbers: scholarships for foreign students”

  1. 1 Isorn 22 February 2012 at 11:36

    The next followup question should be of the following:

    “How many of the 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergrads from non-Asean countries awarded scholarships to study here eventually take up Singapore citizenship?”

  2. 2 ape 22 February 2012 at 13:31

    It is frustrating with half-answers.
    However, with regards to taxpayers funded scholarship, my take is that foreigners can take up such scholarships provided there are vacancies left after all Singaporeans who are eligible have been granted.

  3. 3 Poker Player 22 February 2012 at 13:46

    “especially if most of them are either full-paying or on corporate scholarships.”

    This sounds fair until you realize that this means one place less for a Singaporean. The unfortunate will have to deplete savings or borrow to finance an overseas alternative. Only 3% of a Finn’s classmate is a foreigner – they end up no less knowledgeable than our local graduates.

    In fact a 3% figure makes it easier to welcome these foreign students and make their stay a pleasant one rather than making them targets of resentment. If the goal is soft power, 20% is counter-productive.

  4. 4 George 22 February 2012 at 13:48


    You have touch on something that is deeply etched in the genetic make up of the PAP Singapore govt.

    The infamous saying that ” There are lies, damned lies and statistics” applies absolutely to the govt of the republic of Singapore.

    I had sensed a level of unease of an ex-Chief of the Statistics Dept, one Dr Cheong (?) on those occasions he was asked to comment on/was interviewed by the press during his tenure as our Chief Statistician regarding certain statistics pertaining to Singapore released by his dept. He subsequently left for another post in another country. Perhaps, his unease stemmed from a backroom knowledge of how certain statistics had been deliberately massaged for public consumption? I am speculating, of course!

    For an economics (?) graduate like Sim Ann to give an answer in Parliament that 42% of specially selected foreign scholarship holders graduate with second upper and better versus 32% of Singaporean students, has to be a DELIBERATE act of misinformation, unless Hansard is to show later that she had not been quoted correctly by the MSM. She was comparing chikus with pineapples. Perhaps, you can also verify this when you check Hansard?

    • 5 yawningbread 22 February 2012 at 14:12

      “She was comparing chikus with pineapples”

      I may be missing something, but how is that so?

      • 6 The 22 February 2012 at 14:47

        She’s comparing foreign SCHOLARS (who, by definition, are the better students), with all Singaporean students.

        The surprise is that only 42% get firsts or second uppers. It should be closer to 100% as they are the cream of the crop.

      • 7 Chanel 22 February 2012 at 14:51

        These scholars are supposedly (I say “supposedly” because the governmetn does not disclose the selection process) cream of the crop selected by our government based on their academic results.Contrast that to the fact that S’porean undergraduates come from all walks of life and have widely varying academic results. Mind you, all male S’poreans have to disrupt from studies for 2 years to serve NS. Those 2 years can fundamentally change a person.

        Yet Sim Ann tells us that 58% of the carefully selected foreign scholars graduate with second lower or worse!!

      • 8 George 22 February 2012 at 14:56

        “She offered an indicator of how well foreign scholarship holders perform: Around 45 per cent complete their undergraduate studies with a second-upper class honours or better; only 32 per cent of Singaporeans do as well.” -Sim Ann, Snr Parl Sec, MOE

        – Straits Times, “Foreign scholars closely tracked”, page B10, 18 Feb 2011.

        It would be ‘chikus with pineapples’ if she was comparing foreign scholarship holders with the general student population.

        It would be ‘chikus with chikus’ if she did make it clear she was comparing foreign scholarship holders with local scholarship holders, but the press report above merely said ‘Singaporeans’ and not ‘Singaporean scholarship holders’ or words to this effect.

        Amendment to my 13:48 post above, last para: should read as 45% instead of 42%. Apologies.

      • 9 yuen 22 February 2012 at 15:28

        I believe he thought the 42% refers to foreign students with full financial support, while the SG students included everyone, and they generally do not have scholarships; but if I remember correctly, the figure is from the earlier answer and refers to all foreign students. I should think the foreign scholarship students achieve better results than 42% second upper or higher

        the reason the minister only provided the number of ASEAN scholarships to YJJ’s first question was: officially most of the fully financed students in NUS/NTU sign a bond with a consortium of companies and other organizations, rather than MOE; they are not “government scholars” in the sense that they are under no obligation to work for the government after graduation; (I believe ASEAN scholarship recipients are obliged to return and serve their own countries after graduation) it therefore takes a follow up question to find out about the “non-government” scholars brought in under the scheme

      • 10 Nin Gee Klee 22 February 2012 at 16:33

        “She was comparing chikus with pineapples”

        The question is: Was Sim Ann giving the statistics comparing foreign scholars with local scholars or comparing foreign scholars with local Singaporean students (with and without scholarship)?

  5. 11 Cocomut 22 February 2012 at 14:53

    PAP’s hallmark is to provide only half-baked answers to clearly worded or clearly verbalized questions. They take us for idiots who cannot handle the truth.

  6. 12 Tony 22 February 2012 at 15:10

    Why striking difference? Cos the majority of foreign students (PR Inc) are not scholarship holder. They are international students receiving MOE Tuition Grant subsidy, hence they do also pay tuition fee but not the full tuition fee (around 50% only). In return, they are to work here after graduation for 3-6yrs. That why it will be even more alarming if the Minister reply on % of foreign students pay full tuition fee. Would u given the option to pay 50% less annually for tuition fee in xchange ‘guaranteed’ a job after graduation next 3yrs?

  7. 13 Star7 22 February 2012 at 16:06

    Hmm, here’s what I think.

    42% of specially selected foreign “talents” versus
    32% of Singaporean students as a whole.

    The cream of the crop (hopefully) of various countries versus the whole of Singapore. That’s not a fair comparision.

    Besides, I believe on blogger has illustrated that some Singaporeans got to do part time work since they do not have a scholarship. Furthermore, Singaporean males spent 2 years running around a field before engaging in studies again. Some might be rusty.

    Nevertheless, you would expect more of these “talents” to achieve at least a 2nd upper and above. 42% of the best from various countries versus 32% of a country. Suddenly, it does not seem that impressive anymore.

  8. 15 JJ 22 February 2012 at 16:44

    It is no secret that tertiary education in Singapore (not unlike some other parts of the world) has been transformed into a lucrative business. The market for local students is too small, so you can easily guess where they got the remainder of the student population from.

    In other words, the quality of education/research be damned, all that matters is how much profit the university makes (from tuition and donations).

    And just like the tertiary education business, you also have the medical tourism business. The gambling(euphemism: gaming) business. The land of a thousand condos and cookie-cutter malls. Let’ tear down that cemetery and green space, develop the land and increase its value!

    As with all things in Singapore, if you dig far in enough you soon realize that the very heart of the issue is money. That crass, insatiable greed for just a little more wealth. That lust for GDP. This lowest common denominator is easy to recognize after a while.

    This place sickens me to the core. I was born and bred on this island for just a little over three decades,

    • 16 wendy chan 22 February 2012 at 17:28

      ” if you dig far in enough you soon realize that the very heart of the issue is money. That crass, insatiable greed for just a little more wealth.”

      well said. money in this country buys respectability, despite all the lies one person can tell. im living proof —- on the losing end

  9. 17 Willy 22 February 2012 at 16:51

    FYI, according to this:

    YJJ did ask specifically for non-ASEAN scholarship numbers.

  10. 19 Cocomut 22 February 2012 at 17:10


    Don’t have to wait for Hansard. Sim Ann has already provided a transcript of her Parliament reply at:

    I am told that there is a big loophole in these scholarship in that the scholars are free to return to their home coountry if you cannot find work in S’pore for 6 months. Some scholars pretend not to be able to find work here for 6 months.

    • 20 yawningbread 22 February 2012 at 17:17

      Thanks. for the record, I am importing the feedburner text here:

      International Scholars
      Posted: Fri, 17 Feb 2012 17:59:59 +0800
      On average, about 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate international students (IS) are offered scholarships. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation. The annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship and between $18,000 to $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship.
      The academic performance of each scholar is closely monitored every semester, and the scholarship would be withdrawn if the scholar’s performance is not satisfactory.
      Most international scholars serve out their bonds to completion. The scholarship administrators take action against the few who default on their obligations, by pursuing liquidated damages from individuals who default on their service obligation.

      I think she gave more than the above as her answer in parliament because, for example, the text above does not mention second-class honours. So, it’s still worthwhile to wait for the Hansard’s official version.

      • 21 Cocomut 23 February 2012 at 14:33

        “I think she gave more than the above as her answer in parliament….”


        It is absolutely stunning that PAP MP Sim Ann put a partial transcript on MOE website (under Parliamentary replies section) and make readers believe that it is a FULL (verbatim) transcript. Is she trying to hide what she said in Parliament???

  11. 22 RC 22 February 2012 at 18:34

    “The academic performance of each scholar is closely monitored every semester, and the scholarship would be withdrawn if the scholar’s performance is not satisfactory.”

    This statement, amongst the many, is vague and cliché. Yet it is at the heart of the foreign scholarship debate.

    Would you consider anything less than 2nd class upper as “academic performance” if you are giving out scholarships at the tertiary level? If the answer is no, then what is MOE doing to the 55% who did worst off? That is close to 500 IS! If the answer is yes, doesn’t it sound like MOE is paying big money yet expects only average performance? Hang on, is this bursary or scholarship?

  12. 23 Alan Wong 22 February 2012 at 18:54

    We all know for a fact that many universities in US, UK or Australia demand a certain minimum standard in the command of English Language before any foreign student is admitted into their universities.

    So in our case, could it be that the poor command of English in our scholarship holders from PRC resulted in their getting poorer university grades resulting in lower grades in graduate qualifications ?

    The question which now arise is whether our Joint University Admissions Unit deliberately lower their requirements to allow such scholars to scrape through our selection process as compared to our local students ?

    And if a certain quotum of scholarships are always awarded to foreign students of either Chinese or Indian ancestry, it would help us to understand our Govt policies better if our Govt can also tell us how many, if any, scholarships are ever awarded to foreign students of Malay ancestry ?

    Is our Govt prepared to prove to us that everything is above board ?

    • 24 yawningbread 22 February 2012 at 19:27

      “Is our Govt prepared to prove to us that everything is above board ?”

      They won’t even put up on the MOE website whatever scholarship scheme they have for non-Indian, non-Asean students 🙂

  13. 25 George 22 February 2012 at 19:42

    Nin Gee Klee
    at 16:33

    Does it make any sense to compare foreign scholarship holders (a group presumably selected based on their academic merits) with local scholarship and non-scholarship holders combined?

    IF that is the case, the bias against our own students by the govt is even greater since it would suggest our own people are being treated like step-children by our own govt.

    IF that is the case, it might also suggest that there had been not enough quality foreign scholarship applicants and the MOE had resorted to compromise by lowering standards in order to meet whatever preset quota the govt had set to achieve. So MOE accepted both sheep and goats into our midst? Now, that would perhaps account for the rather lackluster performance of 45% instead of anything in the region of 75% and above?

    IF that is the case, it could also mean that the MOE had no effective means to ensure that the ‘partners’ it depended on at the respective foreign ‘source’ countries did a scrupulous job of ensuring that only those who met whatever prescribed standards set were accepted. I came across in another blog comments to the effect that at least one foreign scholarship holder managed to get in by no better reason than relationship with the person authorized to select candidates for the country. But this is only hearsay, I should point out.

  14. 26 anonymous 22 February 2012 at 20:10

    Reposting. We have some markers now. 2000/year x $14k 6-year Sec/JC and $23k university = $350 million. Next, add allowances, Sec language classes, meals, medical, home travel, variable overheads, etc. Then add fixed overhead components. You get the picture. And that’s per cohort. Multiply that again by the number of years the schemes have been running. Given the size of the absolute spend, there surely has been comprehensive and ongoing assessment of measured outcomes. I have no qualms about giving scholarships to foreign students per se, but some accountability – not obfuscation – is overdue.

  15. 28 Ziggy 22 February 2012 at 21:18

    “Most international scholars serve out their bonds to completion.”

    Please define “most” as a percentage. If 80% of every 1000 scholars serve out their bond, you could argue it satisfies your definition of “most” but it still leaves us with 200 bond breakers. If you spend $100k on each, it would mean a net loss of $20 million.

    “The scholarship administrators take action against the few who default on their obligations, by pursuing liquidated damages from individuals who default on their service obligation.”

    What a useless statement! Just because you are pursuing something, doesn’t mean you’re going to catch it. How exactly are they pursuing bond breakers? Are you sending a team of flying ninjas after them?. And more importantly, what is your success rate of recouping the money?

  16. 29 23 February 2012 at 08:28

    “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.”

    Even this is deliberately misleading. The numbers are actually far bigger. But he restricted himself to “scholarships covering tuition and accommodation”. There are scholarships covering only tuition, scholarships that pays a stipend to the student with no requirement that it be spent on accommodation, scholarships that come with a tuition fee waiver and so they nominally do not cover tuition (since there isn’t any). Go ask the PRC students and they can tell you all about these.

  17. 30 Fumoj Fun 23 February 2012 at 10:06

    It’s time for the SG government to fully reveal its’ selection process for all local/overseas scholarships and to include every change and omission made, since this scheme was implemented. They must reveal all their balance sheets too! If they want to be more enlightened and improve their image, then they must change with the times.

  18. 31 Cocomut 23 February 2012 at 11:05

    It is really preposterous that our leaders are so afraid to give a straight answer to a bona fida question in Parliament. How do they expect to build trust with the electorate by stonewalling themselves, by withholding informatio that many S’poreans want to know?

    Is it a threat to national security if S’poreans know about the full facts on foreign scholarships?

    • 32 e 23 February 2012 at 15:02

      Just a tongue-in-cheek response:

      Of course it is a threat to ‘national’ security! What if telling the truth will shatter whatever remaining trust the electorate has with them?

    • 33 octopi 23 February 2012 at 18:42

      The trust that the government has earned from the electorate has had everything to do with their perceived competency at running this place, and nothing to do with transparency because there never was any transparency in the first place.

  19. 34 octopi 23 February 2012 at 14:04

    I don’t think the proportion of students getting 1st and 2nd class honours is really an issue. If 100% of the foreign students are getting 1st and 2nd class honours people will be complaining that Singapore students are getting muscled out of good degrees (and good jobs) and that would become an even greater issue. You would wish for the first classes to go to Singaporeans since there’s a better chance that they would hang around here for longer.

    The really opaque aspect of this is: why are they giving out so many full scholarships to foreign students? This is a very tricky question because it is difficult for the government to be upfront with the answer.

    Suppose the answer was, “there is a quid pro quo with foreign countries. This helps Singapore raise its standing in the diplomatic arena, China will treat us better, India will treat us better, it improves our international standing and forms links with graduates who may be very useful to Singapore in the future”.

    It’s a plausible thing, but if the government says this out in public, a lot of the alumni who are “foreign talent” won’t like it, and it’s very difficult to quantify what the benefits are.

    Suppose the answer was, “we want to pump a lot of pro PAP, compliant foreign talent into the electorate so that we can win more elections”, it will be a public relations disaster to say this out. Same if the answer was, “we want to drive down the earning power and bargaining power of our Singaporean workforce”

    Suppose the answer was, “we want the faculty of our world class universities to be staffed by foreigners who are less likely to be talkative dissidents like Noam Chomsky and Sakharov”, it’s also difficult to say this out loud.

  20. 35 SashaQueenie 23 February 2012 at 14:47

    I share your concern about the high number of foreign students at the expense of our local tax-payer’s money. I do not think it is right to have up to 25% of the student population comprising of sponsored foreign students, especially since we keep hearing of local bright students denied a place in our local universities. In the end, they have to pay through the noses to go overseas to pursue their degree courses. Then there’s the issue of local students who enjoy no housing subsidies or tuition sponsorships. How unfair is that? I stress the need for more local students to be nurtured and groomed within our own country. The sense of belonging will be stronger for our local students. If we have any places in the universities left for foreign students, only then will they be welcomed. The conditions must be made by stringent. I think what our Government is doing is merely a one-sided love affair. They hope that these foreign students will eventually settle down here in Singapore if they had spent their formative years in Singapore. But the facts speak for themselves. Many of the students choose to migrate to other countries or return back home once their academic school years in Singapore are completed. I don’t think this scheme to entice students to live in Singapore is working well for us. It is a complete waste of our money and most importantly, it is a waste of our local talents. It’s akin to telling these students, our Singaporeans, that they do not mean much in comparison to these foreign students. It doesn’t take anyone with much foresight to know this is unsustainable.

    • 36 Paul 23 February 2012 at 19:07

      There’s certainly a debate to be had about the numbers here, but to suggest that tax-paying Singapore nationals are alone in funding foreign students is to overlook the fact that the large number of resident foreigners working in Singapore also pay taxes. If 25% of students in Singapore are foreign, that’s more or less consistent with the percentage of foreigners living and working here more generally.

      • 37 Poker Player 24 February 2012 at 11:49

        “that’s more or less consistent with the percentage of foreigners living and working here more generally.”

        You don’t want to go there…

      • 38 Poker Player 24 February 2012 at 12:30

        Singapore nationals may not pay all the taxes. But they created an environment that made you want to come here, work and pay taxes (all voluntary acts) – in exchange, we choose and cajole that govt that is sovereign over thoses taxes collected – IOW, they become ours.

      • 39 Vote for Change 24 February 2012 at 20:47

        Paul, your comment sounds stupid. Singapore government should naturally look after its citizens. If not, why do we need a government?

    • 40 Poker Player 23 February 2012 at 22:07

      “They hope that these foreign students will eventually settle down here in Singapore if they had spent their formative years in Singapore.”

      I want to challenge even this. The govt may hope. But why should we care if they settle down?

  21. 41 George 23 February 2012 at 23:00

    It would be particularly galling if these foreign students take up places in medical, legal and any other courses that we are short in trained manpower.

  22. 43 Monte Cristo 24 February 2012 at 10:17

    How many leave to USA, Canada, Australia, etc. after getting thier Singaporean financed degrees??? Are we just the stepping stone???
    And please see what Sun Xu said about Singaporeans, comparing us to an animal…Justice must prevail…

  23. 44 wikigam 25 February 2012 at 10:35

    Please remove the term “government-funded scholarships ” for the quenstion to ask MOE !

    MOE shall provide the firgure on how many non-singaporean (note : PR are non-singaporean ) student (all levels of student : primary student – master degree student) received scholarships or studies fund (non-schorships) from singapore govt and non-govt (private sector ) to study in singapore or oversea ?

    Are singapore for singaporean ? you may re-think again while you vote next round !

  24. 45 devil 25 February 2012 at 10:54

    There’s more in the latest about frustrating and selective reporting of skewed numbers:

  25. 46 Anonymous 3 March 2012 at 17:23

    From Singapore Parliament website:

    Ms Sim Ann : Sir, because the admission of foreign scholars into our system is primarily to augment our manpower pool so as to better anchor investors and employers who can in turn offer good jobs for the economy and for Singaporeans, we do take the quality of such intakes very seriously. In terms of where the scholars come from, they come from the ASEAN countries as well as China and India. Basically, this has been the mix over the years. And over the years, we have been able to maintain certain standards in the quality of such students. In terms of the number of scholarships that has been suspended due to poor performance in school, I do not have the figures at hand, but, by and large, we monitor their performance very carefully. In terms of the quality, I can share with the Member that, for instance, in terms of the number of international scholars who have been awarded Second Upper and above in our universities, this has been around 45%, and this compares with about 32% for Singaporean citizens.

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