Once Bonded, Reloaded

November 10, 2009

in Musings, Singapore

ScholarshipsJust like Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, I penned my name on a legal document in 2000 that effectively willed 6 years of my life – after the mandatory military service and the sponsored US university education – to the Singapore Public Service.  The ‘golden ticket’ was like a dream come true – a chance for the eldest son of a very middle-class Singapore family to get away from the stuffy Singapore British-inspired education system.  In exchange for a 4-year all-expenses paid education in a top-class American engineering university, both my parents became my sureties; an act that would have made them liable for a staggering sum of S$472,000 in liquidated damages if I ever reneged on my scholarship contract.  Up till then, I had never heard about study loans or bursaries, or understood concepts such as ‘leverage’ or ‘opportunity cost’.

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It was towards the end of 1998 that I was informed by my teachers that I had not done well enough at the end of my first year at junior college to sit for 2 ‘S’ Papers at the 1999 GCE ‘A’ Level exams.  I appealed for the chance to sit for 2, but was only successful for 1.

Truth be told, I deserved it.  I could quote family issues and an over-commitment to my extra-curricular activities as reasons for my poor performance during the year-end Promotional exams, but deep in my heart I knew there were no excuses for failing to meet the mark.

In those days, overseas scholarships were deemed as the epitome of a Singapore student’s academic career.  Scarcity can be deceptively alluring; everyone, including me, wanted a shot at one.  At the same time, everyone believed only candidates with two ‘S’ Paper distinction holders (on top of a four straight A GCE ‘A’ Level result) would qualify to be considered.  As the ‘A’ Level exams drew close, all my classmates (which represented ~80% of the class) that were registered for two ‘S’ Papers at the ‘A’ Levels received invitations in their mailbox to apply for government scholarships.  For weeks, checking my mailbox became a daily routine, one that always ended in disappointment.  It would seem the elitist pressure-cooker Singapore education system had not deemed me to be worthy enough of an invite.

I refused to give up and took my crusade online, where I found the scholarship application forms available for download.  I printed, completed and mailed it at about the same time as every other double ‘S’ Paper candidate, and was pleasantly surprised and quietly triumphant when I made it through all 3 rounds of the grueling selection process.  The government’s generous offer was not missed by my ego, especially after witnessing many peers that I had considered superior to myself get drop by the process at each stage.  So quick was my acceptance of provisional scholarship offer in February of 2000, that I had to say “thanks but no thanks” to the Public Service Commission’s invitation for a second round interview when they called me up some weeks later.  I had naively thought that one government scholarship (or entity for that matter) was no different from another, and that it would not matter where I served as long as I was in government.  It would be many years later before I understood that not all scholars were ‘born’ equal.

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Unlike Yu-Mei, I never revisited my bond documents in the years that followed.  When I started work on August 1st, 2006, the thought of breaking my bond never crossed my mind.  I was eager to serve and repay the debt of honour that comes with being a government scholar.  I was, and still am grateful for the opportunities to learn at world-class universities, meet all sorts of people and see the world while I was at it.  Many Singaporeans like to say that their time in the army turned them from boys to men.  For me, it was my 4 years abroad in the US that really helped me mature into an adult.

Once I got past the honeymoon period and found my public service ’sea legs’, I was better able to objectively evaluate the overall construct that I was a part of.  There’s really no denying the good that we public servants do – from the jobs created, foreign direct investments secured, progressive tax policies formulated, ever-increasing levels of value-add to our economy – the list goes on.  What I was more curious about was whether the construct also subscribed to the same set of Organisational Behaviour principles that I resonated with.  And so I kept my eyes and ears open, soaking up every nugget of information with an open mind, and in the process, despite the optimist in me, I was powerless to prevent myself from becoming jaded.  I observed unhealthy levels of groupthink and top-down decision making; bloated and risk-averse middle management that was also afflicted with delegation disease; managers who were keen to ‘do things the right way’ instead of ‘doing the right things’.  I admired the few good men that remained behind to hold the fort, but lamented the big chunk of talent that had since left the bureaucracy.  Most of those who are left behind have largely lost their fire.  You can see it in their eyes.

I have many friends who work in the ministries, who describe a vastly different work ethos and levels of derring-do with their ministry colleagues and superiors.  It would seem that the Public Service Commission has gotten something right there.  A case of agile and nimble ministries with an essentially flat organisational structure perhaps?  Or a fear of more severe reprisals from the Ministers themselves?  Whatever it is, I’m glad it works for them.  I just wish our statutory boards had more of those positive elements throughout the rank and file.

And so I kept my head down, working hard and learning from everything that came my way, while doing my best to keep my own fire alive.  I spent the following 3 years (1) promoting Singapore’s infocomm e-government expertise and solutions to counterpart government agencies of developing nations, (2) attracting and anchoring venture-backed start-ups to establish R&D operations in Singapore, (3) making equity investments in Singapore-based growth-stage infocomm enterprises and (4) formulating and designing industry development policies and incentive programmes.  I considered myself very lucky because I was able to serve my country without sacrificing my personal and career growth.  I reported to great bosses and worked in awesome teams.

Yet, in the end, I still made the decision to leave – before my 6 years was up.  November 27, 2009 marks my last day of public service after 3 years and 4 months.  I am terminating my bond, and have officially joined the ranks of “quitters”.

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PSC Chairman Eddie TeoOne can always glean valuable insights by reading the speeches released by the various government agencies.  I was cued to an interesting one titled “Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars“, delivered by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Eddie Teo at the recent Singapore Seminar 2009 in London on October 31, 2009.  In his speech, he shared that in the period of 1999 – 2008, there were only 7 PSC scholars out of a total of 791 (0.88%) that had terminated their bonds without serving a single day in the Service.  The statistic was (presumably) to lend authenticity to PSC’s scholarship selection process’ ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, we still get upset with scholars who break their bond without serving even one day after they finish their studies.  They have wasted the PSC’s time and effort and used taxpayers’ money upfront for their selfish purpose. Even if there is no scholarship quota, there is an opportunity cost to every taxpayer dollar spent on scholars.

Interestingly, Mr. Teo had less figures to show for scholars who complete their bond and leave the bureaucracy.  I only hope the bureaucracy’s ire does not extend to this unmentioned group of ex-scholars that I now belong to.

There are also some scholars who finish their bond and leave for positive reasons. Some scholars move on because they want a change in career. Nothing wrong with that especially if they stay in Singapore or contribute to Singapore in other ways. Others want to care for their young children. As a family-friendly nation, we should applaud such a motive. A few get invited to tea and become politicians. Others go on to become successful entrepreneurs and managers in the corporate world. And if they stay in Singapore or work in Singapore firms overseas, they can still make a contribution to Singapore.

What of those who finish their bond and leave for less positive reasons? The topic is deftly avoided – handiwork of a masterful speech writer.  Does the second bolded statement also reflect the Singapore Government and our Ministers’ stance that Singaporeans who don’t stay in Singapore or don’t work in Singapore firms overseas can’t make a contribution to Singapore?  I sincerely hope our mandarins have not become this myopic.

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I was catching up with a scholar friend over lunch one day, and the conversation topic naturally gravitated towards the state of affairs of the bureaucracy, and more specifically, my personal opinions about the challenges faced by the senior management and HR departments of our statutory boards in building an organisation that has a high ability to retain its talent, in order to achieve its full potential to implement policy decisions by our ministries.  His subsequent pragmatic reply came as no surprise:

It’s more realistic (for oneself) to work within the boundaries of the system, and be realistic about what one can control and change, while continually extending one’s sphere of influence.

I tried to tell him that while the above may be the perfect mentality to adopt in order to keep that personal ‘fire’ burning, it certainly doesn’t make what was going on within the construct acceptable.  I was concerned about the lack of urgency and conviction in resolving some of these issues, and reiterated my concern at the apparent pace (at least to me) at which our statutory boards were losing talent (both scholars and non-scholars).  His response is a classic example of one well-honed by the system to say a lot, without really saying anything at all.

Some people are better suited at playing the game than others.

Snakes and LaddersI guess my departure meant I was not suited to the ‘game’.  Social engineering has trained a large cohort of cows who moo when they are told, yield milk when their udders are tugged and eat when they are set loose to graze.  Have we become a nation honed in the art of taking orders and following instructions, but faring poorly when crossing unchartered waters?  God bless Singapore!

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Whoever drew up the terms of these scholarships should be awarded a Public Administration Medal, for the excellent deterrence provided to the less patriotic amongst us who have lost the desire to repay their debts of honour to the nation.  All the perceived ills of the establishment would not have been sufficient to push me to take the red pill, thanks to the hefty 6-figure liquidated damages that still remain on my contract.

I chose to leave because I have been granted an extraordinary opportunity to change Singapore, and hopefully change the world much faster than I could ever have from within the bureaucracy, as an insignificant Grade-8 Assistant Manager – tiny really, in the overall scheme of government things.

With this post, I fulfill a promise to myself, to share my own story someday.  If you come across this, and are or once were a government scholar, I urge you to share your tale (good or bad) and track back to my post.  Our youths deserve to know what they are signing up for.

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Related posts:

  1. On PSC Chairman’s open letter and our Public Service’s purported intolerance of contradictory views
  2. s/pores: “Once Bonded”
  3. Motivations for an Agency of the Future (AoF)
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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicholas November 11, 2009 at 9:01 AM

I was invited to apply for the same EDB scholarship, and I did. It was called the Singapore Inc. scholarship and during the interview, I was asked what I would be doing in 5 years time and 10 years time. I told them 5 years time I’d still be serving bond and 10 years time I’d have finished my bond and I would leave to do my own thing for Singapore, as what I thought was the spirit of the Singapore Inc scholarship. I kinda remember seeing furrowed eyebrows and never got invited back for the next interview :(
In the end, I got approved for a MINDEF scholarship but after much thoughts, decided it was best not to get committed for something so long that I wasn’t sure was what I wanted, a military career. Been on a entrepreneurial journey for as long as I remember and once in a while I’d look back and wonder how different my career would be if I had taken any of those scholarships. This post is very interesting food for thought for me, and I applaud you for taking the bold, albeit very expensive step. I’m sure you don’t need it, but still want to wish you all the best in the journey ahead!

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2 twasher November 11, 2009 at 12:20 PM

Congratulations.

The “Some people are better suited at playing the game than others” response actually makes me very angry. That’s because I see it as part of a thought pattern that is stifling change in organisational culture in the civil service. By framing the civil service as a “game”, those who are unhappy in it are implicitly “losers”, and those who can cope better, “winners”. The feedback from the “losers” can then be ignored as coming from people who do not really understand the game. Meanwhile, feedback from the “winners” is taken more seriously, and unsurprisingly, this tends to be feedback that does not really rock the boat (that’s why they are good at the game, after all).

In other words, they defend their alienation of large numbers of talented people by defining success such that people who are unhappy are not successful and hence not worth listening to. This in effect insulates the civil service from critical self-examination. It also trivialises what I am increasingly coming to think of as a huge waste of human potential. I meet a disturbing number of extremely talented people who are either plotting to leave the system or have already left it. Because these people won’t play the game, their departures are trivialised. It’s the old “quitters” trick all over again in a different guise. By labelling those who leave “quitters”, one implicitly suggests that these are the ones who lack determination or patriotism anyway, and hence are inferior to the “stayers”. It immediately frames the question in such a way that few think to go on and ask how exactly they are inferior to the stayers.

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3 Panzer November 11, 2009 at 1:51 PM

I was bonded under PSC (Open) Local Scholarship and have experienced first hand how the system works. In my case, a Local scholarship is rated pretty low on the prestige scale as my studies were in NTU reading Accountancy.

I fulfilled my bond of 5 years (during my time it was 6 years for local scholarships and 8 years for overseas but the give you a “discount” for full-time National Service) and left soon after.

Contrary to what most think, not all scholars rocket up the salary scales with rapid promotions and plum assignments. It took me 5 years to be promoted and my PS told me was not because I was not performing well relative to my cohort but because the other more senior colleagues would be “jealous” if he promoted me faster than the norm!

That 5 years was not wasted as I did acquire many accountancy related technical skills as well as some team management. But after leaving the civil service, joining a GLC allowed me to taste the more private sector way of doing things of delivering results and no-one bothered how they were achieved so long as no laws were broken.

I left partly because at that time, the talent management policies were abysmal. I would be a frog in the well and would never expose myself to different sectors and pick up new skills (which I did over the 5-7 years in my career) before now I am back in a statutory board at a senior level.

People come and go for different reasons from the public sector. The bureaucracy is more suited to manage the status quo than to really think out of the box as policy options are constrains by certain political and other considerations. But overall, the public sector has improved over time but it can still be cut 10-15% (in the middle) and still be effective.

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4 James Chan November 12, 2009 at 11:49 AM

People come and go for different reasons from the public sector. The bureaucracy is more suited to manage the status quo than to really think out of the box as policy options are constrains by certain political and other considerations. But overall, the public sector has improved over time but it can still be cut 10-15% (in the middle) and still be effective.

And that is what I’ve found out firsthand too – that the bureaucracy is better at managing status quo, while our top bureaucrats and political leaders, who are distilled from the populace via various yardsticks, are tasked with the heavy burden of “thinking out of the box” and worrying endlessly for the future of our tiny nation.

I guess it’s just unfortunate that many of us didn’t have the full picture before penning our name to our deeds. But then again, there is also much that could be said for us not to have done more to find out when we were about to make those difficult decisions back then.

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5 Huimin November 12, 2009 at 1:21 AM

Good luck with whatever you decide to do.=)

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6 Keith Oh November 17, 2009 at 12:17 AM

I can understand why the organization would be upset if scholars broke their bond without even serving one day. The organization would inevitably feel used and not given a chance and subsequently conclude integrity issues with the quitter.

For scholars who served, partially or full, and left, for positive or negative reasons, the organization would have little reasons to bear grudges. In fact, it is healthy for an organization to maintain a certain attrition rate. It is not like Google has no leavers. Some firms even call their leavers “alumni” and celebrate the network members’ subsequent success — I think that is a better perspective.

Good luck with your next endeavor!

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