Sunday, February 28, 2010

Suggestions on tuning the free scholarships to foreigners

The article that enraged several Singaporeans did not enrage me. Since my university days, I have already known that the government has been providing free tertiary education plus monthly allowance to PRC/Indian/Asean scholars. This has been going on for more than a decade.

America attained its greatness partly because of its ability to attract the finest minds of the human race from anywhere. Emulating this immigration policy makes good sense. But, if this is done in a way that puts the locals at an unfair advantage, it will backfire on the country and its political leaders as well.

I got worried about Singapore's future when a new colleague who just graduated from NUS this year told me that almost all of his coursemates have migration on their minds. My kids are still young, so my stakes are high.

One of the issues that made graduates like him so demoralized as a Singaporean is the way free education + allowance was given out to foreign scholars in the local universities. It is easy to understand why the Singaporean students felt discriminated in their own land. They saw this before their very eyes during their school days. The rantings on internet forums have expressed them all and I do not wish to repeat it here. I would prefer to provide some ideas for improvement rather than complaints against the government.

Attracting foreign students is a good policy. The problem lies with its execution. Some suggestions that I make;

  •  Avoid attracting students from countries with brighter prospects than Singapore

We already know what happened. 1 job application in Shanghai attracted more than 70 applicants from PRC scholars sponsored by Singaporean tax payers. I don't blame the PRC scholars. It is what the average person will do. We all work for money, don't we?
It is the same reason why SMEs do not provide training to their employees. Why train them if they will hop to the MNCs eventually? You spend money to train them only if you are confident of retaining them.

  • Look to economically-backward countries with a ready pool of talent.

The Malaysian Chinese was such a talent pool. If Malaysia back then had boomed like China now, Singapore would have lost these talents. In Singapore, many of the senior management in public-listed companies and even the civil service hail from Malaysia. Malaysia Boleh!

By attracting talent from countries which are not likely to provide richer opportunities than Singapore, our money gone into nurturing them is not likely to go into waste as they are not likely to go home. The loss is not limited to waste of money. We are actually training potential highly intelligent competitors who can destroy us.  After the dot-com bust, Taiwanese engineers from Silicon Valley return to Taiwan for greener pastures. Those in the industry will know that the US-trained Taiwanese set up world-beating companies that destroyed prominent US-based Silicon valley companies.

Foreign talent can be a double-edged sword. If the host country is not able to provide ample opportunities to grow these talent, they will go to greener pastures and use their talents against the host country (the very country which nurtured them). There is nothing immoral about this. We should not fault them for doing what we would have done ourselves if we were in their shoes.

  • Enforce penalties for breaking the contract
I have heard of PRC graduates of our local universities who return to China without serving their obligation of working in Singapore for 3 years after getting free scholarship in local universities. Authorities should enforce whatever penalties in the contract to punish these contract breakers.

Letting these dishonorable scholars go scot-free is not fair to the past Singaporean bond-breakers who got named and shamed.  Unlike the foreign scholars, the bond-breakers did not break the contract. They honourably compensated the authorities for breaking the bond. Their punishment was getting shamed in public. Nothing happened to the foreign scholars who went home. To correct these double-standards, the authorities should get someone of the likes of Philip Yeo with fire in their belly to enforce the penalties for breaching the contract.

At the very least, we can shame these people by placing their names on the internet. This will also benefit global employers when they do checks before hiring these dishonorable people. This will also punish them by impacting their job prospects.

It is fine if people go for greener pastures but it is not ok when they break contract terms that are fair. It is bad business practice to allow people who screw you go scot-free because it encourages more people to screw you more. I hate the idea of foreigners laughing at how stupid we are for being such a big sucker.

  • Foreign scholars must be real talents, not parasites

The recent case of the Indonesian scholar Widjaja who committed suicide after a bloody fight with his lecturer is a good example. He was known to be an avid computer game player which was suspected to be the cause of his C grades. Taxpayers do not pay scholars to come here to play computer games. Students like Widjaja are not exceptional cases. I have met a couple of them during my university days, though they are still a small minority.

The presence of foreign parasites(even 1 or 2) who get free money from taxpayers is a great demoralizer to Singaporean students. Singaporean students who pay for their own education must be convinced that the foreign scholars are real talents. If they see foreign students with poorer results get free education and allowance while they themselves don't, the locals will think of migration. There must be terrible punishment for foreign scholars who do not perform as expected. Maybe we can get them to make financial compensation for poor academic performance.

Don't make scholarships completely free. Free stuff nurtures parasites. I know this because I have personally encountered lazy foreign scholars during my university days, fortunately their numbers were small. We spend taxpayers money to nurture talent, not parasites. Put some co-payment component into the scholarship.

  • Get foreign scholars to spend time tutoring the weak locals

Make it compulsory for foreign scholars to tutor the weak locals to earn their monthly allowance. If the foreign scholars fall behind in their own grades, they lose their monhtly allowance as they are no longer eligible to teach the weak. They have become the weak!

Another advantage is that this will encourage social integration with the locals. The closer social links these foreigners forge with our country will encourage them to stay put here.

  • Spend more money nurturing local talents

When local talents go for greener pastures by job-hopping from company to company, only the company suffers. The country still gains as these people stay within the country. When foreign talent move out of the country and compete against us, the host country loses big-time.

It is surprising that I even have to put in this suggestion as common sense dictates that we should spend more money on ourselves than on others. The fact is that there is a growing perception among Singaporeans that the government is allocating too much resources on foreigners at the expense of its own people. I think government will take steps to correct this perception as the election nears.