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Saturday, June 26, 2010

PSD scholarships – to scrap or not to scrap


Every year around the months of May and June, hundreds of “straight A” SPM students receive the news of not being offered the “illustrious” Public Service Department (PSD) scholarship.

Thousands of complaints are made by various parties, the issue becomes politicised and many people start crying out about the injustice and inequality existing in the system of allocating scholarships.

Recently, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced that PSD scholarships would be phased out over time, and he was promptly supported by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Nazri Aziz, who said that the move is an effort to “reduce brain drain” and that the government “lacked capacity” to fund students.

FMT has made an indepth study into the arguments surrounding the PSD scholarship issue, and we leave it to the public to make up their mind on what’s right and what’s wrong.

Allocating scholarships based on SPM results

Many parties have questioned the suitability of using the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as a benchmark for PSD scholarships.

PJ Utara MP, Tony Pua, questioned the process of awarding scholarship at SPM level and instead suggested that students be picked based on their pre-university qualifications.

“The problem now is, we have too many top scorers for only 1,500 scholarships on offer. We should use pre-university qualifications as the benchmark as it is of a higher threshold and students would have then gained admission into top-class universities.”

“What we are doing now is, we are pre-determining whether one is suitable for courses like Medicine and Law based on the SPM results without the students receiving any offers from universities to pursue these subjects,” he added.

Pua also criticised Nazri for linking the phasing-out of scholarships to an effort to reduce the brain drain.

“It is nonsense to say that phasing out scholarships can actually reduce the brain drain. We all know foreign institutions are capable of developing talented leaders in their various fields,” he said.

Meanwhile, some also question the quality of obtaining an A+ in SPM level subjects.

An admininistration manager from a private company in charge of recruiting employees said: “Some of these students with an A1 (A+) in English cannot even converse fluently in English. The grade simply cannot be trusted.”

A number of teachers interviewed said that for some subjects like Physics, students had to score only 60% to obtain an A+ in SPM.

“There is a graph which shifts every year so that there is a 'consistent' trend of straight As students year after year,” a SPM examiner who refused to be named said.

To make matters worse, there have been medical student hopefuls who obtained the PSD scholarship and yet failed to make the grades at A levels to qualify for medical school in the UK.

These students obtained woeful results at A levels, failing to obtain the 3As necessary to qualify for medical school.

A typical PSD scholarship interview

Many high-flying Malaysian students “seasoned” in scholarship applications felt bemused by how PSD actually screens the 7,500 candidates it receives year after year.

“It is merely a five-minute face-to-face interview with the assessors and all they do is ask general questions,” a student said.

“I really doubt they would be able to differentiate the candidates based on merit in such interviews. If you compare that to the ones carried out by government-linked companies (GLCs), the latter are so much more wholistic and serious about the matter,” the student said.

As to the amount allocated to scholars, the sum each scholar receives a year via these scholarships is worth eight times Malaysia’s national average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of RM24,661 per year.

If it is broken down further, these scholars take home a whopping RM15,200 a month -- a sum of money which would be categorised as high-income level, a feat achieved by only 2% of Malaysians.

Lee Lian, who applied for the PSD scholarship, said, “I applied for medicine because, after all, it is 'the prestigious course' in this country and you make tonnes of money.”

“After all, it's free money from the scholarship. Money is good; the scholars can travel to Italy during their summer holidays on taxpayers' money, and get Italian men. It’s not that bad a deal considering that I only had to go through three months memorising things like respiration,” she added

Only 16% of scholars serve the bond

When Pua asked the prime minister a year ago on how many scholars actually served their bond, it was reported that only a meagre 4,932 of them served while 314 were released from their contracts out of the 30,832 scholarships awarded between 2003 and 2007.

That amounted to a loss of RM12.95 billion in taxpayers' money -- an amount enough to build 16 new parliament buildings.

When alerted to such statistics, Lembah Pantai MP, Nurul Izzah Anwar, said, “The PSD should be more efficient in monitoring past scholars as public funds cannot just go down the drain.”

A number of these scholars told FMT that they were not offered a job in the PSD upon graduation and were told to look elsewhere.

These scholars were released from bond, and some of them have gone on to work in the US and the UK, having obtained permanent residency (PR) status there.

In comparison, most scholars from Singapore, upon graduation, end up in all sorts of jobs in the public service ranging from teachers to administration managers.

“Singapore has specially allotted teaching scholarships where these teachers are sent to prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Upon returning, they end up teaching in junior colleges,” Pua said.

“In Malaysia, we are not maximising our human capital and this is a clear case of PSD’s ineffectiveness,” he added.

When FMT looked through an advertisement published in the Singapore’s Straits Times, we found one good example.

Ng Hui Min, who obtained a Singapore Ministry of Education scholarship in teaching, currently teaches at Catholic Junior College. She has previously obtained a degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and a Masters from the University of Oxford.

Such are the examples of human capital Singapore is managing to build in comparison to Malaysia.

What about Mara scholarships?

Nazri in recent weeks said that only 56% of the PSD scholarships were allocated to Bumiputeras while 44% were allocated to non-Bumiputeras this year, an amount seemingly fair and transparent considering that in previous years the allocations have gone 80:20.

However, one other government scholarship which has always been overlooked in these ratios is the Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) scholarships offered only to Bumiputeras.

Mara offers as many as 1,500 scholarships a year, bringing the ratio of scholarships based on race to 78:20 this year, with 2,340 of the 3,000 scholarships going to Bumiputeras.

It is also worth pointing out that Mara scholarships come without a bond and will not be phased out in the coming years unlike PSD scholarships.

The bond-free policy has caused a substantial number of scholars who pursue tertiary education costing as much as RM1 million in Australia, UK and US to abscond.

Those who absconded either pursued higher degrees elsewhere, or settled in their new-found country for good, which essentially means they have been given a free ride on taxpayers' money.

A Mara scholar who pursued Medicine at the University of Newcastle in Australia said, “In Newcastle, we already have a lot of Mara scholars who have chosen to reside here permanently instead of returning to Malaysia to serve.”

“The pay is better, the living conditions are better and the weather nicer. All we have to do to is to report to Mara upon graduation and then we’ll be free to go,” she added.

Phasing out PSD scholarships

Many parties in recent weeks have expressed outrage and disappointment over the phasing out of PSD scholarship.

Even political parties have taken a bipartisan stand, with leaders from MCA, MIC and Pakatan Rakyat all opposing the idea of doing away with the scholarships.

Nurul Izzah, for one, said “phasing out such scholarships would spell disaster for the future”.

“Under Barisan National, human capital means nothing. They can consider phasing out scholarships while announcing to build a RM36-billion MRT project. It clearly goes to show that there has been no change of mindset within the government.”

“What should be done instead is to keep the PSD scholarships going while revamping PSD to ensure only deserving Malaysians receive them and improving the monitoring system on these scholars,” she added.

Facing the reality of PSD scholarships

Professor James Chin, a professor of Political Science in Monash University who recently wrote in The Malaysian Insider on the issue of PSD scholarships, openly said that PSD scholarships in Malaysia are a political tool to reward supporters and cement political support.

“It never has been, and never will be anything to do with enlarging the human capital of this country or to help bright students from poor families.”

“A former Chinese minister, on retirement, openly said (in the bad old days of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s rule) that non-Malay applications for PSD scholarships would end up in the rubbish bin,” he added.

Chin also said that the reason the names of PSD scholars are not published is that some of the students who obtained the scholarships have titles and connections.

“Some of the students, shall we say, have parents who are Tan Sris and Datuks, who actually own real estate in London and Perth. Or you have children of politicians and businessmen who can easily pay the tuition fees in the UK or Australia.”

FMT leaves it to you, the readers, to decide whether PSD scholarships should be scrapped or not.

courtesy of FMT

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