Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Likely reply from the MOE

The Fox predicts that the reply from the MOE to his early enquiry will look something like this:
Forum Topic: Reducing Tuition Grants for Foreign Students

1. I refer to the Straits Times Forum letter “Cut tuition grants to foreign students” (Edmund Lin Weixiong, 13/12, pH11).

2. Unlike Singapore citizens, foreign students pay 10% more tuition fees and are bonded to work in Singapore for 3 years after graduation in return for the tuition grant they receive. The tuition fee increase is necessary for our universities to recover costs. This is especially important as fees have not been increased since 2001 while universities' expenditures have risen annually.

3. Reducing tuition grants for foreign students is neither sufficient nor a good measure to "tide things over and avoid a fee hike" as suggested by Mr Edmund Lin Weixiong. Our universities will continue to attract and enrol foreign students from different countries and background. This will help enhance the vibrancy of the learning environment in our universities.

4. Local students can also benefit from the exchanges with these foreign students and establish a network of contacts. Having studied and worked in Singapore, foreign students may decide to continue to live in Singapore even after they have completed their bond.

Lim Chee Hwee
Director, Higher Education Division

A letter to the Feedback Unit

Fox has decided to be a good Singaporean citizen by opting to give feedback to the Singapore Feedback Unit. Actually, Fox is just curious about a couple of things and would like to know a bit more about his government's policies. So, Fox decided to write a letter to the Feedback Unit, specifically addressed to the Ministry of Education in Singapore, which went something like the following.


I have searched on the internet and have been unable to obtain the following information:
  1. The number of foreign students in our local universities and polytechnics from 1996 to 2005.
  2. The number of foreign students in our local universities and polytechnics under the MOE tuition grant scheme from 1996 to 2005.
  3. The total annual value of MOE tuition grants that have been awarded to the aforementioned foreign students in local universities and polytechnics from 1996 to 2005.
  4. The proportion of the aforementioned foreign students who have successfully completed their bonds obligatory under the MOE tuition grant scheme from 1996 to 2005.
I wonder if such information can be made available by the MOE to the public. If possible, I will like to have such information. If not, I will like to know why such information cannot be released.

Thank you and regards,
Fox believes that such information ought to be made available to the tax-paying public. There is considerable debate over the foreign talent policy which Fox believes to be highly complex and to encompass several issues that has to examined one at a time. For example, there is the matter of job creation as well as that of the large number of government-subsidized foreign students in local institutions. Since the latter involves the use of taxpayer's monies, Fox thinks that the public should at least know how much money is spent.

On a more immediate matter, Fox is also interested in how the relevant government body/bodies respond to enquiries of this nature. On browsing through the website of the Singapore Feedback Unit, he has realized that replies to feedback often do not answer directly the questions that have been posed. Take for example, in this brief letter, a member of the public wrote:
Dear Sir/Mdm,

I understand that the 4th child in a family is not entitled to the Edusave fund. As a result, the 4th child concerned would felt ostracised, especially when his classmates would be using their Edusave funds for their class outings while he/she has to pay from his/her own pockets.

Such a regulation is contradicting the Government's call for Singaporeans to have more children.
On browsing through the Edusave Scheme website, Fox notes that the website states:
However, only the first, second and third child were eligible for the Edusave account prior to 2004. In 2005, the Government will contribute $170 and $200 to the Edusave account of each eligible student at primary and secondary level respectively.
Fox would imagine that the person who came up with that feedback in the first place would like to know why the 4th child is not entitled to the Edusave fund and/or if the government is planning to change the existing policy to accomodate the 4th child and/or how the government reconciles the policy with the call for more children.

Predictably, the reply is not really satisfatory. It skirts the issue of why there is no Edusave grant for the 4th child and extols the merit of the Edusave scheme in a somewhat irrelevant way.
Dear contributor,
I refer to the above feedback.
The Edusave Pupils' Fund is one way in which Singapore pupils benefit from the Edusave Scheme. The Edusave Pupils' Fund is limited to the first three children of families, in line with the national population policy, which encourages couples to have three children or more if they can afford it.
Besides the Edusave Pupils Fund, the Edusave Scheme also makes available Scholarships, Merit Bursaries and Good Progress Awards to citizen pupils who have done well academically or shown significant academic progress. The Edusave Scholarships are awarded to students who have obtained good academic results, whereas the Good Progress Awards are given to students who have made significant improvements in their academic performances. Eligible students from low-income families are also awarded the Edusave Merit Bursaries. Since 2001, Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service have also been given to students to recognise their leadership quality, service to community and schools, and excellence in non-academic activities.
In addition to these awards, schools and technical institutes are given Edusave grants to run enrichment programmes for their pupils.
Seen in totality, the Edusave scheme maximises opportunities for all Singaporean children. Students who do not qualify for the Edusave accounts can still benefit from the Edusave awards if they meet the criteria and the Edusave grants channelled to schools. Moreover, the heavy government subsidy in education and the wide range of financial support for every Singaporean child provide many opportunities to nurture our local talents.
Thank you for your feedback.
Not very satisfactory, Fox is afraid.

Back to the perfectly innocuous questions on the MOE tuition grant scheme for foreign students, Fox has the feeling that if the MOE do reply to his enquiries, they would first wax lyrical (irrelevantly) about how the presence of foreign students benefits the education of our local students and how important it is to have foreign students to keep Singapore's education system competitive and to draw foreign talents to top up Singapore's workforce. Then they would also mention how the tuition scheme subsidizes the education of the local students who form 80 percent of the student population in our local institutions. Also, they would mention how most foreign students stay on to join the workforce. Blah, blah, blah.

It is quite likely that the MOE will not reply directly to Fox's questions, if at all. Then, because of the furtiveness, Fox will have to draw his conclusions about the soundness of the policy of subsidizing foreign students.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Are local talents valued in Singapore?

May 15, 2006
Top US school wants him but he can't defer NS

Teen talent's bid for deferment to pursue music studies rejected
By Maria Almenoar

ONE of the few Singaporeans ever offered a prestigious music scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in the United States, may have to pass up the opportunity of a lifetime.

Violinist Ike See, 17, has applied to the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) a second time to postpone his two-year national service stint and pursue his dream of being a top musician.

Said the son of a pastor and a retired teacher: 'I understand that serving my nation is important and I will do so eventually, but this is a dream and an opportunity of a lifetime.'

In an e-mail statement yesterday Mindef said: 'Mr Ike See was earlier not successful in his application for deferment. His family has recently put in an appeal and the appeal is currently under consideration.'

So far, it is understood only two other Singaporeans have attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia - violinists Siow Lee Chin and Kam Ning.
All students who are accepted to the school receive a scholarship which covers their tuition fees, totalling about US$28,500 (S$44,000) a year for four years.

The youngest of four children, Ike started playing the violin when he was 3 1/2 years old.

His first music performance was in kindergarten.

Said his mother, Mrs I.S. See, 55: 'We were more nervous than him. Despite his music teacher telling him he wasn't ready, he approached his kindergarten teacher and just went on stage and played.'

When he was 10, he took his first music examination, skipping the first seven grades and aceing the final grade in the violin.

By 14, he had obtained six music diplomas, all with distinctions. He has also bagged the National Violin Champion prize in three categories.

A former Raffles Institution student, Ike practises three to four hours a day and puts in another one to two hours on the piano - his other favourite activity. He is a member of the Singapore Youth Orchestra and became its concert master - the leader of the orchestra - in 2004.

Said Ike, who also enjoys reading and playing tennis: 'I didn't have as much free time as other teenagers but because I love playing the violin, it wasn't much of a sacrifice to me.'

Having applied to six music schools in the US, Ike decided not to continue his studies under the Raffles Programme where he would qualify for Raffles Junior College and pursue his A levels next year.

He spent the early part of the year preparing for auditions and a month auditioning in the US.

He was also accepted by other prestigious schools like Juilliard, the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, but he was ecstatic to receive a call from the Curtis Institute's president, Mr Gary Graffman.

Ike did not pass the auditions for Curtis two years ago, when he applied in Secondary 3.

Earlier this year, he applied again and after two rounds of auditions was one of the 44 students accepted for the term starting in September.

In an e-mail reply, Curtis Institute dean Bob Fitzpatrick, who saw Ike's auditions earlier this year, said: 'He brilliantly played excerpts of the Glazunov Violin Concerto and two movements of a Bach solo sonata with great flair, confidence and musicianship.'

As a former student of the Integrated Programme, Ike did not take O levels last year.

Said Mrs See: 'Of course, I'm worried about him. After all, he has no academic certificates except his PSLE, but this is what he wants to pursue and we support his decision.'

For Ike, paper qualifications mean nothing if he is not allowed to pursue his first love of music.

Said Ike: 'I'm hopeful I will get the deferment but if after appealing as many times as I can, I'm still rejected, one option is to finish my NS first and then reapply to Curtis.

'But who knows what my level of skills will be then and whether they will accept me?

Fox is simply amazed that Mindef will reject a request for an NS deferment from an exceptionally musically talented born and bred Singaporean but foreigners under the Foreign Talent Scheme who are under 27 (the cut-off age for NS) and take up Singaporean citizenship
are exempted from NS. The sheer hypocrisy of the system.

This raises the question: are local talents less valued than foreign talents in Singapore? Fox suspects so. In fact, given cases like these, he finds the claim by the Singaporean government, that the overwhelming presence of foreign 'talents' is necessary to make up for the dearth of local talents, to be somewhat dubious. Perhaps, Fox will discuss the issue of foreign talent some other time and why he thinks that local talents may not be properly developed and utilised in Singapore.

In any case, Fox advocates that Ike See be exempted from national service given his exceptional talent. Yes, that's right - exempted. Anything extraordinary about that, apart from Ike See's musical talent? Not really. After all, the ex-foreigners in Singapore's national football team were also exempted from NS on account of their footballing abilities despite the fact that they qualify for NS in terms of their age. Realistically speaking, forcibly confining an individual of Ike's gift to Singapore is waste of talent. Drafting him into a combat unit does little good to the country's defence and may even harm Ike's prospect especially if he were to break his arm/fingers; even if he were to enter the MDC, he would be just deprived of the necessary musical coaching and training that he needs to develop his gift.

Rather than the normal NS, perhaps an alternative NS can be made for Ike See. For example, rather than serve 24 months of NS continuously, he could be made to do 2 months of national service - like public performances and music workshops to train other musicians- in Singapore every year until he clears his 24 months. To be fair, Ike See should probably not expect to be paid professional rates while he does his NS.

Singapore has precious few world-beaters. Ike See certainly possesses the potential to be one in music. Fox can only hope that good sense will prevail and that the government will recognise that Ike See is an exceptional talent and warrants exceptional treatment.