Sunday, November 20, 2011

Financially poor but academically above average Singapore students

Below is my rather long reply to Limpeh Is Foreign Talent's blog post, which in-turn was a reply to 23:明天的記憶, which was in-turn a response to LIFT's earlier blog post.


23:明天的記憶 wrote : what I want to know is what happens then if you have a kid that is above-average but nowhere near scholarship material? Than what do we make of education, access to opportunities & social class in general?

Yes, being poor in Singapore sucks. It wasn't so bad years ago, but it is getting worse.

Years ago in the late 80's, I was one of many who took a Study Loan from the Singapore Public Service Commission for our university fees. To apply, all one needed was an offer from a local university (only NUS and NTU back then), financial records showing that our family could not fund our university education, and go through a harrowing interview with a panel (I think it was 4 or 5 persons) which vets through all your financial declarations looking for any loophole that you do not need the money. At 19, it was my first ever panel interview and the panel members started off asking why I did not apply for any of the PSC bursaries which carried a bond. I replied honestly that I did not think that my results were good enough to get a bursary. Then they kept questioning about my grandfather's money which was in a joint account with my dad which we couldn't touch/use. Finally they asked, "What would happen if you do not get a loan?" I burst into tears and told them, "That means I cannot go to university and have to work instead." At that point in time, my thought was "no money = no education = trapped in poverty". Luckily for me, I was granted a loan that covered the university fees.

A friend of mine wasn't so lucky. Her application for a PSC loan was rejected on the basis that she had 4 older siblings who worked -- but in blue-collar or clerical jobs with salary that could only support themselves and/or their own families. That was a period of high stress for her. Her parents worked lowly-paid odd-jobs and had little/no money in CPF, so a CPF loan was out of the question. She did not have any relatives able and willing to be her guarantors for the bank loans. I don't know how she managed to get a bank loan in the end.

Another friend of mine applied for a bond-free overseas scholarship and got it. That was back in those days in the 80's when Singapore was still considered a developing nation in the Commonwealth and special bond-free scholarships were available to its citizens from some UK universities. Years later, that friend asked me why didn't I apply for overseas scholarships like her. I smiled and told her that I didn't think of it. Actually, in those pre-internet days, applying for an overseas scholarship is a lengthy and costly process in itself. The costs of photocopying all your certificates, the application fees, the postage fees, etc, all adds up. For a poor family living almost from hand-to-mouth, it was beyond our means.

I have yet another friend who took the Polytechnic route.
Note: Polytechnic education costs less than university education in Singapore. In addition, one can enter the workforce earlier through the Polytechnic route because one skips the 2-3 years of JC/pre-University education.
Then she worked and saved for almost 10 years, just to have enough money to upgrade to a degree from an overseas university. In the meantime, she was paid "Poly-grad" pay despite the job she does. As a Poly-grad ex-colleague puts in, "We do the same job, hold the same responsibilities, but because we are short of the degree paper, we are denied the Officer job title, pay and benefits." (even in the private sector). Yes, being born-poor means one may have to accept a 10-year delay to finally reaching one's career target. Even then, classism in Singapore was such that those who went through the "Poly-then-upgrade" route was seen as inferior to those who went to university directly.

Finally, I had a JC classmate who was an ace student. Her family was patriarchal in nature and she had to work part-time to support herself and her studies since age 15 (i.e. the legal age to work in Singapore). When we were revising for our GCE A-level exams, I casually asked her what course she planned to pursue in university. She gave me a slightly sad resigned look and said, "I don't plan to go to university." I asked her why, since her results were consistently good. She told me that supporting herself through A-levels was already a huge struggle, she didn't think that she would be able to do so for university studies. Thus, she preemptively gave up that option.

That is what being financially poor and academically above average in Singapore is was like (and possibly is still) with respect to access to university education. You learn very quickly that there are opportunities but you just can't touch them if you don't have money and/or the connections (e.g. guarantors are needed for bonds/loans). It gets worse for the youths from poor families now. Singapore is no longer a "developing nation" and thus those Commonwealth scholarships are no longer available to them. The last I checked, the Public Service Commission of Singapore no longer offers Study Loans which I received for my local university education.* The only improvements are that there are more "accredited" overseas universities in Singapore now offering distance learning "upgrades" to those who choose the "Poly-then-upgrade" route; and NUS/NTU now open their doors to a small percentage of these Poly-upgraders.


[Addendum on 22-Nov-2011. Correction of the above.]

* Note: Correction on 22-Nov-2011. I just found out that both NUS and NTU offer up to 90% in Tuition Fee loan to its students. Therefore, it seems, the function previously served by PSC Study Loan is now moved to NUS Tuition Fee loan and NTU Tuition Fee loan, albeit with a 90% cap. So life is not so bleak for the financially poor but academically above average youths in Singapore afterall.


[Addendum on 04-Mar-2012.]

One of Mr Brown's readers shared about his life as a university undergraduate from a poor family.


  1. I would say screw the university education. Why pay for extra education when you can't be sure you'll have a job after it? Look at the US and Europe and see how screwed their graduates are. They are already calling them the lost generation.

    Fucking Asians have to grow a brain to realise that university is not worth the cost-benefit analysis, and grow a pair so that they'll have the balls not to follow the crowd.

  2. Hi CK,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I would agree with you on "screw the university education" in the context of the current Singapore economy, i.e. from 2000's onwards.

    20+ years ago, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, Singapore was a very different place. The cost-benefit analysis tilted heavily towards getting a university education as a quick and easy way for a financially poor student to break out of poverty. At least it has paid-off pretty well in my case.

    Things are very different now, of course, given the impact of Singapore's open door policies towards foreign workers. Add to that the current global economic instability and the growth of internet culture, I would agree that the rules of survival is now drastically different.

  3. Hi WD. Nice post. All I can say is that I was lucky enough that back in the 90s, my university still had Singapore on the list of 'developing Commonwealth countries' thus I was able to get a scholarship on that basis. As you've probably figured out by now, I'm quite good at learning the rules of a system, finding loopholes and exploiting it ... so when I did the interviews, yeah I really played on the fact that my father came from a small village in Malaysia and I kept using that to paint the image of an idyllic kampong with palm trees by the beach - rather than Orchard Road as we know it. I guess the bottom line is this: one needs more than sheer academic excellence to get through life - you need to be streetwise.

  4. Only ah bengs and ah lians are streetwise. The average Sinkee is a dumb fuck when there are no 10 year series to refer to.

  5. Hi LIFT,

    Thanks for dropping by to read my blog and commenting. Yeah, I agree with you about the streetwise part. Some people in North America still think that Singapore is some ulu village in China.

    In my case, 20+ years ago, somewhere during the panel interview, I explained that my parents have 5 children, all of whom were expected to make it to the university (and all were indeed offered local university places). As family resources are limited, (and given the paternalistic norms) female offsprings and the elder siblings are expected to give up their chance if we could not obtain money for our own education. I was the second in the family to be offered a place in the local university, after my elder sister who opted for a bursary-with-bond to pay her way through university. As a female offspring, it was either I get the loan or I start my working career. So later when the panel asked me the final question, again about what would happen if I did not get a loan, I felt desperate and exasperated that they did not understand that my situation. Anyway, it seems that my spontaneous outburst worked, they stopped asking me further questions and told me to wait for a letter on their decision.

  6. Hi CK,

    I wouldn't comment on your opinion since I don't know your precise definition for "ah bengs", "ah lians", and "streetwise".

    In general though, sweeping statements using "only" and "always" often find themselves contradicted by the appearance of a single counter-example.

  7. I like how you're getting defensive. ;)

    The truth hurts.

  8. Hi CK,

    If you're hitting directly at me, that I'm not streetwise, just say so lah! Don't need to beat about the bush or hit at the average Singaporean. I would readily admit that I'm not the sharpest tack when it comes to being streetwise -- I even told a young colleague recently that I admire her street-smarts even though I'm almost twice her age. That said, I am lucky in that I have friends who come through for me when I need help. It makes me happy and grateful to have all this wonderful social support in my life.

    Back to your statement, I don't know your definition of "ah beng" and "ah lian". Unless and until you define the terms...
    e.g. "ah lian = bo tak chek = no O-levels",
    your sweeping statement is merely an opinion which can neither be proven or disproved. In other words, it is "empty talk" 口说无凭 ["mouth speaks without evidence"].
    If you would kindly define what you mean by "ah beng", "ah lian" and "streetwise", then we have some basis on which to discuss further using empirical proof or observational counter-example to disprove.


    The average Sinkee should read that and weep.

    And to answer your questions:

    1. No, none of my posts are directed at you. You're an atypical Singaporean and I celebrate atypical-ness.

    2. I don't have a definition of what is an ah beng or an lian, only that you'll know one when you see one! If LIFT calls himself an beng (in one of his recent posts), then there's nothing you can use to properly define one.

  10. I also consider Uni degrees as toilet paper. This mindset has alienated me from main stream society as 'they' consider me a loser.

    I was deemed a failure by an unknown marker in UK during 'o" levels when i got D7 for my english. I got B3 during my prelim. How it plunged from B to a failure D is still a mystery to me till this day.

    I went to poly since JCs don't accept failures in english- D7 already pull down entry score a lot.

    Being deem a failure by someone i never met means i cannot write on my blog? Do readers care about my english? Is my fate decided by that unknown sucker? No, my fate is decided by the free market. Nobody gives a shit what english grade Lucky Tan got either.

  11. Hi Xianlong,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog again.

    Uni degree is so not useful as one progress further in life, because one would have one's network, work experience and other life achievements to open doors. When one first step into the job market, one needs something for that foot-in-the-door.

    In Singapore 20 years ago, the easiest door opener was a degree/diploma in a relevant field. At least that was my experience and I believe many of my peers. IMHO, many of my peers felt that their lives improved as a result of past policies, so they still buy the "be grateful" tune and swallow the dominant political party's bullshit. My ex-colleague is one such example. You can see our FB exchange on the url below.