Friday, October 10, 2008

Foreign scholars

Foreign students studying in secondary schools and JCs on government scholarships have been, for some time, a part of our school lives, particular for people like me in so-called top schools.
Previously, not having encountered them, I believed the stereotype that they were freaks whose only purpose in life was to study and nothing else. However, after ending up in a class with 8 Chinese scholars this year, I find that contrary to the stereotype, they are very much like us – they weren’t too fond of studying and homework, and they too liked having fun and being with friends.

Personally, while I don’t hold any bias against scholars themselves, I feel there are some potential improvements that could be made to the program itself.

While I haven’t managed to find any definitive official stated aim of providing scholarships, there are some obvious advantages:

1. Increase talent, which is key in today’s knowledge driven economies
2. Increase the labour force. Singaporeans aren’t having enough babies anyway.
3. Increased international exposure and goodwill
4. Raise the level of competition and (potentially) spur the Singaporeans to work harder.
5. If these scholars are successful in the future, we hope they remember us so we can benefit from it.

However, in reality, whether these advantages are realized is questionable.

A token few would raise the competition enough to spur local students to improve, but too many scholars end up dominating & take up all the opportunities, depriving local students of the opportunity to develop as well as giving local students a “hopeless” mindset that discourages them from competing. The resulting defeatist attitude and sentiment that the system favours foreigners over Singaporeans isn’t good for national unity.

The best way to counter the latter would be some sort of measures to allow the weaker Singaporeans the opportunity to get a leg up. By this, I think that motivation is the key factor – once interests can be linked to academics, motivation is a whole lot easier and performance would improve.

According to the scholars I know, the recruitment system for the majority of scholars is through successive rounds of academic tests – unless they have some special sporting talent or ability. Interestingly, there isn’t much emphasis on assessing the character here. This isn’t good – a few bad hats to a give the whole lot a bad reputation, and we should be minimising that. Perhaps running interviews, camps, etc. as part of the selection process would help greatly.

This, combined with the fact that schools often place scholars in the same classes (i.e. creating “enclaves”), limit international exposure and goodwill. What should we do to combat this? First, start selecting scholars based on character also. Second, combat negative stereotypes & encourage interaction between both sides.

The scholarship program is a potential winner, if run properly. Hopefully improvements can be done to the programme to let it realize its true potential.