Kenneth Jeyaretnam: International Scholarship Program Discriminates Against Singaporeans

In my last article (Has Lee Hsien Loong Forgotten Who Pays His Salary?) I wrote about the way that Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP Government treat expats as more valuable than the Singaporeans who voted them in in the first place.

There can be no better illustration of this than the way our Government subsidises foreign students to come here and take our jobs. Yet the PAP have been evasive on the numbers and cost of the foreign scholarships it awards.

At the last sitting of Parliament on 13 July 2015, the Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, in response to a question from NCMP Yee Jenn Jong, revealed that about 900 foreign students were given scholarships each year and the total cost of each scholarship was about $25,000 p.a. including school fees, accommodation and allowances. If there were 900 foreign scholarship holders in each year that would make the total number of scholarship holders in Singapore around 3,600. The total cost would then be around $90 million p.a.

This is of course not a huge sum of money given the size of Singapore’s economy and reserves. However when Heng was asked another question, this time by Lina Chiam, as to how many foreign students in Singapore benefited from the tuition grant, Heng revealed just how many foreign students there are and how much taxpayers here are subsidising them:

In 2014, around 3,650 international students in the 2014 matriculation cohort in the polytechnics and autonomous universities received the tuition grant. 

As this is just the 2014 cohort, the total number of international students is likely to be four times as large. This would make the number of international students receiving tuition grants at any one time about 14,600. Assuming very roughly an average tuition grant of around $18,000 p.a. (the poly and ITE tuition grant is around $16,000 while the university grant is over $22,000) the total cost is then around $262 million p.a.

The $90 million annual cost of the international scholarships  should then be added to the tuition grant subsidy since the $25,000 scholarship comes on top of the tuition grant which all foreign students receive. So the total cost of the PAP’s subsidy to foreign students is about $350 million a year. To put this in context that is close to the estimated $400 million annual cost of the entire Pioneer Generation Package for our seniors. It is also at least 50% of the subsidy that the Government claims to provide for pre-school education.

However the real shock was the Minister’s revelation as to how low the bar is set for these so-called “scholars”. To keep their scholarship they only had to maintain a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.5 out of a possible 5. This is consistent with achieving a Lower Second Class Honours degree. Heng revealed in his Parliamentary answer  that 68% of international scholarship holders achieve at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. This compares with almost all Singapore students holding PSC scholarships. Compared to the average Singapore student, 38% of whom get Upper Seconds, the foreign scholars are not much better.


Why then are we giving our money away to these distinctively average students? And worse than that why are we offering them the chance to live and work in Singapore after graduation? In fact the scholarship is conditional on the foreign student working at least six years in Singapore. Even the other foreign students have to work here for three years after graduation. If they are unable to find jobs they are given one year Long Term Visit Passes to allow them to remain in Singapore and look for work.

Requiring these foreign students to work in Singapore after graduation is actually deeply discriminatory against Singaporean males who have to do National Service. They thus have to compete with this influx of foreign graduates, both male and female, who do not have any NS obligations and have a two year head start over our men. During this two year period NS men are paid well below what they could earn in the market.

This forced labour at slave rates is a form of taxation that foreign workers, like these international students, who come here to work do not have to pay. Every time expats rave about Singapore’s low tax regime and how grateful they are to the PAP for allowing them to accumulate wealth, remember that you are directly paying for it through your forced labour!

In effect Singaporean men are directly paying the cost of subsidising foreign graduates to compete with them. Because of their lower costs and the fact that they cannot seek employment elsewhere these foreign graduates then are prepared to accept jobs at lower wages and this reduces the earnings and job prospects of Singaporeans who, if they can find work, are often forced to take jobs for which they are massively overqualified.

This is an absurd state of affairs. We have ended up with a system that looks rational from a corporate viewpoint but does not benefit and is no way to run a country. Because the PAP Government is the major employer it has a vested interest in cheap labour and it sees that this is the easiest way to achieve its goal. This bonded scholarship cynically arbitrages the fact that foreigners have a choice over where to work whereas Singaporean men are legally required to do NS and cannot pursue higher education till they complete it at which point they are less competitive in the labour market and it is more difficult for them to leave and seek better employment opportunities elsewhere.  Of course many still do. However the PAP is happy for them to go while it feels it can replace them with cheaper graduate labour from abroad, even if the quality of that labour is mediocre.

How can we end this? We can stop offering generous scholarships to mediocre foreign students and make any successor scheme much more selective. I would also want to see free university or poly education offered to all those who complete NS or serve in the armed forces similar to the GI Bill in the US. And NS should be drastically reduced from the current twenty-one months to under a year at most.

But we are unlikely to get any changes while the PAP Government sees Singaporeans as lacking in options and possessing no bargaining power, like the workforce of one of the global MNCs whose CEOs Lee Hsien Loong so loves to socialise with and benchmark his compensation against.

As I wrote in my last blog, you have only yourself to blame for this state of affairs by not standing up for your rights. The foreign scholarship programme is a perfect example of the way you are discriminated against and treated as second class by the PAP Government. The question is, are you prepared to do anything about it or will behave like turkeys voting for Christmas once again?



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