What would former EDB Chairman Philip Yeo say to FT bond-breakers now?

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By: 永久浪客/Forever Vagabond

In 1998, then EDB Chairman Philip Yeo decided to name publicly the holders of government scholarships who broke their bonds so as to shame them. He said that Singapore government scholars had a moral obligation to serve their country. He wanted to name and shame the bond breakers as a deterrence.

This created a controversy generating public debates on whether those who received scholarship have a moral obligation to serve, or whether the scholarship is merely a contractual agreement which could be broken in return for the stated penalties.

The debate culminated when MP Chng Hee Kok questioned Yeo’s decision. Philip Yeo responded by calling for Mr Chng to resign as MP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Yeo). This led to even more unhappiness at the audacity of a civil servant talking down to an elected Member of Parliament.

What followed was DPM Lee Hsien Loong came out to back Philip Yeo in shaming the bond breakers. Then DPM Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that a scholarship holder who fails to return to serve his bond has used public funds merely to serve his personal ends.

Mr Lee said (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/speeches/view-html?filename=1998031201.htm), “The cost of an overseas scholarship is high – about $250,000 per scholar. There must be an accountability to the public for such a large investment in a single individual. A scholar who fails to return to serve his bond has used public funds merely to serve his personal ends. He has thwarted the state’s purpose in investing in his abilities. More reprehensible, he has deprived another student of the opportunity of studying at an outstanding university, who would have made more contribution to his sponsor and to Singapore.”

“Apart from the legal obligation, scholarships also carry a moral responsibility… So when a scholar breaks a bond, it is not just a matter of contracts and liquidated damages. It involves deeper issues of right and wrong, moral integrity, a sense of shame at breaking a solemn personal undertaking. It is not just a legal, but also a moral obligation,” he added.

“Without the moral sense of duty to family, friends and society, no society can thrive. No army can win battles if every soldier only does his minimum duty. It is the altruism and heroism of outstanding leaders and soldiers, from the commander in chief down to the private soldier, which differentiates the victors from the vanquished.”

And indeed, subsequently a number of Singaporean scholars were shamed publicly in the media for breaking their bonds, for the above reasons as outlined by Mr Lee. This is in spite of the scholars paying for the liquidated damages.

AGO found FT scholars break bond with MOE not doing anything

On Tuesday (26 Jul), AGO released its 2016 report revealing lapses in MOE over the administration of scholarships. AGO found that NUS, NTU and MOE did not maintain adequate oversight over scholarship recipients who failed to serve their bonds. These are students who have studied at NUS and NTU.

“Without proper oversight of the monitoring and enforcement actions on fulfillment of the scholarship bonds, there was no assurance that the scholarship grants were used optimally for the intended purpose,” said AGO.

AGO did not say who these students were in its report but in an ST report, ST identified that these are in fact, foreign students who were given Singapore scholarship (http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/lapses-in-enforcing-scholarship-bonds).

ST reported, “The Ministry of Education (MOE) did not do enough to ensure that foreign students who received scholarships but failed to serve their bonds were reminded of their obligations and paid up liquidated damages.”

In the financial year 2014/2015, some $40 million was disbursed to the scholarship schemes for foreign students, AGO noted.

AGO checked that in 30 cases of foreign scholars who chose not to serve their required bonds, the universities did not do anything about it for almost half or 14 cases. They did not send letters to remind the foreign students of their obligations, or impose liquidated damages in cases which warranted it.

In any case, most of these students would have already left Singapore and it’s not known if the universities or MOE would be able to contact them.

It’s strange that the government earnestly went about pursuing and shaming the Singaporean scholars when they chose to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign ones. Don’t the foreign scholars have a moral obligation to complete their bonds too?

To make matter worse, many of these foreign scholars simply decided to leave Singapore after graduation without paying any damages, let along serving their bond (http://www.chinanews.com/lxsh/2012/01-10/3593069.shtml).

Still MOE did not bother to contact them in cases highlighted by AGO.

“My greatest fear now is that the Government is terrified of the people”

Philip Yeo’s stance in shaming scholars who break bond appears to come from his belief that it is better to have an authoritarian government to run Singapore.

After 2011 GE when the PAP government lost a GRC, Philip Yeo told the media in an interview, “After the last elections, the ruling People’s Action Party realises that it’s no longer infallible. My greatest fear now is that the Government is terrified of the people. You cannot have a system where the people are pampered.”

In other words, he would rather have a system where the people are terrified of the government.

“The (authoritarian) intentions have always been good but we forget that some people were hurt along the way. We need to work with our heads and our hearts. The key is not to swing totally the other way,” he added.

At the interview, he also reiterated his stance to name and shame Singaporean bond-breakers. He said, “That’s why I say bond-breakers squander the people’s money. You break your bond, you break the future of someone else who was on the reserve list.”

However he was quick to defend giving scholarships to foreigners. He said, “Many were given secondary scholarships at age 15. They grew up here. Many became new Singaporeans. They have become indistinguishable from his Singaporean scholars.”

Still, from the AGO report, one can see that a number of foreign scholars have decided to break bond to go home, not even willing to pay a cent of liquidated damages. Nothing was said about these foreign scholars serving their own personal ends.