Once Bonded, Reloaded

Just like Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, I penned my name on a legal document in 2000 that effectively willed 6 years of my life – after the mandatory military service and the sponsored US university education – to the Singapore Public Service.  The ‘golden ticket’ was like a dream come true – a chance for the eldest son of a very middle-class Singapore family to get away from the stuffy Singapore British-inspired education system.  In exchange for a 4-year all-expenses paid education in a top-class American engineering university, both my parents became my sureties; an act that would have made them liable for a staggering sum of S$472,000 in liquidated damages if I ever reneged on my scholarship contract.  Up till then, I had never heard about study loans or bursaries, or understood concepts such as ‘leverage’ or ‘opportunity cost’.

♦◊♦◊♦

It was towards the end of 1998 that I was informed by my teachers that I had not done well enough at the end of my first year at junior college to sit for 2 ‘S’ Papers at the 1999 GCE ‘A’ Level exams.  I appealed for the chance to sit for 2, but was only successful for 1.

Truth be told, I deserved it.  I could quote family issues and an over-commitment to my extra-curricular activities as reasons for my poor performance during the year-end Promotional exams, but deep in my heart I knew there were no excuses for failing to meet the mark.

In those days, overseas scholarships were deemed as the epitome of a Singapore student’s academic career.  Scarcity can be deceptively alluring; everyone, including me, wanted a shot at one.  At the same time, everyone believed only candidates with two ‘S’ Paper distinction holders (on top of a four straight A GCE ‘A’ Level result) would qualify to be considered.  As the ‘A’ Level exams drew close, all my classmates (which represented ~80% of the class) that were registered for two ‘S’ Papers at the ‘A’ Levels received invitations in their mailbox to apply for government scholarships.  For weeks, checking my mailbox became a daily routine, one that always ended in disappointment.  It would seem the elitist pressure-cooker Singapore education system had not deemed me to be worthy enough of an invite.

I refused to give up and took my crusade online, where I found the Singapore Inc. scholarship application forms available for download.  I printed, completed and mailed it at about the same time as every other double ‘S’ Paper candidate, and was pleasantly surprised and quietly triumphant when I made it through all 3 rounds of the grueling selection process.  The government’s generous offer was not missed by my ego, especially after witnessing many peers that I had considered superior to myself get drop by the process at each stage.  So quick was my acceptance of provisional scholarship offer in February of 2000, that I had to say “thanks but no thanks” to the Public Service Commission’s invitation for a second round interview when they called me up some weeks later.  I had naively thought that one government scholarship (or entity for that matter) was no different from another, and that it would not matter where I served as long as I was in government.  It would be many years later before I understood that not all scholars were ‘born’ equal.

♦◊♦◊♦

Unlike Yu-Mei, I never revisited my bond documents in the years that followed.  When I started work on August 1st, 2006, the thought of breaking my bond never crossed my mind.  I was eager to serve and repay the debt of honour that comes with being a government scholar.  I was, and still am grateful for the opportunities to learn at world-class universities, meet all sorts of people and see the world while I was at it.  Many Singaporeans like to say that their time in the army turned them from boys to men.  For me, it was my 4 years abroad in the US that really helped me mature into an adult.

Once I got past the honeymoon period and found my public service ‘sea legs’, I was better able to objectively evaluate the overall construct that I was a part of.  There’s really no denying the good that we public servants do – from the jobs created, foreign direct investments secured, progressive tax policies formulated, ever-increasing levels of value-add to our economy – the list goes on.  What I was more curious about was whether the construct also subscribed to the same set of Organisational Behaviour principles that I resonated with.  And so I kept my eyes and ears open, soaking up every nugget of information with an open mind, and in the process, despite the optimist in me, I was powerless to prevent myself from becoming jaded.  I observed unhealthy levels of groupthink and top-down decision making; bloated and risk-averse middle management that was also afflicted with delegation disease; managers who were keen to ‘do things the right way’ instead of ‘doing the right things’.  I admired the few good men that remained behind to hold the fort, but lamented the big chunk of talent that had since left the bureaucracy.  Most of those who are left behind have largely lost their fire.  You can see it in their eyes.

I have many friends who work in the ministries, who describe a vastly different work ethos and levels of derring-do with their ministry colleagues and superiors.  It would seem that the Public Service Commission has gotten something right there.  A case of agile and nimble ministries with an essentially flat organisational structure perhaps?  Or a fear of more severe reprisals from the Ministers themselves?  Whatever it is, I’m glad it works for them.  I just wish our statutory boards had more of those positive elements throughout the rank and file.

And so I kept my head down, working hard and learning from everything that came my way, while doing my best to keep my own fire alive.  I spent the following 3 years (1) promoting Singapore’s infocomm e-government expertise and solutions to counterpart government agencies of developing nations, (2) attracting and anchoring venture-backed start-ups to establish R&D operations in Singapore, (3) making equity investments in Singapore-based growth-stage infocomm enterprises and (4) formulating and designing industry development policies and incentive programmes.  I considered myself very lucky because I was able to serve my country without sacrificing my personal and career growth.  I reported to great bosses and worked in awesome teams.

Yet, in the end, I still made the decision to leave – before my 6 years was up.  November 27, 2009 marks my last day of public service after 3 years and 4 months.  I am terminating my bond, and have officially joined the ranks of “quitters”.

♦◊♦◊♦

One can always glean valuable insights by reading the speeches released by the various government agencies.  I was cued to an interesting one titled “Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars“, delivered by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Eddie Teo at the recent Singapore Seminar 2009 in London on October 31, 2009.  In his speech, he shared that in the period of 1999 – 2008, there were only 7 PSC scholars out of a total of 791 (0.88%) that had terminated their bonds without serving a single day in the Service.  The statistic was (presumably) to lend authenticity to PSC’s scholarship selection process’ ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, we still get upset with scholars who break their bond without serving even one day after they finish their studies.  They have wasted the PSC’s time and effort and used taxpayers’ money upfront for their selfish purpose. Even if there is no scholarship quota, there is an opportunity cost to every taxpayer dollar spent on scholars.

Interestingly, Mr. Teo had less figures to show for scholars who complete their bond and leave the bureaucracy.  I only hope the bureaucracy’s ire does not extend to this unmentioned group of ex-scholars that I now belong to.

There are also some scholars who finish their bond and leave for positive reasons. Some scholars move on because they want a change in career. Nothing wrong with that especially if they stay in Singapore or contribute to Singapore in other ways. Others want to care for their young children. As a family-friendly nation, we should applaud such a motive. A few get invited to tea and become politicians. Others go on to become successful entrepreneurs and managers in the corporate world. And if they stay in Singapore or work in Singapore firms overseas, they can still make a contribution to Singapore.

What of those who finish their bond and leave for less positive reasons? The topic is deftly avoided – handiwork of a masterful speech writer.  Does the second bolded statement also reflect the Singapore Government and our Ministers’ stance that Singaporeans who don’t stay in Singapore or don’t work in Singapore firms overseas can’t make a contribution to Singapore?  I sincerely hope our mandarins have not become this myopic.

♦◊♦◊♦

I caught up with a scholar friend over lunch one day, and the conversation topic naturally gravitated towards the state of affairs of the bureaucracy, and more specifically, my personal opinions about the challenges faced by the senior management and HR departments of our statutory boards in building an organisation that has a high ability to retain its talent, in order to achieve its full potential to implement policy decisions by our ministries.  His subsequent pragmatic reply came as no surprise:

It’s more realistic (for oneself) to work within the boundaries of the system, and be realistic about what one can control and change, while continually extending one’s sphere of influence.

I tried to tell him that while the above may be the perfect mentality to adopt in order to keep that personal ‘fire’ burning, it certainly doesn’t make what was going on within the construct acceptable.  I was concerned about the lack of urgency and conviction in resolving some of these issues, and reiterated my concern at the apparent pace (at least to me) at which our statutory boards were losing talent (both scholars and non-scholars).  His response is a classic example of one well-honed by the system to say a lot, without really saying anything at all.

Some people are better suited at playing the game than others.

I guess my departure meant I was not suited to the ‘game’.  Social engineering has trained a large cohort of cows who moo when they are told, yield milk when their udders are tugged and eat when they are set loose to graze.  Have we become a nation honed in the art of taking orders and following instructions, but faring poorly when crossing unchartered waters?  God bless Singapore!

♦◊♦◊♦

Whoever drew up the terms of these scholarships should be awarded a Public Administration Medal, for the excellent deterrence provided to the less patriotic amongst us who have lost the desire to repay their debts of honour to the nation.  All the perceived ills of the establishment would not have been sufficient to push me to take the red pill, thanks to the hefty 6-figure liquidated damages that still remain on my contract.

I chose to leave because I have been granted an extraordinary opportunity to change Singapore, and hopefully change the world much faster than I could ever have from within the bureaucracy, as an insignificant Grade-8 Assistant Manager – tiny really, in the overall scheme of government things.

With this post, I fulfill a promise to myself, to share my own story someday.  If you come across this, and are or once were a government scholar, I urge you to share your tale (good or bad) and track back to my post.  Our youths deserve to know what they are signing up for.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.