Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Since we're on the topic of scholarships...

I've been meaning to write about this some time back but didn't find the right opportunity. But since the issue of scholarships and politicians have come up lately, I thought that this is an opportune time. This is a story concerning a Bank Negara scholar, current UM VC Rafiah Salim and Anwar Irbahim. I'll reproduce this former BN scholar's blog post below and comment on the other side of it.

Monday, February 25, 2008
Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim My Hero

I actually wanted to write this ages ago. In fact this article should be written 12 years ago way back in 1996. I was 22 years old. A young ambitious chap who just graduated from Melbourne University in Australia.

I have to admit that I wasted most of my time there. Being a Bank Negara scholar, I took things for granted. Late nights out, jamming session, movies/videos (during that time VCD has not been invented :)took priority over my studies. I was totally wrong to underestimate the commitment required for an undergraduate course. Perhaps my excellent SPM results have somehow make me think I was smart enough to go thru university years. How wrong I was.

I can still recalled my first semester exam taken in autumn 1993. It was a Business Computing paper. The night before the exam, AC Milan came to town to play the Australia national team. Me and my college buddies decided that since we know so much about computers, perhaps some time off could be taken to witness the Italian job on football. To be honest, it was a grand occasion. The likes of Paulo Maldini commanding the left pitch was a sight to behold. We came back after supper and started to panic rushing thru the lecture notes and tutorial. I failed the exam miserably. It served me right. It was partially an eye opener (still tak sedar diri) for me since I was under contract to complete the degree with honours within the stipulated time (4 years in my case). I barely got thru the others (my highest mark was 60) and have to re-sit the Business Law exam. My first year was a total disaster, academically and personally.

I tried to buck-up and concentrate more on my studies in my 2nd and 3rd year although the distraction was sometime too hard to resist. Baillieu Library became my second home. In order for me to be accepted to continue the 4th year (Hons), I need to at least obtain an average of 75% throughout my 3 years as an undergraduate. The law of average was too cruel on me. My 1st year result brought down the average to 73%, just 2% short of the required grade. I went to see the Hons program co-ordinator and begged her mercy to accept me as the Hons candidate. Failure to be accepted in the Hons programme could cost me RM240,000 for breach of contract. She tried her best but I guess her best wasn't good enough (sounds familiar?). I tried to console myself by enjoying my Graduation Day. At least I've got a degree :)

December 1995. I came back for good from Australia. Ready to serve the Central Bank of Malaysia. But I was brought to reality when the then Assistant Governor, Rafiah Salim call all scholars to her office. When it came to my turn, she crunched my results and threw it to me saying, "With results like this, you are not good enough to work at the bank" I was totally embarrassed and devastated in front of my colleagues. She treated me like rubbish. Demanding me to pay RM240,000 for breach of contract. I actually offered myself to work at any post (guards included) as long I could serve my contractual obligation with the Bank. After all, I did have a degree, not a total disaster in my own opinion. Even some of my seniors didn't complete the Hons. year but were still accepted to work in the bank. But to her, I was public enemy number 1. The one who tarnished the prestigious image of the Central Bank. All my appeals went to deaf ears and they started to issue a demand letter for breach of contract. I will never forgive Rafiah Salim for what she did on me and my family.

My family was in disarray after knowing that I need to pay RM240k. How on earth can we earn that much? My father, being a hot tempered guy, always directed his anger towards Ibu. Pity my mum, I would say she's the most patient human being in the world, tolerating my father's antics without even raising her voice. We tried to seek help with this so-called helpful politician but to no avail. We even seeked the assistance from Datuk Salomon Selamat, my father's schoolmate, the then YDP SDARA, my very own alma mater.

He promised us that he'll do his best but whenever my father called him, he kept on giving the same answer and finally told us that he can't assist us after we were made to wait for more than 5 months. A true politician indeed! I have nothing personal against Datuk Salamon. Just disappointed with his know everybody attitude but in reality....? It would be completely fine if he told us that he can't help us during our very first meeting. But having to waste precious months like menunggu bulan jatuh ke riba is a bit to much for me.

In the mean time, I went to this job interview at a Bank Negara affiliate. If I'm not mistaken some kind hearted BNM's HR staff called me and ask me to go for the interview. Lucky enough I was accepted but my offer letter was withheld thanks to Rafiah Salim who convinced the Governor not to allow my contract to be transferred to BNM's affiliate.

I totally ran out of hope. My father drafted a last appeal letter addressed to Anwar Ibrahim of the Ministry of Finance. About 3 days after that, we received a call from his secretary En. Muhammad Ahmad, if I recalled correctly. He called to get a clearer picture on my case and say he'll recommend to Dato Sri Anwar to write to BNM's governor to appeal on my behalf. Having been toyed around by many politicians, I didn't put my hope that high and was prepared for another disappointment. Two days later, I received the news I've been waiting for 9 freaking months. BNM has agreed to transfer my contract and release me from any contractual obligation.

Anwar Ibrahim did it in 5 days. The others took almost 5 months before saying they can't do anything to help me. For that I owe him my sincerest gratitude. Forget about all the nasty things accused on him (I don't even care if all the accusations were true) Dato Sri Anwar Ibrahim is my savior. A true hero indeed. You'll surely get my vote of thanks.

First of all, from a cursory glance at this person's posts, I would say that he's a pretty intelligent and articulate guy who probably would have easily made the 75% needed for the honors program if he had not screwed up his first year. Even with his horrible 1st year results, he fell short only by 2% points.

Of course, I have no way of judging how difficult it is to achieve that 75% mark in the University of Melbourne which is one of the top 2 or three unis in Australia. The only basis for comparison I have is my brother in law whose average was something like 95% at the U of Sydney but since he topped his SAM program with an average of 99%, he's probably not a good basis for comparison. (No scholarship to Australia for him alas) My sense is that 75% is probably not that difficult achieve if one is reasonably intelligent and hardworking.

Secondly, I think that Rafiah was a little hard-assed in dealing with his case. Although he had a contractual obligation to get the Honors mark, I'm sure that he was not the first scholar at Bank Negara to do that and to get away with it. And like he mentioned in the post, many of his seniors, presumably also under a BN scholarship, didn't have honors degrees. It certainly seems that Rafiah was trying to make an example of him.

This story and some of the stories shared in the previous post on Saiful Bukhari made me wonder about how widespread these kinds of stories are. How many other Malaysian scholarship holders have gone abroad and basically partied their way through 3 or 4 years of university life without having to worry about their grades and such.

This guy at least made an attempt to buck up after his first year. I wonder how many others didn't care even after scoring badly in their first year because they thought they could somehow 'get away with it' because of the lax standards set back home in Malaysia.

Of course, sometimes, the sponsoring agencies can go overboard. For example, the Singaporeans here at Duke are expected to finish their degrees in 3 years rather than 4 (which means summer school most of the time they are here) and have to have a GPA of 3.8 and above which is not exactly easy to maintain at a place like Duke. But my sense is that Malaysian scholarship sponsoring agencies are still very far from setting such high standards.

I can't help but feel a bit pissed off when I read the above post. Even as I sympathized with the writer in his treatment by Rafiah, I can't help but to compare his situation to my own. I was lucky enough that my parents could afford to send me to LSE for my undergrad. Perhaps it was because of my Singapore 'training' and perhaps it was because I didn't want to waste my parent's hard earned money, I worked really hard for my first two years at LSE just so I could secure a 1st class honors. By the end of my 2nd year, I was more or less guaranteed of graduating with a 1st class honors (unless I were to fail all my subjects in my 3rd year). In a sense, I was in the opposite situation compared to the BN scholar above.

There were a few other Malaysian scholars who were studying economics in my year and only 1 of them managed to get a first class. (She would end up being my colleague later at BCG) The other scholars either graduated with a 2nd upper or a 2nd lower. My impression was that some of them didn't really work that hard or want to achieve the same kind of academic excellence I was searching for. (And it was not as if I was studying all the time. I was pretty active in ECAs, took time to travel around Europe and do all sorts of stuff) In my opinion, I though I was at least as deserving of a Malaysian scholarship as the other Malaysians under scholarship at LSE (if not more so) purely from the perspective of academic results. If my parents could not afford it, I probably couldn't have gone to LSE. And yet others whom I thought were perhaps less deserving could have easily gotten scholarships (and did!)

(I could tell you of other stories. About a friend who is one of the smartest people I know who went to UTexas because it was the cheapest option available to him and later got into the PhD program in physics at Caltech. Or about another friend who obtained 4As and 2 distinctions in two "S" or Special papers for his A levels and whose mom had to work for a few years in the Middle East to fund his studies at Cambridge)

I didn't know any politicians who could 'pull the right strings' for me back then. Perhaps I could have gotten some sort of government funding / scholarship if I did.

But even later on, when I knew many more politicians (remember I used to work for MCA and GERAKAN), I didn't rely on these contacts to get funding to come over to the US. Thankfully I received funding from Fulbright and from my university. If not, I probably wouldn't have come here. I didn't ask a political party to fund my application here. I didn't ask any MPs or Ministers to write me a recommendation letter even though I easily could have. Perhaps, I was naive in not using these contacts in a more astute manner in the same way that Saiful Bukhari and this writer did. But thankfully, this naivete did not harm my prospects.

These episodes only makes me wonder aloud - how many people in Malaysia have gotten scholarships because of who they know rather than based on academic criteria? And how many other deserving Malaysians have been left out because they didn't know the right people?


Shawn Tan said...

It's the oldest trick in the book. Make an example of one, and the rest will fall in line. Or so it goes.

To answer your questions at the end, we would require a means to measure "fairness" of a scholarship.

When I was an undergrad, I had a close friend, who was a PETRONAS scholar, who was not a straight A SPM student and had to struggle to maintain a 2.II result. Personally, I think that he deserved every bit of the scholarship because he was the first person in his whole extended family, to even finish high school, much less get a university degree, which got him a "proper" job.

So, if you ran an experiment and asked random people to judge whether or not a scholarship award was "fair", I think that you'd end up getting a whole range of answers, once all factors are taken into account. It all depends on how each of us were brought up and what values we place in importance. Personally, I would put academic excellence, last on my list of criteria as I don't think that good results is any indicator of future academic excellence.

Whether or not pulling cables is a negative thing, is also hard to say. We both know that it happens all the time in real life. So, why should scholarship awards be exempt from real life. It is hard to get anywhere without knowing the right people. This happens everywhere in the world, not just Malaysia. If a student can convince a busy DPM to take time out to help him, I would give him marks for "powers of persuasion".

So, my question to you would be: How would you define "deserving" Malaysian? If you can come up with a "fair" definition, then you can get the answer to your question. I personally, cannot.

Anonymous said...

How would you define "deserving" Malaysian?

Good question with a simple answer!

The foundation of scholarship award is meritocracy, PERIOD!

Scholarship should be awarded based on academic merits- no more no less. Skin colour should not be come into play!

Some of the Uni in USA do award scholarship to sport achievers with poor exam results, BUT then sport is also a form of academic subjects!

However, if U include the 'economic uplifting' like M'sia does then the process of scholarship HAS been abused.

U cannot 'uplift' someone who has not achieved the required levels of mental maturity.

A forced 'uplift' can only achieve the opposite result. Just like the unemployable graduates & the best of the worst scenario that m’sia is facing now.

This scene has been played out in many SF write-ups.

The convenient argument of rural/urban educational facilities to achieve good academic result is just a smoke screen.

There are always rural/urban in development dichotomy. But these differences are NOT due to race!

REMEMBER there are high achievers of many M'sian races coming out from the rural settings. The only question to ask - is why the Malay still a minority in this regard? Are those other M'sians of poor rural background better than the Malay of the same rural background, socially & economically? Or Are there something else amiss?

Granted we need to help the Malay to 'uplift', economically. But abusing the scholarship awards is definately not the solution.

If we didn't abuse these scholarships then M'sia will have a lot more high achievers of many fields to help in her nationhood development.

With a better nationhood, all the races can enjoy the developments together, whether rural or urban. Along the way, the Malay can also achieve the competitive maturity for economic uplifting by themselves. They don’t need know-whos, academic manipulation & twisted ‘ketuanan’ to stand on their own in facing competition.

Instead, we have lost a lot of them to our competitors due to the 'zero sum' game. Meanwhile M’sia as a whole is facing a lot of the false ‘benefits’ resulted from this legacy. And at the end of the day it is the Malay that is going to suffer the most due to the cosy pseudo-wellbeing that they have been fed to grow up with.

Study in Australia said...

Whew That was a nice read! :D Very interesting post...

david santos said...

Happy day!!!

Anonymous said...

who is deserving of a scholarship?

well ... that would depend on the scholarship's purpose. whether it's to attract 'gifted' students who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend an ivy league university(eg. harvard/princeton's generous financial aid packages) or whether it's for philantropic or social purposes, (eg. help a members of a disadvantaged group) or by certain private individuals who are interested to advance a particular field of study, etc. the list goes on ...

in short, scholarships are not and should NOT be awarded solely based on academic merit.

however, regardless of it's purpose, each scholarship should have a criteria ... now, IMO those given by private donors need not be transparent in their selection to the public. HOwever, it is utmost essential that government scholarships regardless of their purpose SHOULD be transparent - and the board that grants these scholarships should follow the criteria for accountability sake! need i say more ...

you didn't get a scholarship not because of naivety but probably because the push didn't come to shove. or because you're a decent human being with enough conscience to not exploit the system.

kudos to the bank negara scholar who exhausted every mean he had to get that scholarship. sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. where there's a will there's a way.

too bad for your friends who didn't get scholarships inspite of their brilliance. life isn't fair.

for those rich kids who obtained scholarships inspite of lousy grades ... just because they know ppl or are the son/daughter of datuk this or that, well - they are the scum of the country. no respect for the whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Rafeah Salim isnt that brilliant at all! She deserves to have her scholarship withdrawn too, but she forget that she is no better than the student!

This is called the Razali Agus syndrome!

Anonymous said...

anon 1215,

"in short, scholarships are not and should NOT be awarded solely based on academic merit."

Then what are the guiding criteria to award the scholarship? To what ends?

Imagine awarding a scholarship to someone whose IS NOT an achiever(?), but just to 'uplift' the his/her status quo surrounding conditions. Is that scholarship been abused?

If the intention is to 'uplift' the status quo surrounding factors then do them in a more charitable way. Provide counsellings, tuitions. living skills etc etc. Maybe also in some form of financial helps.

Giving scholarships to these people IS counter-productive to the noble aim of giving scholarship as the end result cannot be justifiable in the form of academic/job excellency. These people have no proven track records to show that they will excel in the chosen fields.

Scholarship should be given to those achievers who show academic potentials BUT lacking financial means to germinate that seeds of excellent.

By awarding scholarship to these later group of people then the chances of 'social' returns is greatly enhanced. This in turn will lead to the overall wellbeing of the nation, which the 'deprived' can also benefits.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Rafiah Salim was a rather mean-spirited, political iron lady. I was quite surprised to find that she was not very nice to her own kind. Moreover, it's not like she's doing that great a job as the VC of UM - giving excuses for every problem that occurs in UM is her forte; sweeping things under the carpet.

Scholarships and local university placements SHOULD be based on meritocracy. Being a non-Malay Bumiputera myself, I've seen the injustice and failure of this quota system. Giving a certain group of people scholarships or preferential treatment in university places, especially on high-demanding courses DOES NOT guarantee leverage in the social standing. Why give a dog a bone when it doesn't deserve it? It'll only make them apathetic towards striving for excellence, knowing that they'll always be taken care. But if they do deserve, then good for them.
However, having them to graduate at the near bottom of the class or drop out at the end of the day (for non-merit students who only got in by the grace of the system), is such a waste of space when there are many other deserving students who only couldn't get in because they didn't fulfill a certain quota, especially since places are limited.

People complain about Malaysia not producing enough graduates of high quality. In actual fact, we can produce high quality graduates. But let us take a look at this system shall we?
Reverting the teaching of Science and Mathematics to BM in the 70s was a bad enough decision and posed many problems at university level where English is the main medium of instruction. The least they could do now to fix the problem is give deserving students the place they deserved.

WY Kam 甘永元 said...

the question is: why we have to rely on politicians to get things done? to get justice and fairness? Where's principles and common sense?

If the BN fellas have common sense, they would have rejected all their scholars who didn't perform....otherwise, each case should be reviewed on case-by-case basis. why the difference in standards/treatment?

little napoleons suck

Anonymous said...

Let's imagine a 100m race. You have been training hard for 10 years to reach this ultimate race. When the race starts, you run your socks off and guess what - you were the first to reach the finishing tape.

But hang on, during the prize giving ceremony, the runner who won the prize is the one who came last. Why? Oh because he is of the 'right' race, according to the judges. And what's more, this runner gets a fully paid package to train in a foreign country with absolutely no requirements to do better than last position. Oh, and this runner actually owns a house in this foreign country, so the scholarship is basically party money for 4 years.




disappointed said...

What a corrupted Malaysia indeed...

People going to politicians to get a scholarship?? What the heck is this?? And that useless fella who was waived from the RM240k breach of contract just like that after Anwar did something about it.

Strangely, i was wondering why did our previous generations voted for BN all the way since independence.

Now only people start to realise about all this anomalies?

I'm glad that Malaysians (especially non bumis) have finally woken up from their sleep after all these years.

rajan r said...

I must say it may not be the most accurate comparison you made with your peers at LSE. You didn't suggest, merely implied, that the remaining Malaysians at LSE were playing away their three years in university.

Plus, it is quite unfair as economics can be a technical degree (even though most who enter it, me inclusive, saw it as a general one). Without my economics subjects, for example, I would be well within the magna cum laude range - and if I had more time to study for the non-economics subjects (I spend most of my time trying to prevent failing in my economics courses), I may even be in summa cum laude.

I would imagine it could be worse if I was in the British system, where I wouldn't be able to get away with doing more political science subjects than economics ones. I'm quite certain LSE's admission standards aren't lax at all, it could very well be the other Malaysians were just in the wrong degree.

Or, alternatively, it is a simple fact of life: not everyone can get a first-class honours; otherwise the distinction would be all too useless.

rajan r said...

As for the original writer, I don't think what Rafiah Salim did was well within the scope of contract law. I don't really think the term requiring a honours degree is a condition of the contract, merely a warranty. After all, entry into honours in Australia is competitive, unlike direct honours in most of the Commonwealth.

If Bank Negara found it extremely important that he has honours, the very least, allow him to finish his honours in a different Australian university on his dole, without cancelling the contract.

But I don't think it was especially important: if a Bank Negara affiliate saw the candidate good enough to work for them, I don't see what's the problem that all RM240k must be paid back. In fact, considering he failed subjects in his first year, and did pretty badly (I assume) in his other subjects that year, the fact he graduated at 73% showed that he did pretty damn good in his last two years.

Bank Negara is well within its rights to claim breach of contract and demand restitution, but I don't think it is fair, or even legal, for it to demand the entire contract to be repaid in full.

Furthermore, if it is true what the letter writer said that there are other scholars in Bank Negara who failed to get honours, it would be particularly hard for Bank Negara to claim this particular term was a condition.

Anonymous said...

An intresting blog. Written by a NUS law student..

Anonymous said...

When I was reading the letter, I couldn't help but to feel that the author's attitude was one of blaming others (namely Rafiah Salim and the politician) rather than himself.

He did, after all, sign the contract knowing full well his obligations and the consequences of not meeting those obligations.

Yes, I agree BNM should have allowed him to take on the job at the BNM affiliate when he got the offer and Rafiah Salim should not have singled him out to make a case of (if indeed that was really the case).

However, I don't agree BNM or the politician had to "cut him some slack", and if they did, it would be an act of compassion (or even charity) and not obligation. It doesn't seem the author understands that.

I'm not blaming the author however. He is only typical of many of his peers. Many of our government scholar are not of sufficiently high standard, in terms of both attitude and academics. And of course, we all know it's the lack of meritocracy to blame. Our current system has led "some people " to EXPECT government handouts and when they are unable to live up to their part of the bargain, are unwilling to take full responsibility.

I'm not saying this to put down the author in any way. He is after all, the product of our failed system. I'm saying what I'm saying because I do feel for our country and where it is heading to.

Me said...

Your experience in LSE sounds so familiar. My brother (self-sponsored) studied engineering in an NZ university and graduated near the top of his class. Of the JPA scholars in his batch, only one made the Dean's List.

It didn't just happen in engineering. The story of JPA scholars with mediocre/failing results is common enough in NZ. I personally know a medical student who failed and actuarial science students (in Australia) who struggle.

Another student failed to get into 2nd year medicine (despite much lower entry requirements for overseas govt scholars - think 70% average compared to 90%). In NZ, students have to do 1st year health science to compete for a place in 2nd year medicine. He's now doing pharmacy (again on much lower entry requirements) and even seems pleased about it. The logic being a bond for pharmacy is much shorter than medicine since they spend fewer years abroad. What logic is there in this? If he failed to get into medicine, his scholarship should be revoked and he be sent home. He should not be allowed to convert it to another degree (if he couldn't get into pharmacy, he'd have gone on to do any science degree that he qualified for).

And these are the so-called cream of the crop.

Anonymous said...

In general, scholarship are based on merits ie. your ability to attend university is based on merit not on your ability to pay.

From a social perceptive, the lower income segment of society is likely to achieve a lower grade in academic even though their IQ is on par with the richer segment of society. This is basically, a question of resources and opportunities. The higher the income, the better the resources and hence, better academic results.

To help improve social mobility among the poorer families, scholarship can be tailored to target this segment. We are familar with affirmative actions based on ethnicity, alas with poor implementation. The authority can implement similar concepts based on needs too if they have the will, minus their self interest in nepotism and corruption.

Sadly, in Bolehland, implementation without corruption is impossible.

casper said...

Obviously, there are different definition of academic meritocracy, for one, potential should be taken into account. This applies in all walk of life - would an employer hire a Cambridge first class holder with an attitude problem (and hence limit his potential) or a UM chap with good inter personal skills, well round, brillaint in the thing he is to be asked to do (but not necessary in all subjects) good attitude, willing to learn ?

Much like fund managers, it is not what your track record that counts, it is what you can do TOMORROW that counts. LTCM guys all fell into disrepute after ONE single giant failure despite their impressive track records.

For a BNM scholar, I would think as long as he is really good in economic/finance subjects and does well through the probation period, BNM should hire him. Why waste the RM240k and a talent.

Anon above is correct - damages claimed in a contract has to be in relation to actual loss suffered and not in the form of penalty. Penalty clause are not enforcible in most cases. So, if he is still good for some BNM function etc, a smart and fair court would not uphold the silly Rafiah's threat.

Anonymous said...

From a perspective of a former administrator of a sponsoring body:

a) The BNM grad mentioned actually managed to improve after his disastrous first year. The key part in maintaining talent is continuous monitoring, so for BNM to suddenly decide the breach of contract 2 years after the underperformance occurred is Stupid. If BNM was genuine, the termination would have been done at the end of the first year, then the family wouldn't have been burdened with RM240k debt, and the scholar would have learned a somewhat expensive life lesson.
b) It's understandable that the BNM scholar would appeal. People driven to desperation would sacrifice anything. Integrity usually is the first to go.
c) As much as I believe in meritocracy, the powers that be have more than once twisted our arms to accept their non-deserving children as our scholars. To disobey a direct order of your superiors would mean...
d) Even if students are academically excellent, the personality may not match with the company culture, and to retain these scholars would be an issue.

Anyway, I could go on and on about what I've learnt about scholarship selection and management...

tzarina said...

There should be several classes of scholarships.

1. Scholarships for the best among the best, based on meritocracy.

2. Scholarships for the best among the middle class (i.e household income less than RM 2000 - RM3000)

3. Scholarships for the best among the run down poor (i.e household income less than RM 2000).

Each of the above type scholarships should be given at the federal, state, organizational (including NGOs, educational bodies, governmental departments, private companies, religious, gender-based and race-based bodies).

There. Isn't that simple enough?

Anonymous said...

happy days

Anonymous said...

I knew of a classmate who only achieved average SPM results(5-6As) and he was given a petronas scholarship to study medicine in sheffield. I presumed there is no bond given that Petronas has no healthcare division as far as I know. Why did he get it? His father works for Petronas.