Sunday, June 08, 2008

JPA Scholarships - Beyond Racial Quotas

As promised, part 2.

JPA scholarships - beyond racial quotas
Ong Kian Ming and Oon Yeoh | Jun 7, 08 11:44am

Previously, we discussed the political implications of the change in the racial quota for the JPA overseas scholarship allocation. In this article, we want to bring up certain weaknesses in regards to this scholarship which many politicians and NGO representatives do not bring up when supporting or criticizing the latest policy change.

These weaknesses cut across racial lines which should tell us that often, we have to take off our racial lens and look beyond them in discussing issues of this nature.

JPA offers two types of scholarships. They offer approximately 2,000 overseas scholarships and 10,000 local scholarships. The overseas scholarship is obviously the more prestigious scholarship and garners most of the public press and dissatisfaction.

Most of the public is unaware of the cost of the overseas scholarships. A conservative estimate is that one overseas scholarship costs roughly RM200,000. A degree in a university in London or in a top private university in the US would cost more, perhaps between RM300,000 to RM400,000. Using the lower and more conservative estimate, one cohort of JPA scholars would cost the taxpayers roughly RM400 million. While this pales in comparison to the billions of ringgit spent on oil subsidies, it is still no laughing matter.

So if Umno Youth proposes an increase in the number of overseas scholarships from 2000 to 3000, we are talking about an additional allocation of RM200 million, not an insignificant amount.

In addition, the public is probably unaware of the fact that the return on investment, so to speak, from the JPA overseas scholarship is almost non-existent. Almost ALL overseas JPA scholars do not end up working for the JPA or the government. Many of them choose to stay overseas. Those who come back to Malaysia often end up working for the private sector which provides better pay, working conditions and promotion prospects. (Those who are sponsored to do medicine may be the only exception)

Furthermore, almost ALL of these scholars who break their JPA bonds do not pay a single cent back. It is a standing joke among some JPA scholars that when they go back home, they notify JPA that they are back, submit an application form to the JPA and then wait for them to ‘lose’ these forms and release these scholars from their JPA obligations.

In other words, these scholarships are given away, more or less, for FREE to these scholars.

No structure

One may ask – why doesn’t the JPA ask these scholars to work for them or to work for another government department or ministry? The sad fact of the matter is that there is currently no structure within the public service that can fully utilize the skills and smarts of JPA scholars. Unlike the Singapore PSC, the equivalent to the JPA, scholars are not rotated and fast tracked within the different ministries that they might be allocated to.

rais yatim akademi seni convocation 211206 students In addition, there is probably very little appetite among some in the public service who do not want to see smart and capable JPA scholars coming in to ‘shake things up’ and possibly outshine them. Hence the current ‘close one eye’ policy of not forcing these scholars to work for the government or to ask them to pay the bond back in any form or fashion. Again, breaking the JPA bond cuts across racial lines which is not surprising given the current state of our policies.

Can Malaysia really afford this kind of policy? Even Singapore, by far a richer country than Malaysia, is not so generous in giving out scholarships to its citizens without having them to work for it or to pay it back. The Singapore government is infamous for chasing down bond breakers and forcing them to pay back the value of their scholarships, often at punitive interest rates.

There is a school of thought which says that the social benefits of sponsoring these scholars to go abroad and then releasing them to work for the private sector is more beneficial to the country compared to forcing them to work for the government. This argument is flawed in many ways.

Firstly, it ignores the fact that many JPA scholars do not even come back to work in Malaysia. Given that JPA does not release figures of where these JPA scholars end up working (one doubts if they even know), we cannot even be sure of the percentage of scholars who come back to work in Malaysia.

Secondly, it assumes that these scholars would not have been able to obtain other scholarships either from Malaysia or from overseas if the JPA scholarship did not exist. There are many other organisations in Malaysia which provides overseas scholarships such as Bank Negara, Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga, just to name a few. Some, especially Petronas, have much better track records of keeping their scholars or asking those who break their bonds to pay it back.

Thirdly, it assumes that the social benefits accruing from these scholars going overseas to study is somehow higher than if they had remained in Malaysia and did their degree in a public university. This is hard to justify since a smart and motivated citizen would be able to contribute to society whether he or she studies abroad or at home. In fact, one can make the argument that the social benefit of a scholar staying at home would be greater than going overseas since this would increase the overall quality of students in our public universities.

Look beyond racial quota

The social benefits argument clearly does not hold water.

Some of the other criticisms of this policy change also fail to look beyond the racial quota. An example of this is the statement made by ABIM addressing its concern over this policy change on the grounds that the poverty level among Malays is higher than the other communities and indirectly arguing that Malays should be given the larger share of these scholarships.

students protest campus election suhakam 240807 playcardWhat these critics conveniently ignore is the distribution of these scholarships among the Malays. In most countries where affirmative action is practiced, it is usually the middle and upper middle class of the targeted community that benefits from these policies. This is certainly the case in the US where minority students (Black and Hispanic) who are in the top universities come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. We would not be surprised if the same is found in the Malaysian context – that the JPA scholars, including the Malays, come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. Hence the argument that the previous racial quota should be maintained on the grounds of helping poor Malays is not a sound one.

It is a little saddening that ABIM, a well respected Muslim NGO, would want to deal with this issue that does not directly deal with the issue of Islam. Even from the perspective of justice, it seems that they like other Malay organizations, only care about the issue when changes in racial quotas are involved and totally ignore the distributional impact of policies within the Malay community.

Such arguments also ignore another related change in the JPA policy which is to automatically provide a scholarship to those with 10A1s and above and whose families earn less than RM1,500 a month, regardless of race. Surely such a means tested policy is more just than a blind racial quota from a progressive and an Islamic perspective.

More information is always better than less especially for those interested in researching this area. If the JPA were to collect and then release relevant data on the allocation of these scholarships – race, SPM results, family income, university, whether they return to Malaysia, where they end up working, etc… - then perhaps some of the doubts surrounding the JPA scholarship could be quelled. More importantly, it could guide us towards making better policies in regards to the JPA scholarship.

To summarize, there are more important issues surrounding the JPA scholarship other than the racial quota. Most important is the fact that the returns on investment from these scholarships is almost non-existent since these scholars don’t return to work for the government (if they do come back at all) nor do they pay back their bonds. Given the high cost associated with these scholarships, this situation is not tenable in the long run.


Anonymous said...

I managed to glance through the article and it's heartening to see the Government have now reviewed the policies that seem to favor meritocracy as opposed to race.

The logic is simple, give overseas scholarships (more prestigious ones) to the bright and gifted regardless of race. As for the local university scholarships, there would be a set allocation given to the lower income people with mediocre results. This would certainly promote a progressive culture but at the same time have pragmatic policies to provide education to the lower income groups to improve.

Anonymous said...

Knowing past records of the performance of UNMO and BN, I would not be surprised if there is some shrewd move or politics behind this shift in giving scholarships.

My advice to the NON BUMI, make hay while the sun shines, you might never know that the scholarship holders might be recalled back in view of economics and asked to reregister at local institutions such as MMU, UTN, UNISEL, AIMST, UTAR or UTP

Anonymous said...

Never trust what the government's new moves or initiatives. It will always benefit the politicians in the end. It would be wise for gifted students and those deserving ones not to look to PSD for scholarships or sponsorships. IT would be far better for them to be able to get the grants from the overseas universities that they are seeking education at.

There are more ways of getting the necessary grants if one look out of Malaysia (no point looking for help from the GLCs too).

Anonymous said...

If they really want to be fair just scrap the MATRIKULASI and everyone do STPM

As long matrikulasi is there will be discrimination.......

Anonymous said...

Alamak, the whole system needs a revamp! Where to start?

We all know the system is not meritocratic, but we can live with it IF at least we know our sacrifices are for the good of the country - ie money and resources are well-spent in true affirmative action policies, so that we together as a nation can move forward and benefit.

But mismanagement of the country's resources, whether deliberate for personal gains or unintentional due to incompetence, is very difficult to swallow.

And this is what we are talking about. Investing our money in scholars with no assured returns. Whether the scholars are bumi or not makes little difference. They must all come back and serve the country. Simple as that.

JPA scholars must absolutely be bonded - this is a government scholarship. And there must be enforcement for those who renege. Simple as that.

While on the subject, the same thing applies to those on study loans and do not repay - shame on them. Why have the country's moral fabric deteriorated to such a state? It's both sad and outrageous.

xenobiologista said...

The fines for breaking scholarship bonds need to be increased drastically. I don't know what they stand at, but I'm sure that a bright graduate working in the USA or UK could earn enough to pay it off quickly.

About the racial quotas - the argument that "poor bumis > poor non-bumis therefore bumi scholarships should > non-bumi scholarships" fails for the reasons you wrote, that allocating scholarships by race results in rich kids who happen to be of that race getting scholarships, rather than the poor kids the funds were intended for.

If the Barisan government really wants to improve the education of rural and urban poor bumiputeras, the quotas should be set by PARENTS' INCOME, not race. Since "bumis > non-bumis" and "percentage of poor bumis > percentage of poor non-bumis", setting income bracket quotas will result in more scholarships going to bumiputera students anyway, and it will ensure that the kids of rich parents don't take unfair advantage of their better primary and secondary education to sapu all the scholarships.

The situation in the USA is slightly different because black and Latino people are ethnic minorities, so even if scholarship recipients tend to come from middle and upper-class families, there are still fewer rich kids in those ethnic groups to suck up all the scholarships.

The author declares no competing interests. (I got turned down by the JPA for undergrad and Biasiswa Agong for grad school =)

Nehemiah said...

A lot has been said about the distribution of JPA scholarships, and rightly so. I personally would say that among my circle of friends, none of us have any real complaints.

What I've very rarely read about is the quality of education that the scholarship entails. The common thought is that the scholarship is prestigious because it gets you overseas; a cradle to grave scholarship so to speak.

Presumably, the quality of undergraduate education wouldn't be a problem because the students get sent overseas. Pre-university education, however, is questionable. From what I notice, generally scholars get sent to either INTEC or some other branch of UiTM, while the lucky ones get sent to Taylors, KTJ, KYUEM and the like.

If you read comments on, you get a laughable image of how propaganda is shoved down the throats of scholars, of how students are treated like children rather than people about to be sent alone overseas.

Seriously, when security guards are bothered more about what you wear than about actual security, don't you think there is a problem. I do not question the academic value of education at INTEC, I just question everything else.

The bottom line though is the JPA scholarship is still one of the best ones available, purely because of the sheer quantity of scholarships offered. However, instead of just talking about the distribution, I believe the education that is dished out deserves some attention too.

On a side note, it is funny to notice quite a number of non-JPA scholars from Malaysia getting into top universities around the world with scholarships from the universities themselves. :)

Anonymous said...

I am one of the JPA scholars currently undergoing my final year of engineering in UKM.

I'm here to represent many of the non-bumis to say that we do NOT want to be bonded to the government.

Spending money for scholarship should never be viewed as wastage, especially if the scholarships are awarded based on merits.

Let's face it. We all know that people are still not convinced to work with the government because of the supposed lack of promotion and competition in their workplace.

If the government wants the people to work under them, they have to create a reputable workforce so that we can be proud working with the government.
But so far I still don't see any reason to choose to work with the government if we have the better alternative which is the private sector.