Tribolum.com Making Light of Things

Bond Free

What I am about to write somewhat pertains to education, so the standard disclaimer applies: this is solely my view and not that of my employer’s, you know the drill.

The Singapore papers reported recently that Singaporean students were turning away from scholarships that came attached with conditions (in this case being in the employ of the sponsor for a specified number of years) and choosing instead scholarships that came without those conditions.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

In the Straits Times online forums, 2 responses were published:

  1. Mr Jason Chiam who wrote that “scholars have a moral obligation to the sponsoring organisation” and;
  2. Ms Corinne Hoo who feels disappointed that “today’s youth have little capacity for resilience and perseverance

In 2000 I enrolled in the University of Arizona. I did not apply for a scholarship of any kind, but they offered me a bond-free scholarship via an email. I replied to ask if there were any conditions attached, specifically a bond of employment. While the details were that I had to maintain certain grades in order to keep the scholarship money going for the whole duration of undergraduate study, there was no bond of any kind. They wrote back, saying they were giving me the scholarship because they believed I could contribute to society after graduation. Not American society. Humankind.

I flew back the moment my undergraduate studies were completed. I made a promise to a girl in Singapore and I did not want to keep her waiting. So I left America and the University of Arizona. I left the people who provided me the most fulfilling phase of my formal education. Even today my heart feels the weight of gratitude towards the university, the country of America and her people. Maybe that is the “moral obligation” Mr Jason Chiam speaks of. Maybe he would consider me an ingrate for returning so soon, but Arizona has never solicited a single cent from me, nor has she made me feel guilty for the unpaid debt.

I decided to pay it forward, hoping to apply myself in the improvement of my home country. As many of you know, I now work for the Ministry of Education, helping her communicate in the increasingly complex spectrum of online media parents and students use today. I have endeavoured to go the extra mile, often engaging in efforts to improve the online communications of the Singapore Government as a whole. This is me paying it forward. Not out of moral obligation or for a fixed term stipulated on a piece of paper. I am driven by the faith shown in me by an organisation and a people not at all related to me.

Jason and Corrine are probably right to point out that some scholars feel entitled to a free education free of responsibility and obligation. But we need to bear in mind that it is a cultural problem not solved by the chains of forced labour.

Scholarships and bonds (I’ll use the term to describe the conditional scholarships) are totally different in nature. The former is crafted with hope and in good faith, the latter carved in the hard letter of the law. The first is a gift, the second a contract.

That our students no longer feel beholden when presented a gift of good faith is a failure on our part. We have not taught them gratitude. We haven’t given them many opportunities to learn. Our purely pragmatic perspective of the world doesn’t allow us to give without expecting anything in return. Our bonds are carefully calculated and embedded with repayment clauses to reduce risk because we view these top students as human capital, not humans. After years of conditioning, many of our children have forgotten the beat of their own heart.

It is all business, and they take what they can.

Moral responsibility isn’t a bond. Perseverance isn’t gritting one’s teeth while in chains. The claustrophobia of being bound to words on a page, signed while barely adolescent, destroys the human spirit. The display of the intrinsic good, human to human, just as the folks of Arizona showed me, will live in me all my life.

That is my bond. And I serve it gladly.