Archive for February, 2006

Scholar groomer or slave master?

‘Slaves’ they may be, but they certainly don’t come cheap.

Choice quotes:

“They were all my officers in Mindef, from the day they started work, they grew up with me. I can give you a long list of slaves,’ he chuckles. ‘So it’s not all my work per se, I leave a lot of these slaves behind who continue to work.”

At the end of the interview, he strides out briskly to keep his lunch appointment with a group of newly returned A*Star scholars – new slaves, he jokes. As they exchange greetings outside his office, he asks them: ‘Who built the Great Wall of China? Who built the Sphinx and the pyramids?’ Before they can reply, he chuckles: ‘Slaves! Slaves! So, remember, slaves are very important!’ ”

Philip Yeo gets interviewed by the Business Times.

Full text available at Wayne’s blog.

Edit (2 Mar): A reader of BT replied.

Published March 2, 2006

A lack of humility and graciousness

I REFER to the Philip Yeo interview (BT, Feb 25). Certainly, the learned civil servant has a lot to be proud of.

However, with all his qualities, he lacks humility and graciousness.

If only he had a modicum of humility, Mr Yeo would be a perfect human being.

Successful civil servants have no need to be inflated with conceit.

In the real world, with the brutal and cold-blooded cuts and thrusts, I’ve seen many Ivy League MBA-types biting the dust.

Without EQ, interpersonal skills and basic courtesy, in addition to the liking and respect of the masses, there is no guarantee that civil servants shooting off their mouths and operating from lofty heights can flourish.

May God have mercy on us if there’s more than one Philip Yeo; it’s just as well that he is ‘irreplaceable’.

Michael Loh Toon Seng,


February 27, 2006 at 5:38 pm 5 comments

Hymn to the Motherland

To the curious reader who asked:

There is a reason why I listed Hymn to Red October as my favorite music piece. I was humming that song in my head that day I left for my undergraduate studies. (Do I hear anyone say wtf???) There aren’t that many orchestral choir pieces that combine feelings of pride, excitement and sadness so succinctly in the first few minutes. Parts of the lyrics were very relevant too.

red october
Words and Music by Basil Poledouris
Russian Translation by Herman Sinitzen

Holodna hmoora.
>> Cold, hard, empty.
Eemruchnoh v’doosheh
>>Light that has left me,
Kak mohg znat ya shtoh tee oomriosh?
>>How could I know that you would die?

Do svidonia, byehreg rodnoy
>>Farewell again, our dear land.
Kak nam troodnag pridstahvit shtoh eto nyeh sohn.
>>So hard for us to imagine that it’s real, and not a dream.
Rodina, dom radnoy,
>>Motherland, native home,
Do svidonia Rodina.
>>Farewell, our Motherland.

Ay. Avepakhod, avepakhod, nass val nahmarskaya zhdyot nyehdazh dyotsyah.
>>Let’s go; the sea is waiting for us.
Nass zah vootmarskaya dah, ee preeboy!
>>The vastness of the sea is calling to us, and the tides!

Salute otsam ee nashem dedum
>>Hail to our fathers and forefathers.
Zahvietum eekh fsigdah vierney.
>>We are faithful to the covenant made with the past.
Tepierre nichtoh, nee astanoivit,
>>Now nothing can stop
Pabiedney shark, radnoy straney.
>>Our Motherland’s victorious march.

Tiy pliyvee, pliyvee bestrashna,
>>Sail on fearlessly,
Gordest say viernykh marieye.
>>Pride of the Northern Seas.
Revoluytziye nadezhdah sgoostk vierif sekh luydeye.
>>Hope of the Revolution, you are the burst of faith of the people.

the last two stanzas repeat a couple of times, then…

V’oktyabreh, v’oktyabreh,
>> In October, in October,
Rahpar tu ium miy nashe pabiediy.
>>We report our victories to you, our Revolution.
V’oktyabreh, v’oktyabreh,
Novie meeir fahli numnashy dehidiy.
>>And to the heritage left by you for us.

Spore night lights
We stopped the car while on the way to the airport, and took a pic similar to the one above.

On that cool August early morning, I felt like I was the Red October. Being pulled guided to the harbor entrance (airport) by the two parental tugboats, and the ropes were released at immigration. Then I watched them fade gradually as I made my way to the gate. Even back then, I knew it won’t be a short sojourn overseas.

Incidentally, the Red October in the movie defected to the US, but I guess you shouldn’t draw any parallels here to my real life, should you? 🙂

The soundtrack is available on Amazon.

February 24, 2006 at 1:45 pm 1 comment

Ties that bind

I like this piece by Colin Goh.

DEC 7 2003
Look at the big picture
By Colin Goh

I attended a party in Manhattan some time back, and got to talking with an Iranian woman.

When I told her I was from Singapore, she said she’d studied in the United States as a teen, and that one of her schoolmates was a Singaporean girl, but they’d lost touch when she returned home.

The Iranian woman was roughly my age, so I asked her what the name of her Singapore schoolmate was.

She seemed puzzled as to why I would even bother asking. After all, the odds of us – strangers from halfway across the world – having a friend in common must have been astronomical.

Six degrees of separation? More like three hundred and sixty. But she humoured me and told me anyway.

Her puzzlement turned to shock when I told her that her Singapore schoolmate had been my junior at university in England.

For her, the coincidence was like some creepy Twilight Zone experience. As a Singaporean, however, the connection was far from weird.

If your parents get posted to the US in circumstances where you get to attend an international school, you probably come from a certain strata of society.

And if you go home to Singapore, there’s an equal probability that your social status means you’ll go to junior college (JC).

Since only a small proportion of Singaporeans go to the relatively small number of JCs, I felt that as a former JC attendee of roughly the same age, there was a decent chance I might know this person.

Bullseye! (Or as my BMT platoon mates would put it, ‘Choon choon, char bee hoon!’)

My Iranian friend shook her head and uttered the thoroughly justified cliche, ‘Isn’t this a small world!’

And my response was, ‘Especially when you’re dealing with a small country!’

I suppose this bit of chance should have made me feel all warm and fuzzy: Two people from different countries suddenly finding something real in common. Cue Heal The World by Michael Jackson, and come on, children, let’s all hold hands.

Except I felt just as disturbed as if Jackson were holding my hand.

Singapore may be small, but not that small. That I could make such a swift personal connection only showed how small – and privileged – my educational cohort must have been.

My horror was compounded by a series of meetings with fellow expat Singaporeans thereafter, when the question consistently arose: ‘Which JC did you come from?’

Worse, certain JCs were more represented than others. (Go on, guess which ones. It’s not Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.)

Instead of being comforted by the proximity of the familiar, I felt claustrophobic; stifled by the predictability and homogeneity of encountering the same bunch of people over and over again, even several continents away.

There are some who’d say, get over it. It happens in every country, every society. There’s always a group of fortunate swine, and thank your lucky stars you’re in it and not out.

Maybe, but it would be a positivist error not to question why the status quo should not be challenged.

I think it’s a cause for concern if a particular group – in this case, globalised, cosmopolitan professionals – is held out as a model, and their members seem to be drawn from the usual bunch of suspects.

And it’s of even greater concern when forces seek to make this group even more exclusive.

I can’t help but wonder what it’ll be like in a few years, when JCs are differentiated even further by schemes like the Through Train Programme.

We’d like to believe that streaming benefits people by putting them in appropriate tracks, where they can be amongst others of similar ability. Yet, we’re always striving to be in a lane superior to the one we’re placed in.

Further, when did we stop valuing diversity and interacting with people of different talents, shortcomings and backgrounds?

It strikes me that in a world increasingly polarised by various fundamentalisms, to- lerance and open-mindedness are more important in our educational institutions than some mindless race to access some arbitrary elite.

It may be a small world and we may be a small country, but we need big ideas to stop the shrinkage.

Because, sometimes, the old school tie can also strangle us.

Related topics in this blog and elsewhere:

1. Pre-semester gathering
2. thank you mr. goh, for once again articulating things perfectly
3. Being an elite

Maybe that is how MOM sent out that email.

February 23, 2006 at 12:02 am 1 comment

Elite as elite does…;

Was spring-cleaning my mailbox when I saw this email from Aug 2004. The title was enough to make me cringe (again).

Subject: To the Internationally Talented Mobile Singaporeans

Hi folks

I am part of a study-team on how to present “Singapore as a Land of
Opportunity” to Internationally Talented Mobile Singaporeans. I
strongly believe you fit the profile of this elite group! Hence
would appreciate if you spare a few moments to help answer a few
questions, so that we can better understand your group 🙂

Rest assured that your identities will be keep confidential and your
responses will only help to be used for the purposes of this study

Would be most grateful for your responses — they might help us
change the way Singapore will be in the future!

Thanks loads!

Rosalind Khor
Research Analyst, Economics Unit
Manpower Planning and Policy Division
Ministry of Manpower
DID: 6317 1680

p.s. Please also feel free to forward to your internationally mobile
talented Singaporeans


“Singapore as a Land of Opportunity: the Internationally Talented
Mobile Singaporeans”

Your profile in brief
1. Age
2. Present Job
3. Academic Background

General questions:
– What does a Land of Opportunity mean to you?
– Do you see Singapore as a Land of Opportunity? How can we make
Singapore a Land of Opportunity?

Here are the questions for talented Singaporeans who are in

– Have you thought about working overseas?
– If so, what would make you want to work overseas?
– At which stage of your life would you make this decision?
– If not, what makes you want to live and work in Singapore?

If somehow we have opportunity to tap views of mobile Singaporeans
who are already overseas, we can ask the following questions:

– What makes you want to work overseas?
– When did you decide that you want to work overseas?
– What will make you want to come back to Singapore (to live and
work)? How can the government help in this process?
– When will you consider whether to come back to Singapore (to live
and work)?

Then I remember this post. Erm, does the Sg civil service do this every year? I was KIVing for a response later, but I guess I didn’t get around to writing it. I wonder if it had anything to do with then-PM (now SM) Goh’s speech in April 2001. Note the emphasis (for students overseas) on studying in top 10 universities; which is at best ambiguous, at worst offensive to those not in (their) list.

…I even met with our Education Minister when he visited Teachers College. Of the questions he asked me, two stood out: “When are you going back to Singapore?” and “When are you going to have babies?” It hit me that I had never spoken to the Minister when I was teaching in Singapore. I wondered: am I valuable to the country only after I leave? – Jocelyn Woo

Does anyone want to call up MOM to ask if a report based on the above questionnaire is out to the public already? Would appreciate if you can post links if you know about it. Thanks.

February 20, 2006 at 8:45 pm 8 comments

Of Scholarships (from Singapore to the US)

Pardon me for flogging this dead horse topic again. I always find it a pity that not many A level school leavers and poly graduands have any idea of getting funding for overseas studies other than from familial sources or the Sg-govt/govt linked ‘scholarships’.

While Kevin’s entry does provide a good overview of alternatives, the best site for those of you (Singapore-based applicants) interested in a US undergraduate education and concerned with money issues comes from the alma mater. Which ironically produces a sizable share of scholars for the Sg civil service (and related TLCs) annually.

When I see such comments: The scholarship is the only “tool” that one can take up to study overseas , I think this person has done his/her fellow peers a great disservice.

So I will say it again:

Want to study in a US college for your Bachelors degree without a Sg govt “scholarship” but worried about the exorbitant costs? Click here and here.

Study locally for one or two years then transfer overseas is also a possible route.

At the graduate level, your choices increase. So if you aren’t sure about signing on the dotted line for several prime years of your life, ASK AROUND first.

Charmaine, ex-ACJCian, wrote about her getting financial aid (May 11 entry) from Vassar.

February 19, 2006 at 12:35 pm 1 comment

Notable News on the (Singapore) Education Front

The national daily had a report on Higher Chinese, which I think is a good follow-up to this. The only two surprises I got from reading this article are the existence of “Higher Chinese” centres, and that of China nationals taking HCL for the choice in using their HCL grades to replace EL when computing scores for JC entry.

Feb 15, 2006
Perks a pull for Higher Chinese students
by Liaw Wy-Cin

TWO afternoons each week, 170 students from 17 schools make their way to Beatty Secondary in Toa Payoh North.

It is the fourth and newest centre for those keen to study Higher Chinese, but who cannot do so at their own schools because there are not enough students to form a class.

Three other such centres – Ang Mo Kio Secondary, Commonwealth Secondary and Ngee Ann Secondary – each attract 160 to 370 students for these classes, held outside of school hours.

Overall, the number taking Higher Chinese at secondary level has risen over the years. It is now offered at 68 secondary schools, up from 42 schools in 2002.

The Ministry of Education says 29 per cent of Secondary 1 Express and Special stream students doing Chinese as their mother tongue took Higher Chinese last year, up from 23 per cent in 2000.

Almost 40 students interviewed said they were interested in deepening their knowledge of Chinese language, history and culture, and, given China’s ascent, they appreciate the importance.

But many also point to perks that come with passing higher-level mother tongue – Malay and Tamil included.

Top of the list: Obtaining a grade of anywhere from A1 to C6 at O level brings two bonus points to the calculation of O-level scores, which are based on six subjects and which determine entry to junior college.

A student who scores A1 distinctions for all six subjects gets a perfect raw score of six points. Two bonus points from Higher Mother Tongue would lower that to four points.

Scoring the minimum passing grade, C6, also means never having to study mother tongue again. Those who fail, and all those who do the ordinary-level mother tongue must carry on with the language even at junior college.

For students who are weak in English, Higher Chinese offers another attraction: The mother tongue grade can replace English when calculating their O-level scores.

This last perk explains why there are so many China nationals enrolled at the four language centres.

Said China national Wang Liqin, 16, a Secondary 3 student at Admiralty Secondary in Woodlands, who attends Ang Mo Kio Secondary for Higher Chinese: ‘My English is poor, so I’m hoping to use Higher Chinese to replace English in tallying up my score, to help me get into JC.’

She is the younger of two daughters of hawkers from Fujian province. It is a different motivation for Charis Hao, 13, a Secondary 1 student from Bedok Town Secondary School who travels to Ngee Ann Secondary in Tampines for her Higher Chinese lessons. All she wants is an O-level pass that will put an end to her having to study the language.

‘I can then concentrate on my other more demanding JC subjects,’ said the only child of a hotel supervisor and kindergarten teacher, originally from Xian, China.

About 20 years ago, only the top 10 per cent of pupils leaving primary school could do higher-level Chinese – at a Special Assistance Plan school, or in the Special stream. Today, those in the top 11 to 30 per cent can also do so, provided they scored an A* in the PSLE in their mother tongue language, or at least a merit in Higher Mother Tongue.

In addition, anyone else who is keen can apply, and schools will decide through selection tests or interviews. Most of the Higher Chinese students interviewed were good in Chinese, having scored A or A* in the PSLE, and most had also done Higher
Chinese at Primary 6 and scored a Merit grade.

Lessons at the four Higher Chinese centres are free. Each session lasts two hours, with students in classes of 20 to 40. Lessons are categorised into themes like love and nature, and there are discussions on Chinese history, literature, culture, and current events.

Commonwealth Secondary’s subject head for Higher Chinese, Mr Ng Thian Lye, said two afternoons a week is not enough to master the subject. ‘Sometimes, the students also have remedial lessons at their own schools which clash with Higher Chinese lessons. So they end up missing Higher Chinese lessons,’ said Mr Ng, 42.

Commonwealth Secondary, in Jurong East, has been a Higher Chinese centre since 1997 and has 161 students from 24 schools this year. Ang Mo Kio Secondary, a Higher Chinese centre since 1995, has 372 students from 40 schools this year.

Its head of mother tongue languages, Mr Koh Chee Keong, says it is a pleasure to see the extra effort put in by students who come all the way to learn. Students can study the language in their own schools if there are at least 15 to 20 to form a Higher Chinese class. The trouble is, many schools do not have such a number competent
enough for the demands of going deeper into the language.

For now, the Education Ministry says, it is sufficient to have Higher Chinese taught at 68 secondary schools and the four centres. Although some readers of The Straits Times wrote to the Forum Page recently to complain about the bonus points policy for students who do higher mother tongue, the ministry has made it clear that the system
will stay. It concedes that offering incentives alone is not enough to motivate
students, but says the bonus points help to ‘encourage students and to recognise their achievements in the subject’.

Perks aside, some students say delving into the intricacies of the language remains the biggest draw. Bus driver’s son Kelvin Sim, 13, a Secondary 1 student at Tampines
Secondary who goes to the Ngee Ann centre for his Higher Chinese lessons, said: ‘It’s fun, it’s a privilege.’

China national Liu Jun Hua, 17, a Secondary 3 student who goes from Bedok Town Secondary to the Ngee Ann centre, waxed lyrical, saying: ‘It’s a beautiful language, like a picture we can look at, with every part of the word having its own meaning. Not every language can boast that.’

Elena Owyong, 19, who is waiting for her A-level results, remembers the days when she rushed to Commonwealth Secondary from her school, Jurong Secondary, and how tired she felt sometimes.

‘But I learnt a lot, so it was worth all the trouble,’ said Elena, who went on to do Higher Chinese at Nanyang JC.

With her command of the language and deeper understanding of the culture and heritage, she hopes to be a Chinese media journalist one day.


Huichieh‘s attempt to clear the fog on our tertiary education enrollment figures is laudable.

Interested readers might also want to have a quick look at the Ag MOE’s statement to parliament in 2004.

Several paragraphs stood out:

24. Mr Low Thia Kiang raised the issue of MTL requirements. The UAC’s reasons for recommending that MTL not be a mandatory components of university admission scores were sound. I have explained yesterday why the Government agreed to the changes and I will not go through that again. I have also explained MOE’s approach to ensuring that students take MTL seriously in the school system, and why we needed different strategies at the tertiary level. But in relation to Mr Low Thia Khiang’s question, I would emphasis also that it is important for the universities themselves to decide on the admission criteria. If the universities or any of their faculties were to decide that MTL is important for a particular course, they will make it a requirement. Indeed, some faculties at NUS and NTU already do so. We see this in the degree programmes for Communication Studies and Chinese Studies. What the UAC recommended, which we agreed to, is to stop mandating that every student counts his MTL grade as part of his admissions score for every course.


26. Mr Low also asked why General Paper should remain a requirement for university admission. I should first clarify that GP is not an English language paper as such. It seeks to develop students’ logical reasoning and analytical skills. It requires students to read more widely and take an active interest in current affairs. These are important attributes for university education. However, it is for our universities to decide if GP should remain relevant in future.

which should tie in nicely to Mr Wang’s post.


The third and last notable event on the local education scene for the past several days would be the announcement of fee hikes in the 3 universities. Expect more on the way, and on a higher frequency.

32. We should therefore review if undergraduates should bear a higher share of the cost of university education, as Dr Gan See Khem has argued. Our universities students are subsidised much more heavily than other students in the education system. They also earn more than poly and ITE graduates. Compare what each of them earns, with how much they are each subsidized during their education, and it is clearly out of sync. MOE will therefore review the cost-sharing formula and study carefully the proportion to be borne by the undergraduates.

I am not so sure about the part on “…also earn more than poly and ITE graduates.” With the exception of a few (professional) majors (like law, medicine etc etc), the starting wage differential of say a run-of-the-mill Arts/Sci grad (with no honors) and a polytechnic diploma holder in e.g. engineering is probably not significant (especially in the private sector). Remember, Singapore’s workers also face downward wage pressures with the influx of cheap foreign talents and the outsourcing of jobs to India and China and other developing countries.

I daresay, if you don’t have any interest in the course that you are given an offer in and the economic prospects aren’t that great, you are better off learning a trade (via the poly route). This, of course discounting the “intangible benefits like social status, vanity etc etc” that supposedly comes with being a degree holder. Already there are some who gave up places in the local Us and be gainfully employed based on their poly qualifications. Seems to me a harkback to the days when university students were the rich folks who could afford the time and money for gentlemen pursuits like “investigating the mysteries of nature” or “philosophizing over the hows and whys of this world”.

February 15, 2006 at 8:15 pm 4 comments

More Grad School Admissions Crap…on V-Day

So yesterday a group of us grad students in the department decided it was better to have a meal together at one’s place than to spend it alone working in the labs. See? We have life! Incidentally, everyone present was, erm East Asian. I don’t know why, although I think the main reason was that the building was mostly devoid of people by that time (around 5.30pm) except us.

V-Day Dinner 2006
Some of the dishes…See the big heart-shaped box of chocolates?

Somehow the dinner conversation drifted to our academic backgrounds. (What do you expect from a group of nerds???) Most had completed their undergrad degrees in their home countries, and people started sharing some (open) secrets about US grad school admissions for international students.

Many of the departments here have a list of ‘approved’ overseas universities from which they will consider the applicants favorably. Which immediately reminded me of this. (scroll towards the end of the post)

If you are applying as an international applicant (foreigners who did their undergrad in US universities are grouped together with the US applicants), the first thing the admissions committee looks at is the school you graduate from. If it is not on the list, the rest of your application will not be read, even if you did exceptionally well in your GREs and graduated top of your class. However, I do think there are exceptions. But such cases are extremely rare, if anecdotal evidence in this institution and 4 other engineering powerhouses are of any guide.

So the vast majority of successful Asian applicants (dominated by the top 3 countries below) hail from:

The IITs (7 of them)

北大, 清华, 浙大, 交大, 复旦

S Korea:
SNU, POSTECH, KAIST, Korea U, Yonsei

東大, 京大, 東工大, 東北大




Institut Teknologi Bandung

University of the Philippines

I didn’t know many of the above universities until I left Singapore for undergrad. I guess we were too Anglo-Saxon in our outlook when it comes to higher education.

From one of the FAQs on admissions (of a US university):

Q: I am an international student and I would like to apply for admission to the graduate program. Do my chances of being admitted differ from those who can establish permanent residency?

A: Admission to the graduate program in XXX at XXX University is highly competitive. Each year, we have almost 1000 applicants and can admit only a few. Therefore, your chances of being admitted are good only if you are at the top of your class and come from an exceptionally good school. The Graduate School at XXX University requires a minimum grade point average of 3.0/4.0 and a minimum score of 550 on the TOEFL.

While another school had this on record, in addition to the above:

The Department of XXX requires that applicants be able to demonstrate an A- or better undergraduate record.

At the other end of the scale, we have local universities having some kind of anti-Singaporean discrimination for admissions (albeit at the undergrad level). What is sad is that we are paying for them to come over; while on the US side, international undergrads are paying to go to study.

February 15, 2006 at 11:45 am 1 comment

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