A story to warm your heart

We conducted our first house visit yesterday since the release of the EBRC report. As usual, it was a tiring affair, going door to door. People were noticeably more interested to engage with us now that the report is out. They were curious if we will be the ones that will contest in their constituency. As usual, we tried to cover as many houses as we could given that GE is imminent.

At this house, a lady in her mid 40s, Miss J, came to the door. We introduced ourselves. She opened the door and invited us in. Usually, we would just converse with residents at the door. This time, I saw an old lady sitting on a sofa gazing at us. Something made me want to go in and talk to the old lady, so we accepted the invitation to enter.

She was highly advanced in age, body deeply bent and her legs looked like they were too weak to support her. I spotted a wheelchair nearby, presumably used to transport her around the house and outside. Miss J went in to the kitchen to make drinks for us. It was extremely difficult making any conversation with the old lady. We used a mix of Chinese and Hokkien. Sometimes she seemed to understand, sometimes she would say something unintelligible to us. If not, she would gaze at us or at the television.

Miss J came out with the drinks and explained that her mother, aged 87, has dementia. It became very severe two years ago, so she quit her job to become a full-time caretaker. She said that her mother would get confused easily. Sometimes, she would think that Miss J was her daughter, sometimes her ah-ma, sometimes a maid, etc. At times, she seemed to understand and apologised to Miss J for causing her not to be able to work because of her poor health.

I told Miss J that she is very filial and that it must be really difficult for her to play the role of the sole caretaker. To my surprise, Miss J replied “No, it is my privilege that I have my mother to love and to care for”. Every night, she would hug and kiss her mother before she goes to bed. She said that whenever her brother’s children visit their grandmother, the grandchildren will do the same thing to their Ah-ma. She said that it is important for them to do this so that they will do the same thing for their own parents when their parents are old.

Miss J struggles with the finances. Her savings are mostly dried up. She tries not to ask for too much help from her siblings as they have their own family expenses. She has to buy adult diapers and to pay for all sorts of medicine that her mother requires. However, there was no trace of any bitterness in her. She said these as a matter of fact and ended by saying that this is what she wants to do as this is her mother. It is her privilege.

I was deeply moved and asked for permission to share her story. As she was narrating her story, the image of the recent viral video of a daughter beating up her mother and making her eat faeces and drink urine came to my mind. How did something go so wrong in that family, and how did Miss J find the strength to go through all these difficult daily duties with such a big heart?

May God bless people like Miss J for showing to the world what filial piety is.

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Time to review our scholarship framework for international students

I had filed two questions during the recent parliament sitting on 13 July 2015, with answers as follow:

75 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education (a) since 2012, what percentage of international students on scholarships awarded by the Ministry have graduated with second class upper honours or better; (b) how does this figure compare with the 97% of Public Service Commission scholars who graduate each year with second class upper honours or better; and (c) whether the Ministry intends to set a base score of a second upper honours or its equivalent which international scholars must attain to maintain their scholarships at each renewal review.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: Since 2012, about 68% of international students on undergraduate scholarships have graduated with second upper class honours or better. This is comparable to the performance of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at the local universities. It is also higher than the overall percentage of students graduating with second upper class honours or better, which is about 38%.

Mr Yee asked how these figures compare with that of PSC scholars. There is no good basis for comparing as the number of PSC scholars is extremely small and they undertake their studies in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas.

The basic grade that the international scholars have to meet in order to maintain their scholarships is a cumulative Grade Point Average of 3.5 out of 5 for NUS, NTU and SUTD, and 3.4 out of four for SMU. This is commensurate with what is required of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at these universities. These criteria strike a careful balance between encouraging students to achieve certain standards in academic work, while giving them the time and space to learn deeply and widely through a variety of activities

And

  1. Mr Yee Jenn Jong: To ask the Minister for Education (a) since January 2012, how many scholarships have been awarded each year by Ministries to international students to do their undergraduate studies at our local universities; and (b) what is the current average cost of each scholarship a year including but not limited to school fees, accommodation and other allowances.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: The annual number of scholarships awarded to international students at the undergraduate level has come down in recent years. Since 2012, about 900 such scholarships are awarded each year.

The scholarships include school fees, and typically include accommodation and some allowances. The annual cost per scholarship is about $25,000 on average.

The questions were to get an update from data I had obtained when I first entered parliament. In January and February 2012, MOE had revealed then that it awards 170 and 900 scholarships at the undergraduate level each year to ASEAN and non-ASEAN students respectively, making a total of 1,070 new international scholars a year. Budget per scholar then was between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

A GPA average of 3.5 out of 5 is roughly the grade that will secure a student a second class lower honours degree. 68% of international students graduated with second class upper honours in the last four years, a slight improvement compared to the figure I had obtained in 2012.

At $25,000 per year per international scholar and with a scholarship lasting typically 4 years, the annual budget on international scholars would be $25,000 x 900 x 4, giving a total of $90 million a year (this figure excludes the amount spent on pre-tertiary and post-graduate scholarships, as well as that spent on tuition grants). The expenditure on an international scholar would be $100,000 over the 4-year time period to obtain his/her first degree. I believe this figure excludes tuition grants of typically $10,000-$20,000 per annum per student which almost all international students will get.

MOE had said that the expectation of a GPA of 3.5 out of 5 (or 3.4 out of 4 for SMU) is the general expectation for Singaporean scholars as well. It had said that we cannot compare PSC scholars’ performance with that of international scholars on MOE’s scholarship, as the number of PSC scholars is “extremely small” (5 President’s and 83 PSC Scholarships were awarded in 2014) and they study in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas. DPM Teo had in May 2012 revealed that more than 97% of PSC scholars graduate with Good Class Honours (2nd upper or better) each year. PSC scholars I had spoken to have told me that if they did not maintain the GPA required for a good class honours for two semesters, their scholarship would be suspended.

The question then is whether our expectation for international scholars has been set too low or we have set a target number for recruitment and have not been able to attract applicants of suitable quality. When the expectation is a GPA of 3.5 out of 5, you can expect many of them to graduate without good class honours, as the case has been for many years.

Our universities have been constantly rising in their rankings to be amongst the top internationally. Since we expect our PSC scholars to study in top-tier local and overseas universities, we should also set top-tier standards for those we wish to fund generously for their studies in Singapore. I do not object to having top quality international students to study here on scholarships. Some Singaporeans do get scholarships from overseas to study in their top universities as well. I can imagine how difficult it is for Singaporeans to get fully funded scholarships to study in top universities internationally. You have to be really good and will likely graduate with good class honours if you manage to get a fully funded scholarship from a foreign government to study in their top institutions.

Perhaps we can draw lessons from how PSC maintains the consistently high standard of academic performances of its scholars. It takes in an “extremely small” number each year, puts them into top-tier universities including top local universities, sets a high expectation for the scholars in terms of GPA and monitors their performances continuously.

Since our universities are now world class, it is time to review and raise our expectations for those who we wish to fund generously to be in Singapore to provide competitive interaction with our local students. Perhaps the number has been too large and standards were set too low. Other international students can continue to come here to study on their own, subject to already established quotas for international students. With our universities’ top rankings, do we expect difficulties to attract enough international students to study here on their own?