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Keynote Address By DPM Lee Hsien Loong At The 2002 PSC Scholarships Ceremony On 20 July 2002 At The Istana

22 Jul 2002

I am pleased to be here with you this afternoon at PSC's annual scholarship ceremony.

New aspirations

It is not easy for an 18-year old today to commit to a career in the public service. In the past, a government scholarship was the only way for many of our brightest students to go to a world class foreign university. But today the private sector offers many challenging, glamorous, and well-paid careers. More parents are able to finance an overseas education for their children. Indeed Ivy League universities in the US offer financial assistance to the best entrants, making them more affordable to students with talent and promise. With globalisation, talent is sought after everywhere, and can work in any country. A young person, about to go to university, who has not firmly made up his mind on his future path, will often prefer to keep his options open, rather than be tied down to working for the Singapore Government.

Last year PSC conducted a survey, which asked JC students and their parents what they thought would make a scholarship and a career in the public service attractive. High on their list were: bright management-track career with good career prospects, good developmental opportunities, exposure to global perspectives, the chance to impact the lives of others, and job stability. Scholars and their parents are becoming more discerning, and sometimes more demanding, in their scholarship and career choices. This makes the job of PSC a lot harder.

The need for Government to have a fair share of talent

PSC Scholarships play a critical role in the development of Singapore. Singapore became independent in the harshest of circumstances ? widespread unemployment, a stagnant economy, a small domestic market, and formidable external threats. That we have survived many vicissitudes, and grown and prospered to become what we are today, is a tribute to the people of Singapore, and to the quality of government that we have enjoyed. And a key precondition for an effective and honest government is to have capable, dedicated people in the public service.

For Singapore to stay competitive, the Government must be able to continue to attract its fair share of talent. We hope that from among them, we will be able to develop and identify future generations of leaders - leaders who keep abreast of regional and global developments, understand what makes Singapore tick and how our system works, and can formulate imaginative and effective policies to take the nation forward and foster our long term interests.

Relative to the size of our country, Singapore has a small government. The Government's budget is only 19% of Gross Domestic Product, and civil servants form only 5% of the resident labour force. Both proportions are low by international standards. In terms of talent, the Government takes a significant but not disproportionate share. Among the top 3% of the junior college cohort - 1,400 students - the Government takes in about one third, through scholarship schemes given out by the PSC, ministries and statutory boards. However, they do not all stay on in the public sector for a lifelong career. A fair proportion leave after completing their bonds, and some leave even before doing so.

The debate on fair share of talent for the Government

There is no doubt that this flow of talent has made an enormous difference to the quality of our public service. But our talent pool is finite, and thepublic sector's gain is to some extent the private sector's loss. The question for Singapore is: what is the right balance of talent between the public and private sectors?

During the deliberations in the Economic Review Committee, some participants have argued that the Government should cut down on the number of scholarships it awards, in order to release more talent into the private sector. Proponents of this view argued that in Singapore's next stage of development, private enterprises will be primary driver of economic growth and wealth creation. Some went further to suggest tying financial instruments into scholarship awards, so that scholars have an option to convert their scholarship award into a loan when they decide to leave the public service, or even to securitise their scholarships! (In this case, a sponsor will buy out the scholar's bond, and the scholar will contribute a percentage of his future salary to the sponsor for a certain number of years.)

Others agree that the private sector needs more talent, but argue that this should come about by the Government giving more, not fewer scholarships, then releasing the scholars into the private sector. At least the scholarship provides a basis to expect the student to return to Singapore after his studies, whereas a student who goes abroad on his own may not return immediately after graduation, and may stay on abroad for many years.

But there is also the opposing view that the scholarship system has worked well for Singapore and should not be tinkered with. Proponents of this view argue that we should recognise that the Government is already facing stronger competition for talent from the private sector, and we cannot afford to compromise on the quantity or quality of the scholars taken in to the public sector. After all while some persons lament the excessive number of scholarships awarded by the Government, others express frustration that ministries do not understand private sector needs, and that civil servants are not up to scratch.

This view therefore argues that the Government needs to continue to rely on scholarships for recruitment. There are limits to how far the Government can rely on non-Singaporeans and mid-career recruits. It takes many years to hone one's instincts for public policy work, and to build up the knowledge and values essential for anyone to be effective in the public sector. Further, the civil service is quite flexible in allowing scholars to leave for the private sector if there is not a good fit for them in the public service, and many have done so.

The Government is weighing these opposing views carefully. It has not yet reached a decision one way or other. I have said that we will leave no stone unturned in the review of government policies. But the scholarship scheme is a key rock on which the entire edifice of the public service rests, and many other things besides. We must not move this foundation stone before we have examined the problem from all angles, explored the alternatives, and decided whether we want to move it, and if so to what new position.

Making Government scholarships more attractive

While we examine this larger issue, we should certainly proceed with improvements to the existing scholarship scheme. One such idea is to inject more flexibility in deploying them scholars, for example by allowing them to serve stints in the private sector, perhaps as part of their career development plans.This is a valid suggestion.

The PSC has decided that from this year, upon graduation recipients of SAF Overseas Scholarship, SPF Overseas Scholarship, Overseas Merit Scholarship and Local Overseas Merit Scholarship will be automatically placed on a Management Associates Programme, or MAP.

The MAP will provide scholars with a well-rounded career that is challenging and fulfilling. Under the MAP, you will start out in a parent Ministry or agency where you will get your grounding in a chosen profession, such as being an engineer at the Ministry of Defence or an economist at the Ministry of Trade & Industry. After about two years, you will be posted to another Ministry to work in a management and policy area to sharpen your leadership and policy thinking skills.

In addition, for OMS and LOMS scholars, a number of you will have the chance to go on work attachments in the priva te sector before commencing work in the government. This is the new Gap-Year initiative. Your Gap-Year attachment allows you to embark on an attachment lasting six months to a year, with an MNC, or International Organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. The aim is to provide you some experience and exposure outside a civil service environment. This will help you to understand private sector perspectives and approaches to problems, and make you a more rounded and effective civil servant, whether you are analysing policies or implementing them.

In the civil service, job rotation and exposure will be complemented by milestone development programmes, and opportunities for overseas study trips and attachments. We will assign mentors to coach and advise you on your career development. MAs will also participate in various grassroots and community service activities to better understand the needs and aspirations of all strata of society.

At the end of four years as a Management Associate, you would have been groomed in a leadership and management programme which rivals the best offered by top MNCs. You should also emerge with a sharper sense of the interest of the nation, and can look forward to a challenging and fulfilling career with the public service.

The PSC will delegate the selection and management of certain scholarships to the Ministries so that they can play a more active role in the development of their scholars. The Ministries of Education, Home Affairs, Health and Foreign Affairs will be taking over the selection and administration of their own scholarships. These Ministries manage large pools of professional talent, and offer ample opportunities for you to develop careers within these organisations. Allowing Ministries to look after their own scholars will give the Ministries a bigger hand in identifying their talent, and customising development programmes for their scholars. The PSC will continue to manage the top 5 scholarship schemes - the President's Scholarship, the SAF and SPF Overseas Scholarships, the Overseas Merit Scholarship and Local-Overseas Merit Scholarship.

The introduction of these changes - the MAP, the Gap Year and the Ministry Scholarships - signals the Government's unwavering commitment to invest in the next generation, and its resolve to keep the Government's talent management programme up to date.

Honour and responsibility of a scholar

I hope that the 55 scholars receiving awards today understand the great responsibility you bear themoment you accepted the PSC scholarship. You now join the ranks of a group of men and women who have contributed in a special way to Singapore. You are being awarded a scholarship in recognition of your leadership qualities and all-rounded performance in school.

I understand that a group of senior scholars has crafted a Pledge for PSC scholars. The Pledge speaks of the honour bestowed upon each scholar. It exhorts every scholar to serve his fellow Singaporeans with humility, empathy and compassion. I am heartened to know that PSC scholars understand and accept fully that honour and duty are two sides of the same coin. And I am pleased that in the course of the ceremony today, each and every one of you will, before your parents, teachers and all of us here, promise to keep the Pledge, and upon your honour, strive to live up to the expectations of your scholarship, and contribute back to your society and nation.

I urge you to look upon your responsibilities not as a burden, but as a meaningful and deeply satisfying challenge to make a difference in the lives of fellow Singaporeans, and an inspiration to spur you to greater heights. At the starting point of a major commitment in your lives, I wish you the very best for the future.