Dissecting the Dr Eng Kai Er Issue

By Luke Phang

Dr Eng Kai Er. Two time scholarship holder. A*Star scientist. Aspiring artist, and recently staged a play called ‘Fish’. Once walked down naked in Holland Village. A name that has dominated Singapore’s online discussion for the past few days, because of the “No Star Arts Grant” that she was disbursing, purportedly from her own pay. Or more specifically, the description that she gave her ‘grant’:

“No Star Arts Grant is a real arts grant. Successful applicants will get real money! The grant maker is only one person, Eng Kai Er, who is an employee of an organisation that cannot be named. She wants to give $1000 a month, out of her salary from her bonded employment, to fund art projects. She wishes to fund projects in all arts genres, including and not limited to fine art, visual art, dance, music, circus, theatre, film and literature.”

Ever since her story came out, she has been quite a hot topic of discussion. People are picking on all parts of her story, ranging from whether she was grateful or not, to her reasons of wanting to transfer her bond, to the arts fund itself. Most arguments and comments I have seen so far focuses mainly on one aspect of the story, for example the legitimacy of her arts fund or her supposed ungratefulness towards her employer.

I personally have different opinions about different parts of her story, in which I will elaborate more below:


To be honest, I think the idea of the arts grant is commendable. Taking a chunk out of your own pay to fund a personal interest is a great idea to help those who are less fortunate, and to push innovation in the field that you support. This has been done since the Renaissance in Italy, and I think the grant in itself isn't useless. 1000 dollars per month until October 2015 is not cheap you know, and personally I would feel that the money could benefit a lot of people. So we should support it.

The only question that I have is only whether she will be committed to paying this money continuously until next year, and not drop out halfway. So far there has been only one recipient of the award, Andrew, so I will have to reserve my judgement on the effectiveness of the award for the time being.


A lot of people in support have written about how Dr Eng should be given a chance to pursue what she likes and enjoys (some even praised her for speaking out), and to be honest, I wholeheartedly agree to the notion that we should be given the freedom to choose.

It's the foundation of our society that we should be given a chance to do what we want to do, which in my opinion was not taken away from Dr Eng. From how she was able to stage a play called Fish through the Director's Lab programme under Substation, I don't think she was barred from pursuing her own interest at all. In fact one could argue that she got all the help that she could for her debut project.

Which brings me to the next point...


Based on the news reports, I think the issue arose when Dr Eng's application for a transfer to the National Arts Council to serve her bond was rejected. In all honesty, I don't think that this move is wrong, because the scholarship awarding body reserves the right to determine where you're bonded. It is their money after all. Some may take issue with this because they think it turns us into slaves, but frankly this is really no different from working for a job or a client.

When you're receiving remuneration from your boss, you are expected to do the work your boss wants you to do. Because it is his money. That's the expectation that comes when you receive something. That you have to reciprocate. And if you're unhappy with what you are supposed to do, then don't accept the money and walk away. Simple as that.

Besides, when I'm paying you to be good at A, it doesn't make sense for you to go and focus your attention on B right? To use a different analogy, a company pays to train you to become a graphic designer because they need a designer badly. You said okay to it, and goes for training to become a graphic designer. But by the end of it, you decided to not become a graphic designer, and instead tell the company that you're more suited for a janitor position. It would not be surprising that the company will get pissed off right? Not only had company wasted time and money to train someone who did not yield any return at all, the position could have benefited someone else entirely.

I don't understand how some are saying that one does not have to be grateful to the organization that gives you the scholarship because she deserves it. Are you even serious about that comment? It almost seem to imply that we shouldn't say thank you to the people who saw the potential in us, and gave us the opportunity to succeed. So are we supposed to adopt a 'I deserved that' attitude rather than a humble and grateful attitude to those who helped us? No wonder our children are getting so self-conceited nowadays, thinking that everyone owes them a living.

Scholarships are like an investment. You invest a huge sum of money in someone hoping they will excel in a specific field and return to share their knowledge and expertise, thus helping the advancement of society in general. I'm not belittling the role of arts, but in this case, Dr Eng has been groomed and trained in the field of science for more than five frigging years. That's a lot of time and money. And A*Star is not wrong to demand results in the area that they had plough significant money into. Besides it was all written in the contract when you signed, so why are you complaining now?


But she's not complaining, some might say. She's not even protesting. However from the manner she describes her "predicament", you cannot help but feel that she is terribly unhappy with the situation that she is in now. She certainly sounded like someone who felt oppressed by a bigger force, which in this case happened to A*Star, the institute that granted Dr Eng her scholarship. According to other sites, Eng Kai Er wrote that she "is not interested in science at all, but has to serve her bond or pay, as of 30 September 2014, around $741,657.37 in order to quit her job. Since she understands the pain of having a paid job that is not aligned with her interests, she wishes to change the world by having more instances of paid jobs aligned with people’s interest."

I'm not sure of how she really sees her situation, but from the paragraph above, I would venture a guess that she views her life as painful, stuck in a job she does not like (correct me if I am wrong to make the deduction). I think the issue that most of us have with her is the sense of self-entitlement that oozes out from the statements that she made. Granted, a lot of us may be stuck in jobs we dislike and all of us have the right to complain. The only reason why Dr Eng is taking so much heat is because she is complaining from a much privileged position, while most of us can only dream of having what she has. Akin to a first world problem.

Okay, maybe she can complain. Because all of us deserves the right to. But when you take it online, especially in a net savvy society like Singapore, you are bound to be scrutinized and criticized. Like the English saying goes, "Never air your dirty laundry in public."


I guess the bottom line is I would question Dr Eng's intention of putting such a strong worded statement online. I'm okay with you wanting to support the arts and wanting to donate your money, but I am not okay with you playing the victim card especially when you are in a much more privileged position. Heck I myself am stuck with a bond and debt I need to repay, and yet I know that I have to tough it out because that is what I signed on for. And if you're wondering what grant is that, it's the MOE tuition grant where I need to serve the bond in any Singapore registered company. Going by your logic, should I complain as well for Singapore not letting me serve my bond in Germany since I have always wanted to live and work there? Because I think you're missing the whole point of scholarships here.

Of course, we don't know what Dr Eng's real thoughts are on this issue, so perhaps I shouldn't go on at length about it. I just find it sad how I am presently stuck in a daily 9 to 5 job barely making ends meet and on the other hand how someone can spend 1K every month just to make a statement. I guess life is never meant to be fair.

This post was first published over at the Lukey Is Handsome blog on 2 December 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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