Government scholar who broke bond dishes out dirt on the public service

By Round_Amphibian_9082

Long story short, I pursued a scholarship because I once believed it was the best way to contribute to the common good. Totally bought into the sales pitch about serving the nation. Also, my parents couldn't afford to send me to university, so why not since my grades made the cut.

But boy was I so wrong. I broke the bond eventually after being harassed for basically having opinions… lengthy rant ahead, be warned.

Halfway through my studies, I realised something was severely wrong with the scholarship system. More than a handful of my peers on the programme were actually from wealthy families – from being able to afford an apartment in London, to flying home on business class. I remember once at the Singapore Seminar, a round table discussion where they flew in scholars and PS/DS/some official people to discuss issues surrounding Singapore in London. One fellow asked: “how do we solve the problem of lowly educated men not getting married and educated women not getting married?”. To which the answer from the speaker I can never forget, was “As with everything else we do in Singapore, low end import and high end export”.

Listed herein are the toxic bits about Singapore's supposedly pristine government scholar system:

Bad-egg scholars spoil it for all

Not all scholars are bad eggs and arrogant. But the ones who are, they truly spoil it for everyone else, therefore causing our asses to be hated by fellow Singaporeans for no reason sometimes. My former manager was a scholar himself and he basically showed disdain for majority of those under him. His treatment of foreign workers was abhorrent. One time I recalled him yelling “GRAB ME THAT BANGLA!”, demanded that they sweep rocks (yes, I wonder if scholars have ever set foot in construction sites) and forbade them from drinking from water coolers. Step on his tail (sometimes in a completely non-work related way), and you might find yourself being threatened with a poor year-end appraisal. On the contrary, if you are the manager’s favourite, you could wiggle your way out of any shitstorm without so much as suffering a scratch. And as I obviously wasn't (or perhaps I was deemed just average in terms of personal ability, oh well I could accept that), I was criticised constantly for my “happy go lucky” attitude and for “smiling too much”…… gradually I fell into a pattern of fear of just being myself. The manager himself had apparently gotten 4 serious prior complaints, but HR decided to overlook them all altogether because he was our director's favourite. Which brings me to the next point:

Directors are unfire-able Gods

Unless they commit a legitimate crime, they cannot be removed. Where I was, we had directors who felt the need to scold people at every meeting, put them down, belittle whoever they perceived as lesser mortals. Some can't stop commenting on women’s physical appearances, while others love to text at ungodly hours, say past midnight. An internal survey actually showed that about 10% of folks working at various public service agencies experience at least some form of harassment, however nothing is being done about it. Because, because … them directors are pretty chummy with one another! Who can you complain to, if HR is only going to side with all of management? This made me really upset when I thought that HR was supposed to ensure the welfare of each and every employee regardless of his/her seniority. Often those who had it the worst are the “lower ranked” employees – because the organisation perceived them as expendable. Yet these are the people most intimately acquainted with the day in, day out operational requirements. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that we could fire the technicians, but not the directors. Whenever I attempted to advocate for the little man, I got treated like I purposely chose to be on the wrong side of the battle. As though I picked the worker’s side instead of the correct “scholar's side”.

Culture of silence

Honestly, scholars, you know when others like yourself are acting unreasonably, or being a complete jerkball. But you don’t speak up. You never call out the bosses, or even your own compadres….because you hope that one day when you make director, you will have their full support. Behind their backs though you would speak bad of one or the other, but where it matters – when they are unjustly picking on their men, when they are harassing others, you remain silent. You know deep down the scholarship system is unfair, it rewards those rare few who hail from truly privileged backgrounds. Then again, no one wishes to speak up, because why would anyone be "foolish" enough to bite the hand that feeds us?

You also know when scholars are being overworked or made to perform genuinely wretched tasks no one else wants to. Yet when you become the boss, you choose to inflict the same misery on your subordinates.

Don’t go around questioning things

As described above, do not be that gungho individual. Especially if you are picking battles that no one else sees the benefit in fighting for. In my experience, speaking up for technicians and those in the trenches is highly discouraged given that such efforts do not add to your KPI, and royally pisses management off.

How they treat you once you break the bond

Even if you can produce rock solid medical documentation certifying that you have really been broken down into shreds, be prepared for plenty of gaslighting. Be prepared to be made to feel like you are unworthy, a good-for-nothing who will never ever secure decent employment outside the public service. I am here to tell you it is a big fat lie; yes perhaps you may not find something that pays as much, nevertheless there's always some gig waiting for you out there. Start by signing up as a Grabfood rider, or interview for a junior position in the F&B industry. My stint with this particular statutory board ruined my mental health. The things the bosses did to me still cause panic attacks at night – I have taken quite a bit of time just to rebuild some semblance of confidence in myself. I know I have hands and legs, so I definitely won't starve.

The mechanics of the bond breaking itself is easy. They will calculate everything you owe them and slap on a 10% interest compounded per year for the duration of your study. The more years you have served, the lesser the oustanding quantum. The hard part is believing in the public service again, after you have witnessed first hand the dirty side of it.

This is not to discredit the many rank and file public servants who do really give their utmost. But recently they have been burning out, resignations are at an all-time high. Why you ask? Because those sitting right at the top have no goddamn idea of the struggles of daily life. Like the long daily MRT commute to pick up kids from after school care, or one's mother-in-law medical appointment requiring an entire day's leave.

Ending things with a personal anecdote, I remember once asking if it was cruel of the government to cut off the water supply of ordinary families on a whim. To which a big boss chided me, imploring me to stop buying into those western ideologies that water is a human right. I was deeply disturbed that day… as a child, I saw my parents begging not to have our water supply cut. Perhaps I took it too personally. But to me, this disconnect of our leaders from real everyday people is so glaring it scares.


Why do Our NTU/NUS graduates end up driving Uber/Grab?

Advice for fresh grads: don’t join the public service

Why NIE is not for me.