A*Star scientist who walked naked through Holland Village took up two scholarships

She could have rejected second one if she wasn't keen on research: Agency

SINGAPORE - The scientist and dancer who is protesting against her six-year scholarship bond, because she is in a job "not aligned with her interests", received funding for two university stints - and could have turned down the second if she was not keen on research.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has revealed that Dr Eng Kai Er spent three years studying as an undergraduate at Britain's prestigious Cambridge University before returning here to do a one-year research stint at A*Star in 2006.

At the end of that, she took up a second scholarship to study for a PhD in infection biology at Swedish medical university Karolinska Institute. She completed this at the end of 2012 and now works in an A*Star research institute studying infectious diseases.

However, last week, Dr Eng, 30, criticised the bond in a blog and set up a "No Star Arts Grant" in protest - pledging to give $1,000 a month from her salary to support arts projects for a year.

"Eng Kai Er 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," she wrote.

"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."

It is believed she tried to transfer her bond to the National Arts Council but was unsuccessful.

A*Star told The Straits Times that its returning PhD scholars are expected to serve at least two years at one of its research institutes.

After the stint, those who do not want to remain in research are allowed into related fields such as industry development or research administration. Some also go into academia.

Dr Eng has served two years of her bond and has four more to go.

A*Star said in a statement: "On a case-by-case basis, we will consider deployment to other organisations, should such deployment contribute to strengthening the overall research, innovation and enterprise ecosystem in Singapore."

A*Star added that it was "highly supportive" of employees who contribute to the arts and other social causes and many of its staff do so in a private capacity.

But it reiterated that government scholarship holders have to be held accountable to the public for the amount invested in them.

"Scholarships also carry a moral responsibility and recipients are expected to fulfil their commitment to serve Singapore in fields related to their studies."

Asked if she had asked for a transfer, A*Star would say only that it was aware Dr Eng "has issues with serving out her bond commitments". It added it was "deeply concerned" about her actions and would "decide on appropriate steps to be taken".

The former Hwa Chong Junior College student first hit the news in 2009 when she was fined $2,000 for walking naked through Holland Village with Swedish exchange student Jan Philip.

She was given a warning but allowed to keep her scholarship.

Dr Eng's arts grant has provoked mixed reactions.

Ms Estella Young wrote to The Straits Times Forum to say she showed a "shocking lack of appreciation for the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on her".

However, some feel the Government should be flexible and let scholarship holders serve their bonds in their areas of interest.

Some in the arts community have welcomed Dr Eng's grants. She is part of a programme to groom directors at The Substation Theatre and recently staged a play titled Fish.

sandra@sph.com.sg