Upholding public support for scholarships

Kindly Singaporeans would wish for A*Star scholar Eng Kai Er the equanimity to settle down in the scientific path that she herself had chosen and reaffirmed earlier - both for her own sake and for the fulfilment of legal and moral obligations. Sadly, that pursuit now appears as "narcissistic, masturbatory work", as she put it. But when duty calls, it is proper to dedicate oneself to any task in a positive and collaborative spirit. Then, Dr Eng might have the deep satisfaction, at the end of her bond period, of having given back to society and to an institution that gamely supports further studies for worthy reasons - to develop talent and to enhance a small nation's big research drive.

That might stay a forlorn hope, of course, until she stops waging a determined campaign against her employer. Sulking is an indulgence that is clearly out of place after one has benefited from a plum scholarship - twice in Dr Eng's case, first at illustrious Cambridge University and later at the world-renowned Karolinska Institute. Singapore taxpayers paid for her top-flight education and precious resources were devoted to training her in infection biology, and these represent a lost opportunity to other candidates who might have had to settle for less.

But the issue at hand goes well beyond the antics of one disgruntled scholar. Should society settle for much less when a scholar changes his or her mind and wants out? Even if bond-breaking damages of around $740,000 as of last September were repaid by Dr Eng, as contract law and honour dictate, this would scarcely make up for the social harm caused. This arises when the nation's brightest take the best out of the system and then choose to "bite the hand that has fed them", as one citizen said. Such behaviour undermines public support for scholarships, paid for with taxpayers' hard-earned money.

Predictably, public ire has poured forth. Fallen scholars have been criticised for their sense of entitlement and egocentric impulses, both fed by elitist notions of being "A*" achievers and "Stars" to boot, as wags cheekily suggest.

These comments certainly do injustice to the many scholars who give their best in diverse fields and to scholarship schemes that give the less well-off, too, a big break while partly stemming a brain drain, given the thousands of doctoral scholarships available worldwide. Singapore's system of public scholarships is one of the ways in which it keeps its system open to talent regardless of background, thereby helping to promote social mobility and inclusiveness. To preserve public confidence in this institution, it behoves every scholar to live up to society's expectations of them.