PSC defends scholarship recipient's choice of Buddhist studies at Oxford

Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli read philosophy at Nanyang Technological University and will pursue a master's degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in September.
Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli read philosophy at Nanyang Technological University and will pursue a master's degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in September.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - The Public Service Commission (PSC) has defended a scholarship recipient’s choice to pursue Buddhist studies, saying that having a deep understanding of religions practised in Singapore is relevant to making sound policies.

Policymakers are vital in ensuring religious harmony, it added on Monday (July 22).

The PSC was responding to recent criticism over which courses its scholarship recipients study, and concern over whether certain courses are not as relevant or “practical” to Singapore’s development.

Two members of the public wrote to The Straits Times’ forum page questioning Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli’s choice of pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in September.

Mr Zulhaqem, 27, had read philosophy at Nanyang Technological University. He is one of 93 newly minted PSC scholars.

In a Forum letter, Mr Cheng Choon Fei wrote: "Courses paid with scholarships funded by the public must be relevant to Singapore's economy and development."

Another letter writer, Mr Stanley Ong, asked how a course in Buddhist studies would be of value to Singapore, compared with others in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

 
 
 

"And why choose to do Buddhist studies at a high-cost, elitist tertiary institution in a high-cost country when there is no lack of Buddhist institutions of learning here?" he asked.

A spokesman for the PSC Secretariat said it has sponsored courses in non-traditional fields and countries – including business analytics and big data in Spain, international development studies in Thailand, urban studies in the Netherlands, Arabic and Middle Eastern studies in the UK and political science in Russia and Egypt.

The PSC wants scholarship recipients in the humanities, arts and social sciences, besides fields like engineering and technology, said Dr Ng Li Sa, who is director of the PSC Secretariat. 

In a reply to The Straits Times forum, she said: "In the Singapore context, secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content. Our public space is shared by Singaporeans of different religions.

"Policymakers in Singapore take an active role in working towards religious harmony."

She added that when selecting scholarship recipients, the PSC looks for "authentic, open-minded individuals with clear thinking, who are aligned with public service values, eager to learn and driven to serve Singapore".

"In sending them to read a diversity of subjects, we hope that each one will bring back a special perspective to contribute to the team, to bring Singapore forward."

The PSC's aim is to develop talent across a range of disciplines, and people who have varied experiences and broader networks, said Dr Ng.

"While we continue to promote engineering and technology, we also want to have scholarship recipients versed in the humanities, arts and social sciences. Having a diversity of strengths makes the public service more resilient, and better able to anticipate the complex and cross-cutting challenges Singapore will face."