Scholarship Season

I’m not saying I didn’t know what I signed when I was 19, or that nefarious consequences were concealed from me until after the paperwork was completed. And I didn’t have to go away to obtain a university education. (…)

But I was also 19, comparing notes with other high-achieving friends about where they might be going to university, which sent me into a tizzy of anticipation about possibly going abroad myself. (…)

And I knew how much an overseas university education would cost. The main reason I had applied for the government scholarship in the first place was to try to save my parents from having to pay for that education. We were middle class and in a pinch they could have afforded it – but I didn’t want them to have to make that pinch.

As interviews come around the corner and the PSC gateway threatens to close, I stumbled across another blog editorial about scholarships. Last year I was directed to a post written from a more immediate perspective, entitled PSC: Yes, Maybe, Nobut this one is written retrospectively, by an adult long past her government bond. I was pleasantly surprised to see Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s name–she was one of my CAP workshop lecturers.

It struck a chord with me right from the first few paragraphs, because I come from a circle that’s privileged and blessed socially and economically, and there is an inherent pressure (for 脸, with regard to your CNY relatives and all your parents’ friends and friends’ parents who will inevitably slot you into their ranks of success) to attend a prestigious school (if not a prestigious course/career, cough).

Amidst the annual scholarship fever and the flurry of applications, what the newspaper ads don’t mention, and what people don’t talk about enough in a meaningful way, is that the three or four years spent in university can change a person quite profoundly, all the more so if that university education is conducted abroad. I don’t mean having a British- or American-sounding accent, or having visited half of Europe in one summer backpacking jaunt, or learning how to cook the food you get homesick for. I’m talking about the kind of deep-seated change that can leave a person wondering how to reconcile what her old self agreed to do, with what her new self now believes.

I don’t have snarky comments or critical analysis or a witty yet mature response to this article. Mostly because I’m still confused and figuring my life out. I’m just here to document some interesting/resonating sentiments from the article here on my own space.

Catch them before they have a chance to see how big the world really is, and they won’t have the chance to skedaddle off to more interesting prospects overseas or in the private sector. The nation is kept safe, the ‘scholars’ are kept happy through elaborate career development and remuneration schemes, and the world continues to turn.

For all the noble notions of agency, though, the fact is that at this stage my education is very much not a one-person show. It’s at least a three-person play, me and Mum and Dad, and five if you count my siblings, who will be carried on the tails of whatever’s left when I’m done.

It’s a delicate balance between self-actualisation (or whatever it is) and selfishness. I can’t, if I have the opportunity, deliberately choose the latter. Still, a lot of this is still food for thought. Scholarships are immediately appealing–Fully funded free ride? What kind of Singaporean turns down anything free?–but beneath the surface they’re a lot more of a complicated issue, at least for me.

Meanwhile, the world lurches from one eventuality to another, sending the best-laid plans along into a rough-and-tumble spin. In such times, I think it’s common to have one of two reactions: flee headlong into cocooned safety, or hurtle forward into the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (A psychologist might put it more pithily, in reverse order: ‘fight or flight’.)

Fleeing is understandable. In Singapore we like things to be neat and tidy: our roads and our trees, our careers and our choices. Families are nuclear, salaries come with CPF (which we can cash out at the appointed retirement age) and the government always, always has a plan.

Hurtling is un-Singaporean. Hurtling implies a loss of control. Who knows where you might end up?

When my scholarship bond ended and after I’d completed the work I felt responsible for, I fled, hurtled, hurled myself out of there. I didn’t have a job or a plan. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. I had only myself to go on.

It was a precious, precious feeling.

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