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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Rethinking Scholarship Diversity: The Pre-U Education of PSC Scholars

The Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarships are labelled as the most prestigious scholarships offered by the Singapore government every year. Recipients are often emplaced on the Public Service Leadership Programme[1] and groomed as leaders in generalist or specialist tracks, with an outsize influence on policymaking, and therefore the lives of Singaporeans more generally.

Recently, Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing remarked that “Diversity also looks into how different people have different perspectives, different ways of approaching problems and [solving) problems. So these are all important aspects of diversity”. This is but one of many recent acknowledgements that public service leadership needs to be sufficiently diverse to address the increasingly complex Singaporean policy landscape.[2] In this vein, a persistent question has been the diversity (or the lack thereof) in the pre-university education of PSC scholars, which has been the subject of repeated mention[3], and even parliamentary remarks[4].

Using PSC annual report data from 2007-2018, this piece will show that PSC scholarship awards have been and continue to be dominated by elite schools such as Raffles Institution (RI) and Hwa Chong Institution (HCI). It will also explore potential measures for how PSC can encourage greater diversity in the intake of its scholars, amidst the existing challenges it faces in doing so.

Why Diversity in Schooling Background Matters

…the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, lest we end up breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathyA good proxy indicator of social-economic class is what schools these candidates come from. 

— Open Letter by then-PSC Chairman Eddie Teo in 2013 [5]

Empirical data confirms the quote above, showing that the children of high-income earners are over-represented in ‘elite’ schools[6]. Furthermore, attendees of ‘elite’ schools are accorded a higher social status by themselves and others[7]. Therefore, if PSC scholars tend to come from the same elite schools, it is very likely that their socio-economic status would be relatively homogenous as well. This may have adverse effects on policymaking, because policymaking must take into account the social and cultural pre-requisites that the government imposes on those seeking help[8]. Volunteer work and engagement can at best only partly mitigate this lack of diversity, since they are not substitutes for the lived experience of the difficulties of managing life from a disadvantaged socio-economic starting point. Additionally, a direct consequence of having PSC scholars come mostly from the same few schools is the potential formation of exclusionary networks, where public service leaders lean on alumni or talent programme connections for collaboration in and outside work, creating barriers towards access and opportunities for others outside these circles.

Using PSC annual report data from 2007-2018, we will show that there is indeed a significant lack of diversity in the pre-university education background of PSC scholars, and that there has not been substantial empirical change even after then-Chairman Eddie Teo’s open letter in 2013 calling for more diversity in PSC scholarship awards.


Raffles Institution (RI) and Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) Dominate PSC Scholarship Awards

In 2007, over 80 percent of its [PSC’s] scholarship holders were from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution. This fell to 60 percent last year [2017]… The Public Service Commission has also been paying special attention to scholarship applicants from low-income families.

— Then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, 2018 [9]

In his 2013 open letter, then-PSC Chairman Eddie Teo mentioned that “Over the last 10 years [up to 2013], 68% of [PSC] scholars came from RI [Raffles Institution] and Hwa Chong [Institution], peaking in 2007 at 82%”, before pointing out that “Students from JCs [Junior Colleges] such as Pioneer, St. Andrew’s[,] and Nanyang are also starting to receive scholarships”.

Table 1: Schools by PSC Scholarships 2007-2018 (Top 10)

When we aggregate across the 2007-2018 period and break it down to the school level, we can see this playing out. Excluding HCI, RI had more PSC scholars than every single other school combined, both at the overall level, and for eight out of the twelve years in the dataset[10] – even for years after 2013. HCI, with the second highest number of PSC scholarships, had around four times as many PSC scholars as the school with the next highest number of PSC scholars, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (ACSI). Of the 22 Polytechnic PSC scholars, 5 (or 22%) were awarded in 2013 alone, which was an unusually high number. When we exclude 2013, the average number of scholars from Polytechnics dropped from 2.25 (2007-2012) to 1.6 (2014-2018).[11] All the top ten schools have an average of at least one PSC scholar per year, but only four schools are able to consistently have at least one PSC scholar every year: RI, HCI, ACSI, and Victoria Junior College.

Figure 1: Pre-University Education of PSC Scholars (Proportion)

To examine the trend in pre-university background across time, we grouped scholars’ pre-university education into six categories: RI and HCI (hci_ri); JCs with an L1R5 cut-off of eight points or less[12] plus NUS High School of Mathematics and Science[13] (8pt_jc); the rest of the JCs[14] (rest_jc); local Polytechnics[15] (poly); and international schools (both local and overseas campuses)[16]. We can see that the proportion of PSC scholarship holders from each category of pre-university education has remained relatively stable over time, with no obvious change in trend post-2013.

Figure 2: Raffles Institution vs. Hwa Chong Institution (Proportion)

The data also highlights an interesting picture of the dominance enjoyed by RI and HCI, in that the year-to-year swing of scholarships awarded between both schools is almost symmetric – when there is a lower proportion of PSC scholars from RI, there tends to be a higher proportion from HCI and vice versa. This could be indicative of a “substitution effect”, where the main competition that RI and HCI PSC scholarship applicants face is among themselves, rather than the rest of the PSC application scholarship pool. In any case, it serves to reinforce the consistently large representation of scholarship holders from these two schools year on year.

Our findings confirm the factual accuracy of then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung’s parliamentary remarks. However, the years 2007 and 2017 cited were, coincidentally, the high and low points of the period 2007-2018. If we instead compare the period average between 2007-2011 against 2012-2017, under the assumption that a substantial part of the decrease was a result of then-PSC Chairman Eddie Teo’s open letter calling for more diversity, then the decrease is a much more modest 6.25%.[17]


Looking Towards The Future: Cause for Cautious Optimism

…we look beyond ‘smarts’ for qualities like integrity, dedication to service[,] and excellence. This year, we looked harder into areas to seek potential talent. In addition to a wider range of schools, we worked with polytechnics to encourage interest in a public service career 

— PSC Chairman Lee Tzu Yang, 2019 [18]

Traditional merit metrics such as grades and co-curricular activities participation will and should remain part of the scholarship selection process. It is hard to argue that someone who is consistently weak at academics or does not seek out co-curricular opportunities will be able to make full use of the opportunity to study at a good university (locally or overseas). However, selecting scholars to maximize these merit metrics has clear limitations. This heavy prioritization of quantifiable merit was introduced as an alternative to the discriminatory staffing practices of the public service under colonial rule and as part of professionalisation efforts[19], and these reasons continue to be important. That being said, these measures alone may no longer deliver a diverse cohort of PSC scholars capable of navigating an increasingly complex world.

One way to address this issue is to expand the merit metrics used for scholarships. An example of this is the PSC’s 2019 pilot of Game-Based Assessment (GBA), to assess attributes such as perseverance and learning orientation[20]. However, there are limits to this approach, and these alternative assessments may even magnify, rather than neutralize, class advantages. The core problem is that parents with better socio-economic statuses are able to weaponize their wealth and social status to afford better opportunities for their children vis-à-vis the general public. This happens not just through tuition and enrichment classes, but also subtly through the transmission of “cultural capital”[21]. This translates into socializing their children in ways of speaking, relating to authority figures, and understanding things like art and music[22], which will give them the leg up in behavioural assessments. More insidiously, unlike in academics where the goalposts are clear, these implicit qualities are often even more vague and inaccessible to parents and children from lower socio-economic backgrounds[23], making it extraordinarily difficult for them to compete.

Therefore, a rethinking of merit metrics must be accompanied by aggressive efforts to recruit outside of elite schools. These efforts have to be paired with an understanding of where these students come from, and how to motivate them for a career in the public sector. More importantly, the PSC must learn this understanding without imposing an undue burden on teachers in non-elite schools, who typically have fewer resources and need to address more students’ needs than their elite school counterparts. Outreach efforts will take time to bear fruition because non-elite school students need to believe and relate to the narrative that they too can become leaders in the public sector – for that pitch to be convincing, they must see that this is the norm, rather than the exception as we have documented.

In the meantime, the PSC can also consider more radical measures, such as imposing a quota on the number of elite school PSC scholars (for example, by limiting scholarship awardees from RI and HCI to be no more than 40% of any given batch). Some would argue that this would result in too great a loss in terms of scholar quality. However, this argument ignores the fact that the non-elite school applicants who would replace these RI and HCI scholars would all be excellent applicants in their own right, and the pressing need for PSC to ensure diverse recruitment to prepare the public service for future challenges.

Despite the long-running dominance of elite schools in PSC Scholarships, there is cause for hope. Taking over in 2018, Chairman Lee Tzu Yang has committed to “Seeking Diversity At All Levels”[24]. There are some indicators that these efforts are bearing fruit. In 2019, the 93 PSC scholars came from 17 institutes and saw 9 scholars from polytechnics. It remains to be seen whether this push will be sustained over the next few years, and in the long-term, whether this focus on diversity will outlive Chairman Lee’s tenure.[25]


[1] Public Service Commission Annual Report 2016

[2] For other acknowledgements of the same, see Chairman Lee Tzu Yang’s remarks in Public Service Commission Annual Report 2019, and Teo, Eddie. The PSC Chairman’s Open Letter 2013. Public Service Commission Singapore, 2013.

[3] For a recent example, see Ang, Jolene. 9 out of 93 PSC scholarship recipients in 2019 are polytechnic graduates, an all-time high. The Straits Times, 2019.

[4] Teng, Amelia. Move beyond focus on grades to embrace skills: Ong Ye Kung. The Straits Times, 2018.

[5] Teo, Eddie. The PSC Chairman’s Open Letter 2013. Public Service Commission Singapore, 2013.

[6] Ong, Xiang Ling, and Hoi Shan Cheung. Schools and the class divide: an examination of children’s self-concept and aspirations in Singapore. Singapore Children’s Society, 2016.

[7] Ong, Xiang Ling, and Hoi Shan Cheung. Schools and the class divide: an examination of children’s self-concept and aspirations in Singapore. Singapore Children’s Society, 2016.

[8] Teo, Youyenn, and Kian Woon Kwok. This is what inequality looks like. Ethos Books, 2019.

[9] Teng, Amelia. Move beyond focus on grades to embrace skills: Ong Ye Kung. The Straits Times, 2018.

[10] The years where this was not true were 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2017.

[11] If we include 2013 in the latter period, the average is still lower than 2.25 (2007-2012 average), at 2.16.

[12] We used cut-offs compiled by Learners’ Lodge for 2018, before the merger of several junior colleges.

[13] These junior colleges were Victoria Junior College, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Nanyang Junior College, National Junior College, St. Joseph’s Institution, and NUS High School of Mathematics and Science.

[14] The rest of the junior colleges which had PSC Scholarship awards were Anderson Junior College, Anglo-Chinese Junior College, Catholic Junior College, Dunman High School, Jurong Junior College, Pioneer Junior College, River Valley High School, St. Andrew’s Junior College, School of the Arts, Temasek Junior College.

[15] The polytechnics which had PSC Scholarship awards during the period were Temasek Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic, and Republic Polytechnic. Nanyang Polytechnic did not have any PSC Scholarship recipients during the period.

[16] The schools in this category during the period were United World College Southeast Asia, St. Joseph’s Institution International, International Community School (Hong Kong), Jakarta International School, National Cathedral School Washington DC, Chengdu International School, and Shrewsbury International School (Thailand).

[17] The period average from 2007-2011 is in line with then-Chairman Teo’s cited 10-year average up to 2013 (68%).

[18] Public Service Commission Annual Report 2019.

[19] Podger, Andrew and John Wanna. Sharpening the Sword of State: Building executive capacities in the public services of the Asia-Pacific. ANU Press, 2016.

[20] Public Service Commission Annual Report 2018.

[21] Bourdieu, Pierre. Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, 1989.

[22] Kahn, Shamus. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton University Press, 2012; and Lareau, Annette. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. University of California Press, 2011.

[23] Teo, Youyenn. This is what Inequality Looks Like: Essays. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019.

[24] Public Service Commission Annual Report 2019.

[25] It is difficult to use the 2019 Annual Report data to extend our analysis because PSC changed their reporting convention: whereas they previously detailed the scholarship awardees for the year in their report, in 2019 they only detailed scholars who embarked on their studies for the year. This means that the scholars mentioned in the 2019 report contain many guys who chose to do their National Service (NS) before they embarked on their studies and does not include scholars who were awarded the scholarship (such as 6 out of the 9 polytechnic scholars) but chose not to embark on their studies (probably due to NS).

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