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Scholars and jobs – Time to spread the talent to SMEs and non-profit groups




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By Lim Wee Kiat

pscscholarsWhat if Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship holders, upon graduating, didn’t have to serve their bonds in the civil service?

What if they could also start their career in the nonprofit sector and local small and medium enterprises (SMEs)?

This is a question I have been asking my friends, who include both current and former scholarship holders, government officials and former civil servants.

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The seed of this question was planted way back when retired senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow raised hard questions about how we should think about Singapore’s future. Ten years later, his questions have not faded away.

According to him, scholarship holders should serve in both private and public sectors because their bond is to Singapore, not to the government. He adds that Singapore also needs to grow our own timber, even if it takes longer.

I think we need to pay more attention to SMEs  if we take seriously the point about nurturing our own talent, especially when our efforts will not yield immediate results. SMEs account for 99 per cent of all enterprises, 70 per cent of those employed in enterprises, and hold equal proportion of value-add to the economy against their Goliath-esque cousins. Shouldn’t we then cultivate a corps of Singaporeans to strengthen this sector? Who knows, one local SME may be the next big thing that puts Singapore on the map? And propelling the company forward could be a PSC scholarship alumnus who rises through its ranks.

This strategy can complement existing arrangements, such as the scheme that the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) and Workforce Development Agency (WDA) recently launched to attract Singaporeans to work in less popular segments, such as food and beverage businesses. If placing scholarship holders in the SMEs is not an investment in Singapore’s home-grown businesses, I don’t know what is.

Young Singaporeans who want to serve the community are more likely to apply for PSC scholarships if these lead to jobs in the non-profit sector. This will also complement the new youth volunteer corps, an initiative that Prime Minister Lee just announced at the National Day Rally.

However, there are several things to be considered before expanding job options for PSC scholarship holders. First, how many scholarship holders are interested in working for SMEs and nonprofits? Also, how to create the “right” mix of postings across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors? How will this strategy fit with current policies and schemes, and work with existing bodies promoting similar causes?

Friends who take my question seriously also probe me further. What about the ensuing office politics because the scholarship holders are parachuted into the organizations? Are fresh college grads what SMEs and nonprofits truly need? More importantly, is this an ethical or efficient way for taxpayers to support SMEs when only a portion of their profits are ploughed back to the coffers?

These are really important questions and I don’t have the answers. But I can see benefits generated in giving our scholarship holders a broader range of choice early in their career besides government service, such as tackling challenges Singapore organizations, nonprofits and businesses confront every day. Even when they eventually leave the organizations, they will take with them to their next career that set of experience, connections, and ideas. Especially ideas about how to do things that seem so natural in the nonprofit and private sectors but slay sacred cows and deliver change at their next posting in life.

I return to Mr. Ngiam’s opinion about how to manage our best by taking a leaf from the French – giving them a good university education, conscientiously spreading them across different sectors, allowing “some of your best and brightest to remain outside [government’s] reach and let them grow spontaneously”. And this final point resonates strongly with me: “[A]t the end of the day, when the chips are down, they are all Frenchmen. No member of the French elite will ever think of betraying his country, never. That is the sort of Singapore elite we want.”

The writer is a former civil servant doing his PhD in Colorado

[1] Infographics on Singapore economy in 2012, http://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/visualising_data/Singapore-Economy.pdf.
[2] Scully, Rachel. Scheme aims to match more local talent with SMEs. The Straits Times, May 20, 2013.
[3] Long, Susan. Stop dancing to the tune of the gorilla. The Straits Times, October 12, 2003.
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