This article is rather long and in its original form was published in two parts in Han Chiang News. It was written in response to the recent news in Malaysia of government bursaries/scholarships students who were promised full funding for overseas universities being told that the coffer does not have enough money and so the power that be had to renege on its promise. I have decided to republish the unedited version here in its entirety.
In recent weeks the press has highlighted the case of many public service department (JPA) scholars having their collective dreams of a fully paid for undergraduate studies overseas being dashed. The lack of fund was the main cause of the drastic decision by the JPA to reverse course for these students who did spectacularly well in their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – Malaysian Certificate of Education) in recent years. However all were given full financial support for pursuing their studies in local public and private universities.
This case begs the question, “Does society owe a student who has scored straight “A”s in SPM an oversea scholarship?”
While it is disappointing to see talented students who obtain top scores fail to continue their tertiary studies overseas, one must view this situation in a holistic manner. SPM is not an easy public examination for one to score straight “A”s. However those who scored straight “A”s in SPM are not necessary the same people who eventually shine well at university studies. There are many cases of SPM holders with more than 10”A”s who struggled and even tumbled at their undergraduate years.
All of us who have been to college know that there is a big gap between SPM and STPM/”A” levels or equivalent pre-university qualifications. The gap from pre-university to tertiary level is even bigger. Although in general those who did well at SPM would be able to cope with pre-university studies, there are many examples of students with very good SPM and pre-university results faltering at university studies. Thus for a country to commit so much resources to send its citizen to study overseas at this early stage is somewhat of a gamble. The safer bet is in fact what the JPA has done: let these students with great SPM results and pre-university qualifications study for their undergraduate degrees in local public or private universities. If these students turn out not to be what the Chinese described as “Xiao Shi Liao Liao, Da Wei Bi Jia ” (小时了了, ，大未必佳 － being bright at an early age does not necessarily bring success upon growing up), the country can then commit great resouces to send them overseas perhaps on a 2 + 2 model, saving great resources at the same time allowing the selectors to fine tune their selection. Many established private institutions of higher learning have attained great expertise, reputation and network of good overseas institutions to take on this responsibility. For those students who have proven “track records” the country can then commit greater resources to send them for their Master’s or even PhD studies overseas.
Judging someone’s ability to learn well and flourish at university based solely on his/her SPM results is not a very fair method. A student from a remote village in Sabah who did not have the means to attend private tuition classes for key subjects (like Malay, English, Mathematics, Physics, Accounts or Additional Mathematics) may scores “only” 5 “A+”s compared to a student from Subang Jaya who attended private tuition classes for these subjects who scored 8 “A+”s. As an educationist, I will put my money on the Sabahan student being academically a better student compared to the student from Subang Jaya. Further, because the Sabahan student could thrive without the benefits of tuition classes, I will opine that the chances of this student faltering at university-level studies will be much lower than his/her Subang Jaya counterpart. However by evaluating students based initially on just the number of “A”s scored the odd is stacked heavily against the Sabahan student.
I studied for my G.C.E “A” levels at a state-run technical college in England in early 1980s. The college’s “A” level students were mainly those who had taken the examination before but were repeating for one reason or another. Nearly all of them wanted just to pass. Because of clashing of timetable, in the first year of my “A” level studies I could only take the Applied Mathematics half of the “Pure and Applied Mathematics” as a part-time-revision-class which had 50% of the hours of the full-time class, covering only 60% of the syllabus. Yet, I was able to score a Grade A for this subject after studying only for 1 academic year. In my case, my “struggle” was recognized by the university selectors and I received two offers to read dentistry in 1982. The lower offer was just any two subjects at grade E or better! Unfortunately, due to my family’s lack of fund, I had to decline both offers despite meeting the minimal requirement easily with one further Grade “A” and two Grad “B”s. Compared to a boarding school student with dedicated school masters and a greater teaching system who scored 4 Grade “A”s at A Levels, I think my achievement under a much less favourable condition would be more reflective of my ability to learn and survive at university level and beyond. Who should you think is deserving of a scholarship to study at university?
To those students who are expecting (or have scored) straight “A”s at SPM and are now at a crossroad as far as tertiary studies is concern, I urge you to take note of the following points:
- No one owes you a scholarship just because you scored well. There are a lot of other influencing factors that the selectors of scholarship fund need to consider. You have no right to demand for a scholarship no matter how well you think you have done in your SPM. As a holder of 2 postgraduate scholarships, I can tell you that getting a scholarship is a privilege indeed and not a right!
- Because of (1), you must show courtesy under all circumstances. The matured response reported of the recent JPA “Bursary” students’ case in appealing for help rather than “exerting their rights” is the correct approach. You will not get far if you adopt a confrontational approach and project the image of the world owing you something just because you have the talent to score “A+”s!
- Have a Plan B, C or even D.
- Local private colleges provide lots of scholarship opportunities. Most will regularly contribute to the Nanyang Siang Pau’s and Sin Chew Daily’s respective scholarship scheme. However based on this author’s observation, in many years, most of these scholarship awards were not able to find rightful recipients due mainly to the lack of qualified applicants. This shows that there are lots and lots of scholarships out there! Go and grab these!
- Be flexible in your aspiration. Have an open mind in choosing for at least one other alternative field of studies. Remember Sun Tze’s “Art of War”, “Zhi Ji Zhi Bi, Bai Zhan Bu Dai” (知己知彼，百战不殆: know yourself and know your enemy, and you will never be defeated in a 100 battles). Often you are your worst enemy in this context! Be realistic. Know your own strengths, weaknesses and interests, match these as far as possible with the different tertiary fields of studies. This will help you to formulate your Plan B, C and even D. Make use of the knowledge of your school counsellors, talk to your seniors who are already at universities/colleges, attend as many education fairs as possible. Whatever you do, be honest with yourself.
- Do your research on what scholarships are available early, preferable BEFORE taking your SPM. This will allow you to evaluate which fields of studies or which institutions are your top choices. You can also test out your own ability, aptitude and interest in each of the shortlisted fields. Do not wait till after your SPM results are announced to do this “homework”.
- Have an open mind. Not getting a scholarship for overseas studies is not the “be all and end all” episode of your life journey. Remember the saying, “When a door shuts in your face, one will open up somewhere else for you.” In my case, not getting to study dentistry was a blessing in disguise. I found out why I did badly on 3 dimensional vector in Additional Mathematics and why I could not for the life of me figure out the technical drawing of my roommate only when I was already at university reading general agriculture. I have a form of learning disability in spatial recognition. I would have made a very lousy dentist, assuming I could pass in the first place! The “door” which opened for me was indeed my undergraduate studies in general agriculture, through it, I managed to secure two different scholarships for my Master’s and PhD studies! See a counsellor if you are really depressed but get this bout over as soon as possible. Remember the Chinese saying, “ Everybody has something that they were born to be good at （天生我才必有用 ). Your job is to find that “thing” that you are good at and pursue your tertiary studies in that “thing”. Having good SPM grades definitely will put you head and shoulder above most candidates.
The most memorable line from the highly successful local movie, “Olabola” was uttered by an actress in Cantonese: “Even though I scored As in every subject in Form 5, I am still stuck here as a rubber tapper…..” That was in the 1970s. In today’s environment with close to 500 private institutions of higher learning chasing after students, the protagonist would have secured a scholarship somewhere and PTPTN loan would have covered most of her tuition fees. However, if you are one of those SPM holders with less than 9As and wonder if there is any chance of getting some financial assistance, you will be glad to know that there are still opportunities available to you.
Editor’s Note: Most private colleges have many academic-merits-based and need-based scholarships and bursaries specially designed to help students contemplating tertiary studies due to financial constraints. You don’t need to scored As in every subject in Form 5 to receive a bursary!