PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

psc choice

I write this so that, years down the road, I can remember my exact state of mind when making this choice that had a bearing on how I choose to lead my life. It’s arguably the most monumental decision I’ve had to make in my brief 19 years of existence. This is a raw, honest, reflective account that is ultimately personal. I don’t intend to extol or belittle, but to interrogate and ask questions. It’s important not to accept easy answers.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

What is a life worth living?

The question haunted me in the empty dining room. My table was a realm of spilling notes, mockingly optimistic highlighters, and the ticking tension of dwindling hours. But this revision orbit was like a vacuum in time — it balanced on the pinpoint of desire for straight As but easily took over my life; yet, it was peripheral to all achievements and sufferings of mankind. My stress levels had overshot the mark and I was suddenly aware of how laughably trivial this entire endeavor was.

Exam revision was at once obsessive yet alienating.

I was having a crisis, in the twilight weeks of September 2016, right before my Preliminary Exams.

I had questioned myself on what I wanted to do with my life at many junctures. But the answer I had gripped tightly in my hand for years now paled in the face of an expanding abyss of disillusionment.

I want to give back to my country by joining the civil service. 

My mind clamored for some sort of meaning behind that. Something, anything that could put all the opportunities and insights my education has given me, this having of knowledge, all the ceaseless striving to wield it, and this grueling pre-‘A Levels’ period in perspective. It rang hollow.

***

YES

To be very honest, my dreams have taken strange turns and detours and roundabouts.

I wanted to be a writer for years, before deciding to be a lawyer when I was 11.

Sometime in my secondary school years, before I knew it, my dreams had shifted in one direction — to be a civil servant, specifically, a foreign service officer. In retrospect, it was so widely endorsed by everyone who heard that I never bothered to think too hard about it.

I had a lot of other dreams that ebbed and flowed over the years. To excavate the stories of obscured histories and marginalized peoples, to question assumptions and drive action with cultural understanding, to be a cartographer of the heart… These dreams were nebulous, without the reassuring sturdiness of an occupationally safe and established aspiration.

The society feeds us words through which we filter our beliefs and experiences. Cloaked in those other dreams, I had felt insecure and adrift. Saying the two words “civil servant” offered a resounding sense of certainty, backed by societal endorsement and centuries of veneration for entering the government that is rooted in the Asian psyche. The nugget of truth in the age-old adage handed down to my young mind was powerful — Confucious had said, “A good scholar becomes an official(学而优则仕).” How could he be wrong?

***

MAYBE

I received a thick package in the mail on a warm February morning this year.

Thank you for applying for a PSC scholarship and for considering a career in the Singapore Public Service. I’m pleased to inform you that the PSC has decided to offer you a scholarship. Congratulations!

A yes was lingering at the brink of my mind.

I thought about what will probably be a sufficiently fulfilling career in the Public Service, playing a part in protecting, building and advancing the potential of this magical country that has given me so much. I thought about what everyone, most of all my parents, expected me to be. I thought about my hefty college tuition fees that the scholarship would cover and the calculated comfort of a firm 6-year job offer.

I thought and thought and thought.

***

NO

It is dangerous to avoid difficult questions or even answerless ones.

What is a life worth living? Right now, I say this: a life worth living is a well-examined one. That means to interrogate and to interpret my motivations behind every choice and what I truly want from life. To ask, self-aware, why this, but not that? To seek to not lose sight of what gives me meaning.

I had thought very carefully about the prospect of a 6-year bond in the Public Service, or what might even turn into decades there. My thoughts had unwittingly crept towards the whimsical idea of writing a novel in my free time, in anticipation of one day when I would finally have the money or the opportunity to delve wholeheartedly into creating creative content.

Why this winding, circuitous path filled with digressions towards my keenest dream?

Let me admit this: I was cowardly. I wanted to leave as many doors opened as possible — to have the financial security of a formulaic career while dabbling in the unpredictable. I did not want to break free from the habitual momentum of being on a smooth-sailing path that will lead me to conventionally defined success. Call me risk-averse or afraid of failure. All these labels were spot-on.

It was very telling by the direction of my thoughts that I sought to postpone my dreams of writing and that I saw a public service career as a safety net that might enable my dream, not as a true calling.

After all these reflections, my true ambition did not grow more apparent to me. But being painfully honest with myself revealed to me that right now it for sure was not the public service.

On 28 April 2017, I replied to the secretariat. I decided not to take up the PSC scholarship.

***

There is nothing wrong with the first part of this sentence:

I want to give back to my country

It is most admirable and also what I aspire to do. The logical extension of this is to then ask: How can I create the most value for the society?

In an ever-changing world, there exists a limitless array of callings for each of us.

But, why is it that most of us, by a certain age, begin to subconsciously gravitate towards one rote path? Why is the widespread mentality that we can only give back to the country if we are in the civil service?

I do deeply admire those working in the civil service who find it their true calling in life. But I wonder how many have lost sight of their true ambitions, trapped by their yearnings for what is financially secure and what society deems prestigious. And I do also ponder about those, bound to the words they signed on a page at 19, who feel their dreams slowly die in the claustrophobia of bureaucracy and who, in their thirties, settle with resignation and listen to their souls heave a sigh at the opportunities that they are too tired to fight for. What we do inevitably alters the fabric of who we are — we are the sum total of our choices; every choice to postpone a dream might just mean that you drift further apart from it.

Interestingly, one argument that won my parents over was the fact that Singaporeans are the only ones who are confronted by an abundance of safe, prestigious options. It’s not like every other 18 or 19-year-old in the world doesn’t face immense uncertainty in life. The existence of lucrative government scholarships in Singapore has fostered a unique situation: many Singaporean youths are fearful of taking a less trodden path. An unprecedented number of top students choose to be civil servants when they could have become entrepreneurs, artists, mathematicians, scientists, writers, innovators, public intellectuals in civil society and whatnot.

Nowhere else in the world do other youths our age have such an option of immense security. So, how can Singaporean youths be less risk-averse when the opportunity cost of risk-taking is so big?

I admit that uncertainty is daunting, but it is the inescapable truth of life. We all constantly face the looming void of blank, unwritten next chapters.

But uncertainty also means freedom. Freedom to not have your life figured out at the age of 19, freedom to explore every dimension of you, freedom to mold your sense of purpose with the pressing challenges of our era, freedom to experiment with failure and learn how to not fear it, freedom to shape the trajectory of life with all the new possibilities that you could not have known of at 19.

Freedom to combine what you love to do with giving back to society.

Freedom to see the world as a young idealistic mind, to stand independent, grow informed, and to have both the wisdom and the ability to choose. Come back to join the public service after you’ve seen more of the world, understood more of yourself and know that it is your calling.

Value this freedom. It’s quite underrated in our society. Many things in life are far more important than a sense of security. Value the promise of uncertainty over the comforts of the predetermined.

Such is life: I don’t know what’s next, when it ends, or what it means. So I choose to tread the path that leads directly to my yet unarticulated dream — I will likely stumble, pick myself up once, twice, again and again, but I keep in heart a powerful reminder: the shortest distance between me and my dream is reliably a straight line, not a constantly deviating path. So, I embrace the autonomy I now have, and boldly, foolishly move forward with faith.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

32 thoughts on “PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

  1. tianyi207 says:

    I agree so much with the many points you made – especially the point on how hard it is to take risks when the stakes are so high, and what the country and the individual lose out in the process when talented individuals are risk-adverse. The many people in the world who make tremendous change and push forward technology, the sciences, and the humanities to new heights are all risk takers. As Steve Jobs said, those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do. Let’s hope we are on our way towards that achieving great and crazy things! So happy for you for your freedom! Xoxo

    Like

  2. Ponder Stibbons says:

    Good choice. I admire how well you know yourself. I am a risk taker who does not like being restricted, but I took a public scholarship anyway. I and my other scholar friends who were ambitious and were independent-minded ended up being very unhappy, and a lot of us broke our bonds. I only wish we had your wisdom when we were your age.

    Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    The shortest distance between me and my dream is reliably a straight line, not a constantly deviating path.

    人这一辈子,不是要去换取钱财,
    是要来完成自己的梦想,
    走自己的路,其他都不值得。
    选择自己最喜欢的事,
    把它做到极致,
    是人生最大的快乐。

    Like

  4. M says:

    If this is a sample of your writing, then you’ve definitely made the right choice. 🙂 You have a bright future ahead!

    Like

  5. 摆渡人 says:

    Well done ! The current set of political masters are not worth your brilliance. All the best in your days at Harvard. I’m sure you will be able to give back to our countries many times more. 加油!

    Like

  6. Doug says:

    Current scholar here.

    At 19, there are many things you don’t know and many more things you don’t know you don’t know. Take the time to explore and learn more things. There are many people exploring career changes at 30 years old. The dots will connect backwards.

    All the best for your future. If you are in doubt, reach out to any current scholars and they will be more than happy to share.

    Like

  7. Hal Pultz says:

    You are lucky to have the luxury of choice.

    I’d say if you don’t need the money, don’t take the scholarship, because one can always join the civil service later if so inclined. Afterall, a scholarship is, in its most basic form, a simple trade of present $ for future servitude.

    Like

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is pure BS. Just because you come from a well to do family that can afford to send you to the USA for your undergraduate course does not give you the bragging rights to reject a scholarship that is meant for brighter students who apply for it to serve the country. In the first place, you should not have even wasted time and resources of the PSC board to evaluate your character if you never have any aspiration to serve. You are simply a spoilt brag….

    Like

      • Kenky says:

        Everyone’s gotta make their choices in life. Just because your life suck so much doesn’t entitled you to call someone a “spoilt brag.” The true spoilt brags are the one who think so highly of themselves but have so much hatred against others. You need to start thinking about your life. Perhaps you’re not as bright as you think you are. I strongly agree with the author for keeping true of her motivations of life. She will go far than calling someone a spoilt brag.

        Like

    • ANONYMOUS says:

      Actually Harvard (if that’s where she is going) gives financial aid need-blind – if her parents earn below 60k USD it is free. And public service is not the only way to serve come on. You must be kidding if you think so.

      Like

  9. jodi c says:

    every decision carries its own risks, including choosing to enter the public service. so good on you for thinking long and hard about the risks you want to take, and it’s great that you can admit that the public service is not for you at this time. at the same time, it’s fortunate that your circumstances allow you to choose an alternative path. the road ahead is long — all the best and I hope you continue to do your best for others no matter where life leads you.

    Like

  10. Jonathan says:

    Thank you so much for your opinions, to be honest, your candid thoughts and pure inspiration has given me the courage to start making decisions that truly matter to me and not those which are bonded by responsibilities and image, and I’ve found the statement that ‘you can always return back to civil service after you have seen the world’ to be so true. That should be what being a 19-year-old be, discovering and enriching your personal narrative so you can one day come back to enrich society with your wisdom.

    Like

  11. Anonymous says:

    Harvard offers financial aid to ALL students regardless of financial background to ensure every student can pay what their family can afford to. This makes the issue of a PSC scholarship moot. She doesn’t need one when Harvard can offer what is equivalent to a scholarship; and bond-free at that. I find half of the intentions of this post is genuine in saying that she doesn’t want to take a scholarship because of potential restrictions in the future, but the other half is really that there is no need to take a government scholarship. In fact, if she takes one, her Harvard financial aid goes to effectively zero as there would be no “demonstrated need”.

    Nonetheless, she brought up some points that are perhaps what every PSC holder would think of but would never utter because, well, it’s PSC. I doubt those PSC holders would have taken their scholarships if they were offered an equivalent of a bond-free scholarship at Harvard or other top universities. After all, if you’re really “public-service oriented”, you’ll probably head there eventually anyway (although the skeptical me has never seen even one bondless top student going to the public sector). But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy really. If you hold any X agency scholarship, you’ll be inclined to learn whatever useful for your career at X agency instead of really “exploring your options” in university, so you might just end up convincing yourself you like a career at X agency.

    I believe the really take-home message she is trying to say is: Don’t take a scholarship if you have a bond-less option available or your parents can comfortably afford it. It’s not worth restricting your options early for some early prestige that will fade away eventually. The prospect of a bond just doesn’t seem that appealing in the end. The part of having an alternative financial option is what she left out. It is a REAL and concrete issue, because without considering the financial alternative, you would have to factor in NOT attending Harvard into the equation of taking a scholarship.

    For many scholars whose parents do not have the money or those whose universities are not as generous as Harvard, the considerations are different from those the OP is considering. It would then be a choice between a potentially life-changing experience at a prestigious institution versus the possibility of exacting this life-changing experience at whichever company/agency the scholar works at for 6 years. The considerations are different, and so readers please be aware.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. J says:

    Funny enough to have seen this via fellow scholars who are currently on the scholarship itself. I don’t usually enjoy posting my personal opinions online because I just get reminded of how unformulated my own world views are and my inability to write.

    Anyway personal opinion ahead (disclaimer first):

    Honestly speaking, I am just envious of how the author is capable of articulating a struggle that I am sure many of the pre-university students face when they are taking up a bonded scholarship. I am envious not just because she writes well, but also envious of her circumstances that have allowed her to write in such a carefree manner. I understand that I am making assumptions here, but how often would you hear someone struggling to repay debts (whatever they are) saying “I would definitely take the uncertainty and even fund my own education over that scholarship that offers to cover my tuition fee, living expenses and even give me a secure job offer”?

    I understand that as one individual I am not representative of the entire population of people who struggle with such decisions, but I feel the need to share a little personal story about this as well. Some of my closer friends would know that I managed to secure a place in NUS Medicine, and becoming a doctor was a path that I have always wanted and dreamt about. This is still my unfulfilled dream (no worries, I am planning to do graduate medical school), but how could I have been selfish to reject the scholarship that offered my family financial stability, especially at a time when it was of utmost priority to us? My family provided for me WITHOUT any second thoughts so how could I be selfish and mortgage our house just to go to medical school?

    So yes, maybe I am salty and bitter about not having the choice to “reject” the scholarship and chase after my dreams, and even falling and trying again in the process of doing so. Maybe this is just coming from someone who’s disillusioned and jaded, I don’t know. My thoughts are messy and this post is emotionally charged. Perhaps I am just writing this opinion because I couldn’t have done the same, but regardless I thought I’d just share this so that anyone who has thoughts about applying for a bonded scholarship (PSC/Ministry/Stat boards/Private) whatever, can have a good read (of what the author posted) and just please think long and hard about making such decisions. I have had the privilege of having mentors and close friends who gave me the hard truths when I needed them, so please go find some of these people.

    Finally, let me add some clarifications as well before you call me undeserving to receive the scholarship because it sounds like I took the scholarship out of necessity: Know that public service IS NOT MY SECOND CHOICE. I merely never thought about my future that way because I was so certain that I could find a way to fund my dreams. The purpose of entering the healthcare industry was to serve the public, and what I always say and will always believe in is that I am now merely taking a different approach to serving the public. Serving the public is something that I find meaning in, and it will always be something that I prioritize. – J

    PS. I sincerely hope that none of the above comes off as a personal attack (I really don’t see a point in attacking the author, we just have different thoughts about the same issue), but I just wanted to share an opinion that perhaps is what some of your readers are interested in.

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  13. Anonymous says:

    This piece, as it states at the outset, wishes neither to extol nor to belittle. And likewise one shouldn’t feel the urgent need to extol or belittle the writer. She has shared her thoughts about the PSC scholarship and, more importantly, expressed her personality and manner of thought and life. The writing is earnest, excited, in feverish anticipation of more life, if not often too reductive to be entirely correct. It’s charming, to say the least. But we should grant the writer due charity. Calling her a pompous brat, whether warranted or not, doesn’t help at all. I for one don’t think so. Not everyone has the guts to do the thing she did, and hordes of recalcitrant scholars jump on the decorated bandwagon every year. Those who’ve criticized her for being selfish forget the difficult courage that comes with authentic selfishness.

    It isn’t hard to see that a government scholarship, in the Singapore context at least, may be easily viewed as uncomfortably forbidding. It demands a temperament exquisitely tailored to the requirements of the service. We’ve all heard stories. Some are thoroughly irked throughout their term; others begrudgingly come to terms with it after several years; many reckon it the best choice made in their lives. Just because you’ve had a positive experience of the scholarship doesn’t entitle you to spring wildly at her doubts about it.

    I’m much more concerned by what she means by freedom, since her reflection hinges on what it means to be free and to have led a free life. No one is ever perfectly free, and perhaps freedom is only the messy composite of our intentions and circumstances. Nothing philosophical here. I’m simply saying that the term “freedom” could’ve been used with more tact. Even though you’ve declined the PSC, it doesn’t mean you’ve become more free. It just means you’ve exchanged a particular configuration of problems for another that’s more savoury to you.

    In the end a person bears total, uncompromising responsibility for her actions to herself and to others. The satisfaction or regret at every stage of your life is yours alone. The writer has made a choice through a process of deliberation she believes is justified and has written something sincere, if not bordering on cliché at multiple points. Let’s keep it at that. Quarreling over whether a government scholarship is more rewarding than how it is described here, or whether the writer deserves the right to talk about scholarships at all because she has “privilege” (I abhor the term but am forced to use it), merely breeds virulent cynicism masquerading as social debate. Do we even know her well enough?

    For you, dear writer, this is the heart of the matter: having made your decision conclusively, are you willing to bear complete responsibility for your freedom, honour your promises to yourself and make the most of what you have? If the answer is Yes, you deserve my salute; if No, you’ll soon realize the problem isn’t as simple as a scholarship bond.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jarwey says:

    I am 35 yo and I work in the public service. Not scholar, not high flyer, but I feel that I want to contribute to the society that has given me the life I have. I am an entrepreneur at heart, dreamt of being a writer at 19 yo, almost read philosophy for undergrad, but ended up with IT. Many colleagues had advised me to go to private sector if I was really serious at improving productivity of singapore. I believe that there is a place for everyone. The public service needs enterpreneurs too (unfortunately most scholars aren’t, other than philip yeo perhaps?). I love to write, and I used to be a blogger for my ex-agency. But the pay isnt as good, so I started building dividend income by buying stocks. I ended writing stock reviews too (still a writer!). If you ever change your mind, give public service a try to satisfy your curiosity. I don’t know when I will leave public service, but I certainly don’t see it as a safety net. I work as if I can lose my job anytime… That helps me stay grounded to my values and constantly remain relevant to what singapore needs.

    Like

  15. kwyoke says:

    “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
    -Friedrich Nietzsche

    Jiayou! Walk your own path. Come out 光芒四射。

    Like

  16. Yui Hong says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you. Actually there is no difference between security and risk. They are just projections of our own mind, even when the projection is so strong often they seem real. Everything happens in its own time. So follow your heart, relax, and go for it. My best wishes to you.

    Like

  17. nigel says:

    Took the offer, left. I don’t know if I would have been better off not taking it. The past is another country, and I was a different person. Ultimately I don’t think the question is really whether it’s better to take or not to take, but whether you have some sense of what you’d rather do instead. Hope you find your way.

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  18. Anonymous says:

    If she is not a brat, then what is she? She is a disgrace to Hwa Chong and to the ex School Counsellors by trying to sound noble! Everyone knows it was undeserving of her to be given the opportunity for the fact that she has managed upwards to get the recommendation (and that was all she did when she served). Her own decision is the correct one as we do not need a ‘fake’ person to serve the country. It is no big deal to decide to give up the scholarship. There are many out there who have done the same but there is no need to write a long article to make it as if she is very wise to have done so. Spoilt brat!!!

    Like

    • Anonymous says:

      Her decision to turn down the scholarship and her time in council should be separated. The ad hominem is false, malicious and unnecessary. There were so many councillors in her time who were obviously incompetent posers and served only for the prestige (if any) they thought they could gain from it. Are you being fair for singling her out? “Fake” is an understatement to describe the councillors in her year who have been granted scholarships but are entirely unworthy of them. And by the way, she doesn’t claim or pretend to be “very wise” anywhere. But in any case neither do you seem to be so in your comment.

      Oh, and maybe you could learn the difference between counsellor and councillor before launching your diatribe?

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