Singaporean students subsidising foreign scholars?

The Straits Times Forum, 20 Feb 08

Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

RECENTLY, I befriended a group of scholars from China studying at my alma mater, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They were in their late teens and were attending foundation courses in English and maths before starting their undergraduate studies. In their five-year sojourn at NTU, they will be given free lodging and a monthly allowance of $500 each. Needless to say, they do not have to pay for their tuition fees. When they graduate, they must work in Singapore for six years as part of their ‘payback” bond.

A highly conservative calculation of their five-year tenure at NTU suggests that each will cost the Government or NTU some $70,000. That is, $30,000 for their five-year tuition fees, including the charges for their foundation courses, and some $40,000 for hostel accommodation and their monthly stipends. I graduated from NTU five years ago, with a good honours degree.

I was in the top 15 per cent of my cohort – and performed better than some of these scholars. While studying at NTU, I had to work as a pizza delivery boy to earn my allowance. Upon graduation, I had to start paying off a $24,000-student loan.

Why are Singaporeans like me not treated as considerately as such scholars? My study loan took five years to pay off after I started working. The China scholars receive financial support, a free education and start their working lives debt free. Their six-year bond is seen as a contribution to Singapore.

Am I not contributing as much, if not more? Non-scholar Singaporeans are not treated in quite the same way as foreign talent, regardless of how well we perform. The disparity is disheartening.

Don’t Singaporeans like me who have done well deserve some relief? True, local scholarships are available. But not every Singaporean who graduated well, gets one.

Can the NTU or the Education Ministry tell me why graduates like myself don’t deserve some relief or reward for doing as well as, or better than, some of the foreign talent?

Zhou Zhiqiang

I’m glad Zhou has highlighted this unfair situation in Singapore. Singaporean students, as far as I know, never get this type of no-strings-attached full scholarships. The foreign scholars only need to work with some company in Singapore for 6 years. Singapore Government scholars have to work with the government for 6 years.

I just wonder where MOE is going with all this sponsorships of foreign students using taxpayer money. Do they really have so much money to give away in their quest to make Singapore an “education hub”? Is this really making us an education hub?

In Western countries like the US, UK and Australia, the foreign students pay full tuition and effectively subsidise the locals. In fact, education is a big money spinner for their economy. In Singapore, it seems the reverse is true. How unfortunate!

I’ve written a related piece on university education financing on


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

22 thoughts on “Singaporean students subsidising foreign scholars?”

  1. Dear Gerald,

    I had read the article and it only serves to reinforce one beliefs that I had long held (call me unpatriotic but fact does not lie).

    There is no value in holding citizenship as a Singaporean. There is inherently no difference between a Citizen, PR or Foreign Talent. In fact, it pays more to be a PR or FT than a citizen. Little wonder that many capable “talent” citizen are leaving. When you are treated shabbily in your country, why stay. Go somewhere else where they lay the red carpet for you.

    I am a graduate of NTU and am always bombarded with request to donate back to my alma mater. I had always resisted giving back and when my dad (who is a Nanyang University grad as well)asked me why, my reply was, “I have no idea on the breakdown of where my donation goes to. The last thing I want is my donation goes to some undeserving FT that treat our uni and country as a stepping stone or worse with disdain. There are many deserving local students, are we giving out study grant to them as much as we give to the foreign students.”

    In any case, I am not against FT but the current policy by the goverment has a huge impact on the talented citizen who chose to leave our shores for good.

  2. Citizenships is worse. We have NS for our boys which in effect is another TAX and we are subsidising these migratory people and showering money and opportunities on them for no guaranteed return. Totally unjustified.
    I have come across some of these who now hold very good jobs in investment banks and guess what, they laugh at our foolishness because they know there isn’t one single thing Citizens can do about it! Smug.

  3. Guys,

    I am totally in agreement with your views and assessment. I know lots of these foreigners who come, take and go. We get taxed enough as it is. No need to donate to the Uni. The surplus should be used for all Singaporeans in all fields of education. We are only valued for our NS and Reservists.


  4. I think Singaporeans partly have themselves to blame for all this. It reminds me of a story of a bull dog that bites the owner. Every time the dog bites the owner, the owner gets really frustrated and throws some meat to distract the dog. Strangely enough after the dog has been fed, it comes back to bite the owner. The whole process repeats itself and suddenly the owner realises that it was he, himself that was responsible for the dog’s actions. He was in fact encouraging the dog to bite him because the dog simply thought that biting the owner was the only way to get more meat. Every time the government screws you, we come back to vote for the same party. Really, I think we are sending a message, bully us, send us to the Army, take advantage of us and we will continue to vote for you every year. the government really doesn’t care about these petty greivances, because 4 years later, they will ‘scare’ you into voting for them again. sad.very sad.

  5. Yup, thanks to the 66.6% who are either unthinking, scared(of uncertainty or of their jobs be it in civil service etc) or have outsourced their brains. They are to blame.
    We have to change and change quick as our laws, rules and pledge are becoming meaningless to the citizens.

  6. Interestingly, When they are serving the 6 years of “voluntary” service they are also looking for ways to break the bond sooner so that they can go to the states or other high paying countries to work.
    The methods involved includes taking MC in the first few days that Male NSMen were serving under wayang commanders who hold lower paying jobs than them.To prove that they(FT) are indispensable.
    AKA no tech support in critical times(esp when they know it will happen) and the blame will always go to the NS guys.
    The key is that Every imported talents should serve in NS too
    Suggestion :
    “Voluntary” Services like Medical cares for elderly and disabled for ESP foreign doctors ,nurses kind of like CDF,and volunteers.
    “Voluntary” Cleaning and planting of plants in area near their housing area(aka jurong taman)
    “Voluntary” Contribution to a Foreign talent fund about 40 percent of their pay that they can’t withdraw until they are 88 years old.
    Please contribute more ideas :)

  7. Is it any wonder then that many people yearn to leave Singapore….

    if citizenship is worse than foreigner..why be citizen….

    The goverment had seek to make this place a home…but what is a home when you are treated more shabbily than a guest who comes to your so-called home, take your money, laugh at you for your silliness and leave with no hint of guilt…


    And yes…during those 6 year bond, they are plotting their next move to get out of here…not by contributing hard to their company but by studying for their masters and PHD. They jump to US and Europe not for their work ethics here but for their additional masters and PHD.. :(

  8. i had come across an article which was written in the 1980s, the author actually foresaw that Singapore would eventually become a hotel city where people just come in for some benefits, and get out after that. i do agree that some of these scholars are a waste of money, i don’t mean to brag but currently i am in NUS and some of these scholars really don’t deserve what they have because of the mediocre grads or hotel singapore attitude. It saddens me to know that some of these are gg to be in the economically viable sectors, which makes me wonder if they are really gonna put in effort to produce results for their family and this country. And it also saddens me to say that despite having grown up in this country, i am still finding it hard to say i love it, and sadly one of the reasons is such “favour foreigners” mentality. if u ask me, i have much more respect for local scholars than foreign ones

  9. This letter was also discussed in SgForums.

    I think it has touched a raw nerve among many singaporeans, esp those from less well-to-do families who slog hard and do part time work to put themselves through uni, only to see lower performing foreign peers getting a free, no strings attached ride…not to mention competing with them for jobs when they graduate.

  10. I know the reason why the Singapore government pays these ‘scholars’ or FTs whatever you want to call them and look after them better than the citizens who are born and brought up in Singapore, and whose parents slog hard to send their children to good schools and universities. The reason is called ‘brain drain’. Yes, Singapore is losing thousands of its skilled citizens to countries like Australia, New Zealand, America etc.. The Singapore government is pampering these foreign students with the hope that they would fill the gaps left behind by these Singapore citizens who emigrated.

    You may ask just why Singapore citizens leave their country?
    They leave to go to Western countries because they need freedom. they do not want to be told what they should do and don’t.

    In the Western countries where they emigrate real democracy exists and They get real freedom and the governments do not interfere in their lives. In these western countries the citizens can question their governments without fear and throw the ruling party out in an election if dissatified with its performance. Can this happen in Singapore? Of course not.

    About tuition fee differential- In all Western countries, the university tuition fee charged for citizens is often a fraction of that a foreigner pays. But in Singapore, it is often the reverse and many times the foreigner is paid to satudy in Singapore universities. Singapore government is that desperate to fill the gaps left by brain drain. These are filled mmainly by Chinese from mainland China and Indians from India.

    If you don’t want to believe me, just check with the embassies of these countries or better come and see in major cities of Australia and New Zealand and even England. You would surely bump into a fellow Singaporean nyou knew at home.

  11. Anon @ 3.08pm – Instead of just labelling me a ‘racist’ and asking me to ‘reflect’, you could substantiate your accusations with arguments of your own about why my views are wrong (or even racist).

    Fyi, I am ethnic Chinese and I have nothing personally against Chinese scholars. In fact, I know a number of them as friends. I am just questioning the Singapore Government’s liberal scholarship policy for foreign students. At the end of the day, taxpayer funds are limited and it will be a zero-sum game for Singapore students.

  12. Dear all,

    This article is noat about being racist or being against foreigners.

    Its a direct question on the goverment’s existing policy of fully subsidizing foreign students while neglecting equally talented if not more talented citizens.

    Its a question of the policy being implemented and how it has created “Hotel Singapore” where even the citizen do not view Singapore as home because of the shabby treatment they receive or the lack of attention from goverment vis-a-vis the foreigners.

    I believe that most of us who commented on this article are not against foreigners. I for one has several close friends in my church who are from China and India and had benefited from the goverments’s 100% funding of students to study and work in singapore.

    The question we are asking is this, “If the goverment is paying for foreign students to come here to work and study, why then is it not paying for our equally deserving local students to study here”…. again this questions leads to the other statement…”no surprises that Singaporeans are desperate to leave this place, if even your goverment do not care about you”.

  13. “If the goverment is paying for foreign students to come here to work and study, why then is it not paying for our equally deserving local students to study here”….

    It is because, the government thinks that the local Singapore students have no where else to go to study, but in universities in Singapore. The government knows that for example, if Singapore students go to British un iversities they have to pay at least 4 times the fee of British citizens with restrictions on working. I guess the same with USA. Hence the poor Singapore student’s parents work hard all their lives to send their sons and daughters to universities. The poor student in turn works hard in spare time to support himself/ herself while studying, and later works even harder for years to pay back the thousands of dollars of loan. At the same time, the foreign student, comes with fees paid, living expenses taken care of and has no problems when he/she takes up a job after graduation as there is no loan to pay back. It does not stop here. Look how easily a foreign graduate who studied abroad can come and take up lucrative positions in banking and other services. He /she works for a a few years and saves thousands of dollars and moves to another country. What contribution these people make to Singapore society? None. They are like transit passengers in an airport.

  14. jack – I don’t think that is the reason why. From what I understand, the govt is trying to make Singapore an “education hub”. To do that, it needs to attract top students from around the world to come study in our universities. So that’s why it is throwing money at these students hoping they will come here instead of going to the US. I think this thinking is a bit warped and is angering lots of locals. But then again, if you understand the PAP psyche, you won’t be surprised why they think money can buy anything.

  15. Gerald:

    While I would like to think about PAP the way you have explained, unfortunately that is not true according to my experience. It does not explain why Foriegn students that are less able than Singapore students are given the financial support (I know quite a number of them, and this is from my first-hand experience), and hundreds of foriegn graduates coming and taking positions in financial services. Many of us who have seen all this in Singapore and talking with Singaporeans emigrated to Australia and New Zealand, draw only one conclusion. bright Sinagaporean are leaving the country in droves.

  16. at the end of the day. it is all about bargaining power. As Singaporeans, you don’t have much of a choice. you have to serve NS and lose two productive years, while foreign students gain 2 useful work experiences. If you are poor and cannot afford an overseas education, that is even worse. at the end of the day, what can you do? no use fighting the system. it is exhausting and painful. Exhausting because you cannot win and painful because all your sacrifices made for the country don’t mean anything. Instead, invest in your career, work overseas, get a good degree elsewhere and become a global citizen. Only then, you really have a choice to pick where you want to live and if our gahmen comes begging you to go back. can decide what is best for you.

  17. From the Parliamentary Hansard
    Sitting Date: 2008-01-21

    (Tertiary level)

    Ms Sylvia Lim asked the Minister for Education for the last three years, how much public monies were spent annually on educating foreign students at the tertiary level in our public sector education institutions, with a breakdown of the key items of expenditure.

    Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam: The Government’s annual recurrent spending on foreign students over the last three years is estimated at about $154 million in the three publicly-funded universities and about $69 million in the five polytechnics. This is about one fifth and one tenth of the total annual recurrent grants disbursed by MOE to the universities and the polytechnics respectively, and is based on the proportion of foreign students in the total student population. This spending goes towards meeting the operating expenditures incurred by these institutions in teaching its students. These primarily comprise manpower, equipment and other operating expenditures.

    Foreign students have to meet at least the same admission standards to enter the tertiary institutions as local students. They pay higher fees than local students. As announced earlier, from AY2008 onwards, fees for foreign students will be increased from 1.1 times local fees to 1.5 times.

    In return for the subsidies they receive, FS are bound by MOE’s Tuition Grant obligation, where they have to work for Singapore-based companies for three years upon graduation. Those who do not wish to meet this obligation pay full fees with no public subsidy.

  18. The numbers Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam cites as public monies spent educating foreign students definitely do NOT include scholarships given out foreign student undergraduates. His estimate is based simply on 20 percent of the block grants received by our public universities which goes towards the tuition grants. It certainly does not cover the living expenses and school fees of the foreign scholars.

  19. The Singapore government is a big sucker, that’s why. We are training all kinds of Nationalities on skills ranging from education to healthcare for free under the disguise of exchange programmes. Mediocre foreign atleletes are ripping us off – footballers, track and field, badminton, table tennis, etc. Foreign investments being rip off – Industrial Park in China, telecommunication and banking investment in Thailand, Golf courses, resorts and banking in Indonesia. The list goes on. Chinese women are making fools of our men folks and our immigration as well. SIA was made a laughing stock by Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson. There are much more suckers stories. If you query – they will tell you that it is a diplomatic tactics call soft power. Don’t they know that it dosn’t work with negligible small states. Suckers !

  20. I am a Myanmar.I am interested in attending nurse university in Singapore.But I need full scholarship to attend.Can you help me.Please help me to get scholarship.I think you are kind.I passed the Grade-11 this year with two distinction.My marks are-

    Myanmar -69
    English -64
    Chemistry -70
    Physics -77
    Biology -81
    Total – 452

    My E-mail address is
    Phone No :01-728623

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