Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Scholar's Nightmare

It was only a newspaper article about how the dreams of a scholar crashed. But the truth was not palatable to one civil servant, and the issue of human rights abuse in Singapore raised its ugly head.

He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in just two years. On top of that, for his graduate studies, Mr Chen Jiahao, 23, managed to get a place in MIT, where he was offered a teaching assistantship worth over US$23,000 ($38,130) a year.

He had a PSC scholarship which required him to come back to Singapore to teach after four years of study. With two years of his scholarship left, he planned to get a Master's degree. In May 2001, after his first year of studies, he e-mailed his intentions to his scholarship officers and followed up by speaking to them.

'I was told to go ahead and take the GREs (standardised tests for graduate schools), apply to schools, and to keep them informed about what happens at each stage of my applications and admissions process - which I did,' said Mr Chen. So when Mr Chen returned to Singapore after his graduation ceremony in mid-2002, he thought he would start his Master's programme in August at MIT. But his world came crashing down on 9 Jul 2002 when his father, the sole breadwinner of his family, died of a sudden heart attack.

Barely a month later, while he was still coming to terms with his loss, he was told that his request for a two-year course, submitted over a year earlier, was denied. The e-mail came three weeks before he was to attend orientation at MIT.

It stated: 'The reason your Master's request was turned down was because you asked for a two-year Master's course. PSC guidelines clearly outline that one of the criteria/conditions for Master's approval is that the programme is for the duration of one year.' Mr Chen said it was not stated in his scholarship deed that only one-year Master's courses would be allowed. He was originally told that it was standard policy to approve only one-year Master's programmes as most people get their first degree in three years.

He said: 'Applying the one-year policy to my case would have been a case of fitting a square peg into a round hole. I was told that one complicating factor in my case was that I was the first person to ask for a two-year programme. They were concerned that I would set a precedent.

'Apparently the fact that I had graduated in two years did not weigh in my favour, and for some strange reason PSC did not wish to break down 4 into 2+2, although already allowing 3+1.' Mr Chen and his mother kept trying to meet PSC officials to appeal against the decision, and after three weeks they got an interview. He waited another two weeks after the interview before getting a letter that his appeal was unsuccessful and that he would have to do national service immediately. If he had asked for a one-year Master's program like others, he would most likely have been able to defer NS. Mr Chen said his then-scholarship officer made things worse during that difficult time by giving him lots of paperwork. 'No allowance was made for my bereavement. Breaking the sudden news of having my plans rejected and piling loads of overdue paperwork on me was hard to take,' he said. And he claimed that other scholars started to ask him about his case.

'How many people know how it feels to lose their father and have a place in a dream school swept away, all in less than a month?'

By the time he completed his NS, he had lost his place at MIT. After long discussions with his mother and brother, he decided to break his bond last July and pay the amount of $130,254 in one lump sum. 'It was almost my entire allotment of inheritance money but they were both very supportive. It was a very difficult decision because it drastically reduced the amount of buffer money that could be used to support my brother's studies and my mother's living expenses,' said Mr Chen.

Today, he has a stipend from UIUC to pursue his PhD in chemistry there. Although going overseas had originally strengthened his identity as a Singaporean and his resolve to work in the civil service, he is now not sure about ever coming back. He said: 'A scholarship agency has the right to reject a proposed programme of study. I accept that. 'But scholars should be managed as more than merely a human resource.'