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Spotlight on PSD grants

Corrected 7pm, 25 May 2009

(xlucas /
WE fight over the Public Service Department (PSD) overseas scholarship programme almost every year. It’s the same routine: once the recipients are announced, the media and political parties such as the MCA, MIC, Gerakan and DAP are overwhelmed with complaints that many SPM high achievers are left out.

This programme, which only awards 2,000 beneficiaries, is widely assumed to be unfair, and there have been many questions about the fairness in the distribution of the scholarship.

The current crop of discontent began with the announcement of this year’s recipients on 8 May 2009. In the following week, the English- and Chinese-language press ran stories that interviewed SPM students who netted A1s in the double digits, but failed to secure a scholarship. These interviewees were overwhelmingly non-bumiputera. The uproar has been strident, to the extent of being racially confrontational.

Can anything be done to solve the PSD scholarship conundrum? The Nut Graph collected opinions from educationists, analysts, and politicians on the how the issue should be seen, and what needs to be done.

Ong Tee Keat saying "This is serious"
Ong Tee Keat

Quota system

On 14 May, MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat, calling the PSD scholarship issue a “very serious situation”, told the press that the government would review the selection criteria for the programme. Utusan Malaysia, seemingly in rebuttal, carried a story on 15 May that had Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia (Perkasa) president Datuk Ibrahim Ali calling Ong “arrogant and constitutional blind”:

"you're being arrogant" speech bubble“If the government does not respect the special rights of the Malay [Malaysians], Perkasa will also take to the streets like the illegal organisation Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force),” Ibrahim said.

Much of the brouhaha around the PSD scholarship programme still concerns the quota system.

“Constitutionally, the government is empowered to put up quotas,” Universiti Malaya Law Associate Professor Azmi Sharom said in a roundtable meeting in Parliament on 22 May. “But these quotas are not in any way a right. It is up to the government’s discretion: you can change it or take it away.”

As such, Azmi considered the idea that PSD scholarships are a Malay [Malaysian] special right as “legally wrong”.

Talking about quotas and scholarships in general, educationist and former principal of New Era College Dr Kua Kia Soong affirms that the main criterion should be merit. However, he also underlines the need for a means-tested sliding scale.

“I don’t see why the rich need these scholarships. Those in need should be given priority,” Kua tells The Nut Graph — provided, of course, these economically disadvantaged students make the expected grade.

Kua believes that quotas can be defensible. “Affirmative action is justifiable when an ethnic group that is not class-differentiated — like the Orang Asli — need it.”

“However, communities that are class-differentiated should not qualify for positive discrimination as a race,” Kua stresses.

Nik Nazmi at roundtable meeting
Nik Nazmi

“There are talented Malay [Malaysians] who don’t get the scholarship,” Selangor state assemblyperson for Seri Setia Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad reveals in a phone interview with The Nut Graph. He is speaking on the fact that the quota system does not guarantee that those who require assistance — the Malay Malaysian underclass — actually receive this assistance.

If equity is a concern, Nik Nazmi recommends a colour-blind paradigm shift. “We have to take in to account those from marginalised communities, whether they are Malay [Malaysians], Chinese [Malaysian], Indian [Malaysian], Kadazan [Malaysian], or so on.”

According to Nik Nazmi, the PSD scholarships should be awarded to students based on merit, need, and diversity — in that order.

Criteria for scholarships

Commentators agree that looking at the current PSD scholarship problem in the rubric of race is unhelpful.

“This year, the controversy isn’t so much directly related to race, but more to the administration and criteria for allocating the scholarships,” parliamentarian Tony Pua tells The Nut Graph. “There are Chinese [Malaysian] students with six A1s given scholarships, but not those with — say — 13 A1s.

“It’s not necessarily a race issue, but one of a screwed up system,” Pua concludes.

Tony Pua
Tony Pua

Pua believes that a crucial aspect of battling this systematic weakness is transparency — an element that is sorely lacking. (Corrected) Only after DAP leaders sought to meet with PSD director-general Tan Sri Ismail Adam did the 2009 criteria for awarding scholarships become widely known.

Twenty percent of the scholarships were given on merit, 60% based on the racial breakdown of the Malaysian population, while East Malaysian bumiputera and underprivileged students were allocated 10% respectively. Details beyond these numbers have yet to surface.

Pua thinks that revealing the guidelines and criteria is vital for dispelling the shroud of unhappiness and sense of mistreatment. “When the government refuses to be transparent, we can only assume sinister reasons for it,” Pua says.

No integration with civil service

Political analyst Ong Kian Ming believes that the murk extends to the very objectives that the PSD scholarship programme is meant to achieve. In a post to the Education in Malaysia blog dated 14 May, he said: “Right now, my impression is that the PSD is trying to be all things to all people, and trying to fulfill too many fast-changing objectives.”

In an email interview with The Nut Graph, Kian Ming opined that the PSD scholarships should be reserved for the best and brightest of Malaysians, who would then be willing to come back to serve their country.

Malaysian flags with billboard for studies in Australia, UK & Malaysia in the background
We need our best and brightest students to
come back and serve our country

“I would restructure the PSD scholarship such that it looks like the PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship in Singapore,” Ong says. He explains that the Singapore government give these scholarships to their best and brightest; such students are then bonded to come back and serve in various parts of the Singaporean civil service.

“At the moment, there is no integration (between the PSD scholarship programme and the Malaysian civil service). They are not required to serve, except perhaps in medicine,” Nik Nazmi reveals.

“With no integration, our investment is not fully realised,” Nik Nazmi continues.

“The PSD scholarships are funded by taxpayers’ money,” Ong says. “Given that the overseas scholarships are the ones that are the most prestigious, and cost the most money to fund, I think that the taxpayers should get back their return in the form of these scholarship holders returning to Malaysia and working for the civil service.”

Of course, making employment in the Malaysian civil service attractive to returning PSD scholars is a vital task.

“We cannot just blame [PSD scholars] for not wanting to come back to work,” Nik Nazmi says. “We need a civil service and GLC employment framework that can accommodate them and fully realise their potential.”

Suggestions put forward

The current cloud of concern has birthed some salient suggestions for improving the JPA scholarship programme in the years to come.

Azmi Sharom at the meeting
Azmi Sharom
Perhaps the most concrete have been the resolutions of that same roundtable meeting Azmi was part of. The meeting, which comprised opposition parliamentarians, academics, and former PSD scholars, called for, among others:

The creation of two levels of scholarships: one for the pre-university level (STPM, A-Levels, South Australian Matriculation, etc), and another for university undergraduate programmes. This would resolve the question of excessive SPM students with strings of A1s, and questions surrounding the very reliability of SPM as a benchmark, itself.

2 The appointment of officers to handle PSD scholars, watching their progress and ensuring quality employment within the civil service upon their return.

3 Greater investment in local education, so that Malaysian universities will become more attractive destinations for top Malaysian students.

A parliamentary select committee in the next sitting of Parliament, to ensure that reform the PSD scholarship programme sorely needs actually happens.

It remains to be seen whether the government adopts such suggestions. On 15 May, PSD director-general Ismail contradicted Tee Keat’s call for a review of the scholarship programme, saying that he had not received any directive to reconsider the criteria.

On 21 May, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the government would limit SPM examination-takers to 10 subjects for PSD scholarship consideration as a “short-term solution”.

“The PSD scholarships are so important because they are the only purely governmental scholarship,” Azmi affirmed during the roundtable meeting. “It is very symbolic to all Malaysians.” Favicon, end of article.

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6 Responses to “Spotlight on PSD grants”

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Dr Kua Kia Soong should define clearly what he means by a community that is class-differentiated.

    Does he mean there can be different degrees of class differentiation between the three races, e.g. 20% poor for Chinese Malaysian, 30% poor for Malay Malaysians and 40% poor for Indian Malaysians, therefore Indian Malaysians should get a bigger share of scholarships cetirus paribus? Or should the criteria be based the disparity between the poor and rich within an ethnic group? If it is the latter case, Malay Malaysians would most probably lose out.

    See the complications when you introduce race in the criteria? Look at how the American Idol finalists were judged: purely on their talents and not on their sex, age, race or religion.

    Like most sound-thinking people, I suggest the whole PSD system be simplified to be purely merit and economic needs-based criteria and do away with the “one size fits all” weakness of the race-based criteria.

  2. victortan says:

    What about postgraduate scholarships? Where are the details and transparency?????

  3. alvin says:

    All forms of selection should not even include race when making a decision. When race is taken into consideration, it will not work. And looking at the bumiputera issue and the Malay rights, there will be no change in Malaysia. The quota system is just another way of saying that one race comes first. If we are proud of our Malay Malaysian race, why should there be such a system in the first place. Are we saying they are still not on par with other races? That they cannot compete with other races? It is totally untrue. The Malay Malaysians I know who have succeeded did so without any help from the government. Just who benefits from all the help?

  4. Hong says:

    Just a tiny nitpick, Jeremiah. If Malaysian statistics can be trusted (not a given), according to the Ninth Malaysia Plan, Malay [Malaysians] present the highest Gini coefficient out of the three main ethnic groups, so even if PSD scholarships were to be allotted based on disparities between rich and poor within one group, the Malay [Malaysians] stand to gain the most.

    As for the statement made by Dr Kua Kia Soong (a social scientist with a well-known penchant for historical materialism), he merely means that scholarships aimed at helping the less well-to-do, if awarded along ethnic lines, can only ever be justified if the target group is not class-differentiated as a whole, the example here being the Orang Asli. As such, Dr Kua is presenting a criticism of the existing quota-based system in support of a merit-based one, albeit in his own Marxist way.

  5. ravianan says:

    It is about time Malaysian from all walks of life need to understand that nothing comes free. Being a taxpayer myself, I feel the PSD scholarship should be scrapped and replaced with loans.
    If at all, the scholars should have responsibility for their own education. If at all they wish to serve the government of the day then these loans should be waived for every year that they serve the government.
    And for those who wish not to serve the government, then they should settle their loans after getting a job.
    In this way, everyone is a winner.

  6. Main says:

    Have the recipients of the PSD scholarships been interviewed and their points taken as a sort of referrals? If only we can see a grain of explanation from those who had received it, then maybe we can have a better outlook. Consider “first come first serve” philosophy with regards to availability.

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