Sunday, August 01, 2004

Bond-breakers: Shame no more 

It looks like the Singapore government has abandoned the stand that it took a few years back to shame scholarship bond breakers.

Back in 1998, Philip Yeo, then-chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), suggested that recipients of government scholarships had a moral obligation to serve their country, and that those who broke their bonds should be named and shamed as a deterrence.

Many members of the public rejected the suggestion then. As Member of Parliament Chng Hee Kok pointed out, a scholarship is a legal contract where liquidated damages apply should the scholarship holder break his part of the bargain.

The response from Chng upset Yeo, who suggested that the MP should resign if he opposed naming bond-breakers. Chng also later revealed that he had been asked by Yeo to submit his speech against naming of bond-breakers to the latter for vetting.

Yeo’s actions irked Chng. “We must always be on the lookout for such intolerant attitudes, especially of some in the apex of government,” Chng said at the time.

The government, however, chose to back Yeo. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that a scholarship holder who fails to return to serve his bond has used public funds merely to serve his personal ends.

“So when a scholar breaks a bond, it is not a matter of just liquidated damages,” he said. “It involves deeper issues...moral integrity, a sense of shame at breaking a solemn personal undertaking.”

It all sounded very righteous. What was left unsaid was why scholarship bonds were different from other contracts as a matter of principle.

Is there no moral obligation involved in other contracts, even commercial contracts? Is it moral for a party not to perform the terms of a contract? To break an agreement? To cause the other party to suffer injury or loss? Isn’t that why liquidated damages are applied in the first place?

So no, in principle, there is really no difference between a scholarship bond and any other contract.

The problem, in my opinion, was that the government, like Philip Yeo, chose to see the matter purely from its own point of view. It saw bond-breakers frustrating government policy of recruiting talent to serve the government.

It failed to see the matter from the perspective of the other contracting party, that is, the scholarship recipient. It failed to appreciate that changed circumstances or improved personal understanding of the business environment are legitimate reasons for a scholar to change his mind about serving in the public sector.

However, perhaps the government is beginning to see the light.

Today, The Sunday Times reported that the EDB and the Infocomm Development Authority has stopped naming bond-breakers.

An EDB spokesman explained the change in policy as follows: “We had already sent a strong signal in the past that commitment was important for the scholars, and as the number who leave before the end of their bonds is negligible, we have not been naming them.”

It is also possible that the government is taking to heart Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s point that there is already “too much concentration of talent, drive and energy in the public sector”, and there is no longer any point in having policies to promote further concentration of talent in government (see my earlier post “Too much talent in government”).

The Sunday Times also reported how computer graduate Lawrence Suen had broken his scholarship bond in 1999 to work in the US, where he worked in Silicon Valley. He is now chief technical officer of L2 Solutions, which has tied up with the National University of Singapore to take its students as interns, and partnered a Singapore firm Kikuze — reportedly, through the EDB of all people — to promote each other’s products.

There is some irony in the turn of events. But it does emphasise the unpredictability of the future and hence, the need to be flexible.

Apparently, that lesson has not been lost on the government.


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