story | Terence Anthony Wang, Arts Editor
photo | Terence Anthony Wang
On March 12, 2017, David Chia ’17, Rohan Naidu ’17, Tara Dear ’17 and Raeden Richardson ’17 drafted an open letter that was exclusively circulated amongst the Yale-NUS College student community to raise concerns regarding Singapore’s Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS). Titled, “A Community of Earning? Why the Tuition Grant Scheme is Incompatible with a Liberal Arts Education,” the letter argues that the liberal arts values espoused by the College are incompatible with the TGS bond clause, which mandates that signatories work for a Singapore-registered company for three years. As of March 13, the letter had received over 120 signatories. It was presented to the Yale-NUS Governing Board on Monday, March 13.
The TGS was introduced by the Singapore Government in 1980 with the founding of the National University of Singapore. According to the Ministry of Education’s TG Online website, it aims to “help students with the costs of tertiary education in Singapore,” and is offered to students in many of the country’s tertiary institutions, including universities, polytechnics, and arts institutions, among others. Singaporeans are automatically enrolled in the TGS, and do not have bond obligations. However, for both Permanent Resident (PR) and international students, signing the TGS is optional. If they choose to do so, they have to seek employment in Singapore-based companies, defined as local and international companies that have a base in Singapore and are registered with the Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA). If a signatory fails to find a job within 12 months after graduation, they may be held liable to pay “liquidated damages,” defined in the TGS Agreement as “the total amount of subsidy received by the Student, together with 10% compound interest per annum.”
According to the letter, the TGS drove students and faculty to prioritise employability over academic interests, contradicting the principles of liberal arts that Yale-NUS claims to espouse. The writers pointed out that Yale-NUS College “was founded on the bold ambition to bring the liberal arts tradition to Asia,” which meant that students should be able to choose their course of study in accordance with their passions. However, they argued that the TGS discouraged the pursuit of majors that were viewed as less employable, such as the humanities. This is further exacerbated by an eligibility requirement of the Employment Pass, a long-term pass allowing foreigners to stay and work in Singapore: workers had to earn a minimum fixed monthly salary of SGD $3,600 to be eligible. According to the writers, this made it difficult for students to work for nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or startup companies, which tend to pay lower salaries. Therefore, the writers contended that students who wished to aid “social or environmental justice,” or become “freelancers, self-employed artists, or entrepreneurs,” would be hindered from doing so. This, they argued, created a “moral problem” between the aims and ideals of a liberal arts education, and the practical constraints faced by students in trying to achieve those goals.
Additionally, the letter noted that students interested in postgraduate studies would also be adversely affected. According to MOE’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document for the TGS, students wishing to pursue postgraduate studies (both locally or abroad) had to apply for a deferment of their Tuition Grant bond. Doing so meant having to apply for a Banker’s Guarantee for the total amount equal to the “liquidated damages,” which the letter specified as being approximately 80,000 Singapore dollars. Students would thus have to obtain that sum of money upfront and store it with the relevant financial institution for the entire length of their postgraduate studies, putting the pursuit of a masters or doctorate out of reach for most of the financially-limited students that the TGS was aimed at in the first place.
The writers also pointed out that other areas beyond academics were similarly impacted: local internships, they wrote, were encouraged over international opportunities by the College’s Centre of International and Professional Experience (CIPE), so that students could obtain “networking experience for the need to later find a job based within Singapore.” The writers voiced concern over the limitations that this imposed on students specializing in skills such as writing, designing, or acting, as they would have to potentially forgo better-developed international programmes for practical reasons.
The letter proposed three solutions to the TGS-related issues. The writers first called for greater financial aid from the College that could replace the need for the TGS, thus allowing students to be free ofthe TGS’ bond system. They also asked for full support from the administration for students to pursue their goals, especially those at odds with the current restrictions imposed by the TGS. Finally, the writers requested greater transparency and explanation regarding the TGS at promotional Admissions events such as Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW), so that prospective students would have “no illusions to the limits of their freedom.”
The letter was shared by Chia to the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group on the night of March 12. It quickly drew both a wave of new signatories, as well as some critique from other students. One criticism rested on the issue of money: Timothy Chua ‘17 noted that “there is nothing free in life,” and wondered where the money to fill the void left by the TGS would come from. He also wrote that the tone of the letter was “unnecessarily alarming.” Jessica Teng ‘18 also stated that “the tuition grant is not a charity project.” She wrote, “ I think it is perfectly fair if the government does not want to invest 60k in your education just so that you can work in a bookstore to fulfil your passions. To expect otherwise is entitlement in the extreme.”
Another issue raised in response to the letter concerned the Employment Pass. Maria Ivanenko ‘17 wrote that undergraduates could also apply for the S Pass, which had a lower eligibility clause of 2,200 Singapore dollars. Tiffany Sin ‘17 pointed out that the lack of mention of this alternative in the letter could potentially mislead readers, and wrote that the salary amount was not a “hard and fast rule.” However, Naidu replied that it was more fair to evaluate the Employment Pass’ actual specified requirements rather than judging based on exceptions. He also noted that the S Pass’ requirement, despite being lower than the Employment Pass’, would still preclude future undergraduates from many jobs that had salaries below $2,200.
Most of the comments did however show support for the issue of transparency raised by the writers. Despite raising concerns with parts of the letter, Chua, Teng and other commenters expressed that the College needed to work on clearer communication for incoming students to ensure that no one would be misled or confused regarding the bond and other terms of the TGS.
Chia acknowledged the concerns raised by the student body. In an email interview, Chia said that he had “benefited a lot from [the TGS],” and was grateful that Singaporean taxpayers’ money has supported his studies. He also expressed hope that the letter would not “frame [the writers] as being entitled or elitist,” as he saw it as a first step towards a possible compromise in the long-term. In response to several calls for the presentation of the letter to be delayed for amendment, Chia said that the Governing Board “comes once every semester” and noted that full consensus was unlikely to be achieved in time. He also clarified that the letter did not mean to represent the entire student body, but only a segment of it.
The writers presented the letter to the Yale-NUS Governing Board alongside Student Government President Saza Faradilla ‘18 and a few other students. Teng, who was one of the attendees, noted that the meeting “went very well.” Teng wrote, “A lot of people were concerned that the tone and content of the letter might “backfire” and portray Yale-NUS students in a negative light. I hope these concerns will be put to rest because mine certainly were.” She added that the board members were “receptive” to improving the transparency of the TGS’ bond to incoming students, as well as finding solutions to the Banker’s Guarantee and Employment Pass issues. However, she also wrote that the board saw full financial aid as unlikely due to its unsustainability, unless the number of international students was “drastically reduce[d].” They also noted that the three-year bond was a “relatively good deal” since it was a small part of an individual’s entire career, and could be taken as an opportunity for undergraduates to experience other jobs and gain valuable perspectives.
The minutes from the meeting between the writers and the Governing Board were released at 9pm on Tuesday, March 14. They can be found here.