Scholarships Woes: Here We Go Again

So here we go again.

Exam results are out, results for the government scholarships are out…and also out are the newspaper reports of a random "straight A" student who felt cheated out of a scholarship.

Among the many remarks and excuses heard during this time:

  • "I worked so hard for these As! I woke up at 2:45 in the morning every day to study!"
  • "I know someone who got less As than me but got a scholarship. Not fair!"
  • "I must study medicine! And I can only do it with a scholarship!"

Ever notice how it's always medicine? Or at least a scientific subject? You rarely hear about someone failing to get a government scholarship to study creative industries or sociology or humanities. Oh, wait…there aren't any.

How many of these doctor-wannabes really want to be doctors anyway? To serve the community by providing healthcare and guidance and support? How many of them are only pursuing medicine because it's what they "should" do? Because it's what their parents want them to do? Because it's expected of them?

Half the scholarship problems would probably be solved if the students would actually apply for what they're interested in in the first place.

Another thing these reports bring out about our students and the education system is our massive entitlement complex. People, getting straight As DOES NOT ENTITLE you to ANYTHING! There is more to a person than their grades, and it looks like the scholarships committees are taking that into account. You can't even say that you must have the straight As anyway, or else you lose out – obviously there are people with less-than-perfect grade slips that are getting assistance.

If they think this is shocking, they've got another thing coming when it comes to international scholarships. See, Malaysian scholarships (public or private) tend to be limited in the following ways:

  • They are very often for a science-related subject (with the rare business subject, and the so-rare-it's-endangered Arts & Mass Communications subjects assisted by ASTRO)
  • They usually come attached with bonds to companies lasting up to five years – other scholarships aren't that restrictive
  • They don't let you take other scholarships – at least in the USA this is allowable (Benjamin Kaplan was so successful at this that he wrote a book about it and showed up on Oprah for it)
  • They do not have diverse criteria – it's either grades, or need. That's it.

This only causes more problems than it solves:

  • There isn't enough diversity in educational choice; students who want to explore unusual or unorthodox courses are not given any help, assistance, or support
  • Too many students take up subjects for the wrong reasons – forced into it, expected to do it, so on – without accounting for interest, passion, and sincerity; the really interested ones end up losing out
  • Students put themselves at high health and sanity risks just for grades or scholarships (some even nearly kill themselves) – priorities are misplaced
  • Students who think scholarships are the be-all of their existence are lost when they don't get what they want; they then are unable to make the best of their situation, instead opting to mope and complain
  • Students spend too much energy on some things and too little energy on others (rest, other interests, etc) – they end up being totally unprepared for international scholarships, or other experiences in life
  • Thanks to the bonds, students don't even get the freedom to explore possible career choices. They may have changed their minds in college, or have an opportunity to explore a different company in the same industry, but can't act on it
  • Getting one scholarship might not be enough, since higher education costs are high – but the "no other scholarships" rule makes it difficult to fund higher education
  • Interesting personalities and efforts are not recognized; already we have people saying that "the only ones who say As don't matter are under achievers". Way to insult and downgrade the efforts of people like Suzanne Lee or myself.

There needs to be some major changes done towards the scholarships system in Malaysia, to make it truly fair for everyone and not run into the same problems year in year out. Amongst them are:

  1. Encourage diversity of educational paths. This needs to start at the school level – stop making arts/humanities students "lower class people". People have different abilities and interests, and this should be encouraged – through better classes, more courses (perhaps a Drama paper in the SPM?), and more extra-curricular opportunities
  2. Allow flexibility in scholarships. Let students gain more than one scholarship, if it helps them pursue their educational goals. Don't restrict them to long bonds; allow them flexibility to explore their career path and the industry. Heck, loosen up the "citizens only" deal; at least open it to permanent residents too, since more often then not they contribute a lot of time and energy to the country.
  3. Remind students that straight As are NOT a guarantee, and teach them how to make the best of situations. Once students get rid of the "straight A" entitlement complex, they'll be better able to handle disappointment or change, and they may even be open to other options. Those who may not get straight As would also be able to stay calm (instead of panicking and thinking the world is over), as they are able to work with their options too.
  4. Recognize other abilities, efforts, and personalities. Don't make this either a grades thing or a money thing. Take note of the interesting things students do – volunteer work, educational travel, creative work, so on. This encourages students to be more well-rounded, and also helps greatly students who don't fit the traditional educational mold.
  5. Support alternative learning efforts. I couldn't get any financial support for my Up With People trip (save for RM300 prize money from Hitz.FM – thanks guys!) because no one knew what it was and no one wanted to know what it was. It wasn't a university program, so no dice. One of my crewmates from Singapore managed to get funding from his university. Not everyone is cut out for university, or even WANTS to go to university straight away, or just wants to explore something else for a while; support their efforts to find education through other means.

Tony Pua of Education Malaysia has written quite a bit on the subject (1, 2, 3, 4). One of his suggestions was to stop giving scholarships to SPM students (O-Levels) and give them to STPM students (A-Levels) instead. I disagree with this, for two reasons:

  • The STPM doesn't suit everyone. You're still in school, so there isn't enough freedom; also, there aren't a lot of subjects offered in the STPM (especially anything arts/humanities related)
  • Some people can't even afford to take the next step after SPM. Without those scholarships, where would they go?

His posts and the comments are rather interesting though, so I suggest taking a look.

In the meantime – what do you do if you don't get a scholarship?

  1. Keep looking. The JPA doesn't hold a monopoly on scholarships. There are so many out there that may be better suited for you.
  2. Reevaluate your choices. Why did you apply for that particular scholarship? Because you want to? Because you have to? Because it's a "proper" subject, even if you have no interest in it?
  3. Explore other means of funding. Loans, work-study, part-time work, selling stuff, competitions – money comes from many sources. Who knows, you might even have a fairy godmother who's willing to help you out. (hey, it sometimes happens.)
  4. Ask the university. I'm not entirely sure how receptive local universities are to this, but many universities around the world would be able to give you ideas and suggestions about funding your study. Contact their Finance Department and ask them questions.
  5. Take time off. You don't have to go to university now. If you can't go now, so be it. The university won't run away. Use this gift of time to empower yourself – get a job, go travelling, do volunteer work, learn a course in something else; something to enrich your life and give your brain a break from all the studying too. You'll learn quite a bit about yourself – and you might even realize what you actually want to study. (And hey, you can use this time to earn some money for yourself!)
  6. Relax! It's not the end of the world if you don't get a scholarship, or don't graduate, or don't go to college. What really matters is what you make out of the situation. When life hands you lemons…what do you do with them?

Good luck to all looking for scholarships, congratulations to those that have them, and if you haven't – don't worry. There's always a way, if you're sincere and committed enough.

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7 Responses

  1. I fully agree with your points but the the selection process of the most popular scholarship among students in Malaysia is really opague. It was said that vesides good grades, you will need to be active in other stuff too(co-curriculum etc etc) but the scholars in my universities(some) are sooooo passive that I really don’t know how they managed to get the scholarship in the 1st place, did they fake their achievement? Do they know any magical spell? Or is there a real big problem with the selection process which was said to be fair and square? I don’t know.. only those in the selection committee will know…

  2. That’s a very good point – it’s hard to assess your qualification for a scholarship, if they don’t make the selection process clear enough. Heck, you might not even qualify for the scholarship in the first place, but not be aware of that because it’s not mentioned clearly.

    Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. actually i think a lot of it also counts on how the so-called high achiever performed at the interview. i mean there are JUST SO MANY scholarships out there, and unfortunately, yes, there is a limit. fact is, not everyone who has straight As will get what they want.

    if you flop in the interview, whose fault is it?

  4. Well done! This the first well thought examination of this annual breast beating event that I have ever read. However, we need not overlook the fact that the long service bonds are meant to recruit the best brains and if the recruits are clever, an excellent way to cultivate networks. One need only at the success of the post-war Colombo Plan to see this how this works.

  5. Hey,

    Just a quick note:

    I didn’t say not to give scholarships after SPM. More specifically, I said, not to award *undergraduate* scholarships after SPM.

    A separate scheme should be run for top students after SPM to pursue STPM, A levels etc. etc. etc. Only upon admission acceptance into [top?] universities should undergraduate scholarships be considered.


  6. Thanks for the clarification, Tony. Though I still disagree; if the student is ready and capable, they should be open to any scholarship opportunity they can get.

    (Whether the government wants to issue them is another matter, but let’s keep the options open.)

  7. to minishorts,

    I had been through the interview and it’s nothing like an interview at all. (ok that was a few years back so I don’t really know the latest style) There’s around 10-12 of us when there’s only 2-3 interviewers. We are each given a mere few minutes to talk some crap nothing related to yourself.. so if you are saying about performing well in interview… I guess you must be hack of a good to proof that you are really good in just a few minutes with a extremely general topic… like tourism.. so what does a scince students got to do with tourism???

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