|Previously, we discussed the of the change in the racial quota for the JPA overseas scholarship allocation. In this article, we want to bring up certain weaknesses in regards to this scholarship which many politicians and NGO representatives do not bring up when supporting or criticizing the latest policy change.
These weaknesses cut across racial lines which should tell us that often, we have to take off our racial lens and look beyond them in discussing issues of this nature.
JPA offers two types of scholarships. They offer approximately 2,000 overseas scholarships and 10,000 local scholarships. The overseas scholarship is obviously the more prestigious scholarship and garners most of the public press and dissatisfaction.
Most of the public is unaware of the cost of the overseas scholarships. A conservative estimate is that one overseas scholarship costs roughly RM200,000. A degree in a university in London or in a top private university in the US would cost more, perhaps between RM300,000 to RM400,000. Using the lower and more conservative estimate, one cohort of JPA scholars would cost the taxpayers roughly RM400 million. While this pales in comparison to the billions of ringgit spent on oil subsidies, it is still no laughing matter.
So if Umno Youth proposes an increase in the number of overseas scholarships from 2000 to 3000, we are talking about an additional allocation of RM200 million, not an insignificant amount.
In addition, the public is probably unaware of the fact that the return on investment, so to speak, from the JPA overseas scholarship is almost non-existent. Almost ALL overseas JPA scholars do not end up working for the JPA or the government. Many of them choose to stay overseas. Those who come back to Malaysia often end up working for the private sector which provides better pay, working conditions and promotion prospects. (Those who are sponsored to do medicine may be the only exception)
Furthermore, almost ALL of these scholars who break their JPA bonds do not pay a single cent back. It is a standing joke among some JPA scholars that when they go back home, they notify JPA that they are back, submit an application form to the JPA and then wait for them to ‘lose’ these forms and release these scholars from their JPA obligations.
In other words, these scholarships are given away, more or less, for FREE to these scholars.
One may ask – why doesn’t the JPA ask these scholars to work for them or to work for another government department or ministry? The sad fact of the matter is that there is currently no structure within the public service that can fully utilize the skills and smarts of JPA scholars. Unlike the Singapore PSC, the equivalent to the JPA, scholars are not rotated and fast tracked within the different ministries that they might be allocated to.
In addition, there is probably very little appetite among some in the public service who do not want to see smart and capable JPA scholars coming in to ‘shake things up’ and possibly outshine them. Hence the current ‘close one eye’ policy of not forcing these scholars to work for the government or to ask them to pay the bond back in any form or fashion. Again, breaking the JPA bond cuts across racial lines which is not surprising given the current state of our policies.
Can Malaysia really afford this kind of policy? Even Singapore, by far a richer country than Malaysia, is not so generous in giving out scholarships to its citizens without having them to work for it or to pay it back. The Singapore government is infamous for chasing down bond breakers and forcing them to pay back the value of their scholarships, often at punitive interest rates.
There is a school of thought which says that the social benefits of sponsoring these scholars to go abroad and then releasing them to work for the private sector is more beneficial to the country compared to forcing them to work for the government. This argument is flawed in many ways.
Firstly, it ignores the fact that many JPA scholars do not even come back to work in Malaysia. Given that JPA does not release figures of where these JPA scholars end up working (one doubts if they even know), we cannot even be sure of the percentage of scholars who come back to work in Malaysia.
Secondly, it assumes that these scholars would not have been able to obtain other scholarships either from Malaysia or from overseas if the JPA scholarship did not exist. There are many other organisations in Malaysia which provides overseas scholarships such as Bank Negara, Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga, just to name a few. Some, especially Petronas, have much better track records of keeping their scholars or asking those who break their bonds to pay it back.
Thirdly, it assumes that the social benefits accruing from these scholars going overseas to study is somehow higher than if they had remained in Malaysia and did their degree in a public university. This is hard to justify since a smart and motivated citizen would be able to contribute to society whether he or she studies abroad or at home. In fact, one can make the argument that the social benefit of a scholar staying at home would be greater than going overseas since this would increase the overall quality of students in our public universities.
Look beyond racial quota
The social benefits argument clearly does not hold water.
Some of the other criticisms of this policy change also fail to look beyond the racial quota. An example of this is the statement made by ABIM addressing its concern over this policy change on the grounds that the poverty level among Malays is higher than the other communities and indirectly arguing that Malays should be given the larger share of these scholarships.
What these critics conveniently ignore is the distribution of these scholarships among the Malays. In most countries where affirmative action is practiced, it is usually the middle and upper middle class of the targeted community that benefits from these policies. This is certainly the case in the US where minority students (Black and Hispanic) who are in the top universities come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. We would not be surprised if the same is found in the Malaysian context – that the JPA scholars, including the Malays, come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. Hence the argument that the previous racial quota should be maintained on the grounds of helping poor Malays is not a sound one.
It is a little saddening that ABIM, a well respected Muslim NGO, would want to deal with this issue that does not directly deal with the issue of Islam. Even from the perspective of justice, it seems that they like other Malay organizations, only care about the issue when changes in racial quotas are involved and totally ignore the distributional impact of policies within the Malay community.
Such arguments also ignore another related change in the JPA policy which is to automatically provide a scholarship to those with 10A1s and above and whose families earn less than RM1,500 a month, regardless of race. Surely such a means tested policy is more just than a blind racial quota from a progressive and an Islamic perspective.
More information is always better than less especially for those interested in researching this area. If the JPA were to collect and then release relevant data on the allocation of these scholarships – race, SPM results, family income, university, whether they return to Malaysia, where they end up working, etc… – then perhaps some of the doubts surrounding the JPA scholarship could be quelled. More importantly, it could guide us towards making better policies in regards to the JPA scholarship.
To summarize, there are more important issues surrounding the JPA scholarship other than the racial quota. Most important is the fact that the returns on investment from these scholarships is almost non-existent since these scholars don’t return to work for the government (if they do come back at all) nor do they pay back their bonds. Given the high cost associated with these scholarships, this situation is not tenable in the long run.
Yesterday: JPA scholarships – who loses, who wins?
ONG KIAN MING is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University and OON YEOH is a writer and new media analyst. You can listen to both of them discuss this topic in their Realpolitik podcast.