Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Since we're on the topic of scholarships...

I've been meaning to write about this some time back but didn't find the right opportunity. But since the issue of scholarships and politicians have come up lately, I thought that this is an opportune time. This is a story concerning a Bank Negara scholar, current UM VC Rafiah Salim and Anwar Irbahim. I'll reproduce this former BN scholar's blog post below and comment on the other side of it.

Monday, February 25, 2008
Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim My Hero

I actually wanted to write this ages ago. In fact this article should be written 12 years ago way back in 1996. I was 22 years old. A young ambitious chap who just graduated from Melbourne University in Australia.

I have to admit that I wasted most of my time there. Being a Bank Negara scholar, I took things for granted. Late nights out, jamming session, movies/videos (during that time VCD has not been invented :)took priority over my studies. I was totally wrong to underestimate the commitment required for an undergraduate course. Perhaps my excellent SPM results have somehow make me think I was smart enough to go thru university years. How wrong I was.

I can still recalled my first semester exam taken in autumn 1993. It was a Business Computing paper. The night before the exam, AC Milan came to town to play the Australia national team. Me and my college buddies decided that since we know so much about computers, perhaps some time off could be taken to witness the Italian job on football. To be honest, it was a grand occasion. The likes of Paulo Maldini commanding the left pitch was a sight to behold. We came back after supper and started to panic rushing thru the lecture notes and tutorial. I failed the exam miserably. It served me right. It was partially an eye opener (still tak sedar diri) for me since I was under contract to complete the degree with honours within the stipulated time (4 years in my case). I barely got thru the others (my highest mark was 60) and have to re-sit the Business Law exam. My first year was a total disaster, academically and personally.

I tried to buck-up and concentrate more on my studies in my 2nd and 3rd year although the distraction was sometime too hard to resist. Baillieu Library became my second home. In order for me to be accepted to continue the 4th year (Hons), I need to at least obtain an average of 75% throughout my 3 years as an undergraduate. The law of average was too cruel on me. My 1st year result brought down the average to 73%, just 2% short of the required grade. I went to see the Hons program co-ordinator and begged her mercy to accept me as the Hons candidate. Failure to be accepted in the Hons programme could cost me RM240,000 for breach of contract. She tried her best but I guess her best wasn't good enough (sounds familiar?). I tried to console myself by enjoying my Graduation Day. At least I've got a degree :)

December 1995. I came back for good from Australia. Ready to serve the Central Bank of Malaysia. But I was brought to reality when the then Assistant Governor, Rafiah Salim call all scholars to her office. When it came to my turn, she crunched my results and threw it to me saying, "With results like this, you are not good enough to work at the bank" I was totally embarrassed and devastated in front of my colleagues. She treated me like rubbish. Demanding me to pay RM240,000 for breach of contract. I actually offered myself to work at any post (guards included) as long I could serve my contractual obligation with the Bank. After all, I did have a degree, not a total disaster in my own opinion. Even some of my seniors didn't complete the Hons. year but were still accepted to work in the bank. But to her, I was public enemy number 1. The one who tarnished the prestigious image of the Central Bank. All my appeals went to deaf ears and they started to issue a demand letter for breach of contract. I will never forgive Rafiah Salim for what she did on me and my family.

My family was in disarray after knowing that I need to pay RM240k. How on earth can we earn that much? My father, being a hot tempered guy, always directed his anger towards Ibu. Pity my mum, I would say she's the most patient human being in the world, tolerating my father's antics without even raising her voice. We tried to seek help with this so-called helpful politician but to no avail. We even seeked the assistance from Datuk Salomon Selamat, my father's schoolmate, the then YDP SDARA, my very own alma mater.

He promised us that he'll do his best but whenever my father called him, he kept on giving the same answer and finally told us that he can't assist us after we were made to wait for more than 5 months. A true politician indeed! I have nothing personal against Datuk Salamon. Just disappointed with his know everybody attitude but in reality....? It would be completely fine if he told us that he can't help us during our very first meeting. But having to waste precious months like menunggu bulan jatuh ke riba is a bit to much for me.

In the mean time, I went to this job interview at a Bank Negara affiliate. If I'm not mistaken some kind hearted BNM's HR staff called me and ask me to go for the interview. Lucky enough I was accepted but my offer letter was withheld thanks to Rafiah Salim who convinced the Governor not to allow my contract to be transferred to BNM's affiliate.

I totally ran out of hope. My father drafted a last appeal letter addressed to Anwar Ibrahim of the Ministry of Finance. About 3 days after that, we received a call from his secretary En. Muhammad Ahmad, if I recalled correctly. He called to get a clearer picture on my case and say he'll recommend to Dato Sri Anwar to write to BNM's governor to appeal on my behalf. Having been toyed around by many politicians, I didn't put my hope that high and was prepared for another disappointment. Two days later, I received the news I've been waiting for 9 freaking months. BNM has agreed to transfer my contract and release me from any contractual obligation.

Anwar Ibrahim did it in 5 days. The others took almost 5 months before saying they can't do anything to help me. For that I owe him my sincerest gratitude. Forget about all the nasty things accused on him (I don't even care if all the accusations were true) Dato Sri Anwar Ibrahim is my savior. A true hero indeed. You'll surely get my vote of thanks.

First of all, from a cursory glance at this person's posts, I would say that he's a pretty intelligent and articulate guy who probably would have easily made the 75% needed for the honors program if he had not screwed up his first year. Even with his horrible 1st year results, he fell short only by 2% points.

Of course, I have no way of judging how difficult it is to achieve that 75% mark in the University of Melbourne which is one of the top 2 or three unis in Australia. The only basis for comparison I have is my brother in law whose average was something like 95% at the U of Sydney but since he topped his SAM program with an average of 99%, he's probably not a good basis for comparison. (No scholarship to Australia for him alas) My sense is that 75% is probably not that difficult achieve if one is reasonably intelligent and hardworking.

Secondly, I think that Rafiah was a little hard-assed in dealing with his case. Although he had a contractual obligation to get the Honors mark, I'm sure that he was not the first scholar at Bank Negara to do that and to get away with it. And like he mentioned in the post, many of his seniors, presumably also under a BN scholarship, didn't have honors degrees. It certainly seems that Rafiah was trying to make an example of him.

This story and some of the stories shared in the previous post on Saiful Bukhari made me wonder about how widespread these kinds of stories are. How many other Malaysian scholarship holders have gone abroad and basically partied their way through 3 or 4 years of university life without having to worry about their grades and such.

This guy at least made an attempt to buck up after his first year. I wonder how many others didn't care even after scoring badly in their first year because they thought they could somehow 'get away with it' because of the lax standards set back home in Malaysia.

Of course, sometimes, the sponsoring agencies can go overboard. For example, the Singaporeans here at Duke are expected to finish their degrees in 3 years rather than 4 (which means summer school most of the time they are here) and have to have a GPA of 3.8 and above which is not exactly easy to maintain at a place like Duke. But my sense is that Malaysian scholarship sponsoring agencies are still very far from setting such high standards.

I can't help but feel a bit pissed off when I read the above post. Even as I sympathized with the writer in his treatment by Rafiah, I can't help but to compare his situation to my own. I was lucky enough that my parents could afford to send me to LSE for my undergrad. Perhaps it was because of my Singapore 'training' and perhaps it was because I didn't want to waste my parent's hard earned money, I worked really hard for my first two years at LSE just so I could secure a 1st class honors. By the end of my 2nd year, I was more or less guaranteed of graduating with a 1st class honors (unless I were to fail all my subjects in my 3rd year). In a sense, I was in the opposite situation compared to the BN scholar above.

There were a few other Malaysian scholars who were studying economics in my year and only 1 of them managed to get a first class. (She would end up being my colleague later at BCG) The other scholars either graduated with a 2nd upper or a 2nd lower. My impression was that some of them didn't really work that hard or want to achieve the same kind of academic excellence I was searching for. (And it was not as if I was studying all the time. I was pretty active in ECAs, took time to travel around Europe and do all sorts of stuff) In my opinion, I though I was at least as deserving of a Malaysian scholarship as the other Malaysians under scholarship at LSE (if not more so) purely from the perspective of academic results. If my parents could not afford it, I probably couldn't have gone to LSE. And yet others whom I thought were perhaps less deserving could have easily gotten scholarships (and did!)

(I could tell you of other stories. About a friend who is one of the smartest people I know who went to UTexas because it was the cheapest option available to him and later got into the PhD program in physics at Caltech. Or about another friend who obtained 4As and 2 distinctions in two "S" or Special papers for his A levels and whose mom had to work for a few years in the Middle East to fund his studies at Cambridge)

I didn't know any politicians who could 'pull the right strings' for me back then. Perhaps I could have gotten some sort of government funding / scholarship if I did.

But even later on, when I knew many more politicians (remember I used to work for MCA and GERAKAN), I didn't rely on these contacts to get funding to come over to the US. Thankfully I received funding from Fulbright and from my university. If not, I probably wouldn't have come here. I didn't ask a political party to fund my application here. I didn't ask any MPs or Ministers to write me a recommendation letter even though I easily could have. Perhaps, I was naive in not using these contacts in a more astute manner in the same way that Saiful Bukhari and this writer did. But thankfully, this naivete did not harm my prospects.

These episodes only makes me wonder aloud - how many people in Malaysia have gotten scholarships because of who they know rather than based on academic criteria? And how many other deserving Malaysians have been left out because they didn't know the right people?

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