Public Service Commission Scholar is a Muslim and wants to pursue a masters in Buddhist studies at Oxford University

The Public Service Commission (PSC), whose members are appointed by the President, in consultation with the Prime Minister, recently awarded 90 undergraduate and three postgraduate scholarships. These scholarship recipients will then embark on a career in the public service to bring Singapore forward. The recipients came from 17 different institutions and varied backgrounds. However, one scholarship recipient’s choice of pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University raised some eyebrows.

Two members of the public wrote to The Straits Times’ forum page. One felt that courses paid with scholarships funded by the public must be relevant to Singapore’s economy and development. Another asked how a course in Buddhist studies would be of value to Singapore, compared with others in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One can only imagine the entrenched levels of groupthink if the leaders of our civil service or country only came from the backgrounds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The resultant policies that will impact millions of lives will likely be imbalanced due to the lack of diversity in viewpoints and thought.

I’m glad that the PSC emphasised its clear and well-deliberated position regarding this matter. PSC said their aim is to develop talent across a range of disciplines, and people who have varied experiences and broader networks. Having a diversity of strengths makes the public service more resilient and better able to anticipate the complex and cross-cutting challenges Singapore will face. PSC also said that in the Singapore context, secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content. Our public space is shared by Singaporeans of different religions and policymakers in Singapore take an active role in working towards religious harmony. In sending the scholarship holders to read a diversity of subjects, the hope is that each one will bring back a special perspective to contribute to the team to bring Singapore forward.

Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli, the scholarship recipient in question, had a humble upbringing compared to most of his peers. His family was homeless for a period of time, his mother then suddenly packed her belongings and left the children and Zulhaqem accompanied his father to go through dumpsters in search of scrap metal and cardboard boxes they could sell to support the family. Zulhaqem wanted to work in the public service so he could help improve the social work system in Singapore. Zulhaqem’s father told him and his siblings to read voraciously to gain knowledge, to stay humble, and reflect on their lives by looking at nature and thinking about the lessons and meaning they could derive from it.

Grit? Check. Experienced harsh life lessons? Check. Motivation to improve the lives of the less privileged? Check.

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Identifying tomorrow’s leaders is not easy. However, offering scholarships to those identified as authentic, open-minded individuals with clear thinking, who are aligned with public service values, eager to learn and driven to serve Singapore, is one small step in the right direction. In Zulhaqem’s case, it is about harnessing product of the environment he grew up in, moulded by real-world experiences with a drive and passion to better society.

Kudos to him and the 92 other scholarship recipients.