Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shoving a scholar up your brain to think

I have officially completed my undergraduate studies after the release of the examination results on Friday.

I am very proud to say that I got an A for my thesis, although I had expected a B+ or something. I think it mattered the most considering the amount of time and effort put into it, as well as the large number of individuals who have been engaged to give it shape, direction, purpose and who ultimately made it possible.

With this episode over, I plan for the next essay. There is always the continual struggle to prevent my becoming a one-trick pony owing to my sustained focus on issues pertaining to sexual minorities in Singapore. At the same time, there is a drive to delve deeper into the issue and shine the spotlight on areas otherwise dim or invisible.

For the moment, the research focuses on local media censorship of sexual diversity, or perhaps homosexuality. I foresee it would be a very difficult research in the domain of access. The relevant authorities and the ethics review board will ensure that information is kept at a minimal, and more importantly, the relevant important persons in authority are protected.

As will be anticipated, the ethics review board will delay the application process for research, because it will concern government agencies and the topic of homo/sexuality. These, according to them, are probably deemed "risky" and "sensitive" issues to the "ordinary rational man on the street".

There are some important questions to ask. Among them, 'why is the media like that?'

Economics, power relations, culture and so on. I look forward to exploring these issues.

My previously proposed Masters Thesis topic was on ICTs (information communication technologies) in socio-religious spaces, which seeks to study the role and impact of ICTs in religious communities and organisations. I originally planned to conduct anthropological studies and visit various places of worship and interview relevant persons.

But who am I kidding? I chose it because I wanted to try something new, but felt in doing so, I would be forsaking the chance to improve and deepen my knowledge in issues pertaining to sexual minorities and identity. It is a conscious decision. Sometimes, we have got to stick to the plot.

For the first time in my life, I am a scholar. That is because I will be securing a scholarship (barring any last minute decision to remove it).

"Scholar" is such a dirty word in Singapore. You are only a scholar if you get a scholarship, in which most cases would translate to a tuition sponsorship with or without bond.

Our education system is a modern adaptation of the Chinese Confucian system wherein students from all over the country will sit for the national exams, and the top ones will be filtered and picked to be in positions of authority and power. Seems very meritocratic to me.

In Singapore, the best of the best are filtered too. The intellectual pedigree are systematically separated from the pariah. And the best among the top scorers are given this thing called a scholarship. Their tertiary/further education is fully paid for, and for the luckier ones, they get an allowance on top of the sponsorship.

Government agencies as well as private corporations have jumped at the opportunity to secure these unique talents for the foreseeable future with contracts/bonds attached to the tuition sponsorship, knowing that these bright minds will give them the creative and winning edge as well as a sustainable competitive advantage.

For the rest of society, most of whom are laden with tuition loans to service upon graduation, we call the deserving recipients of tuition grants/sponsorships with bonds "scholars". In the process, I believed we have somehow altered and narrowed its meaning.

A scholar should not be called a scholar for what he/she has done or achieved, but what he/she is doing to contribute to knowledge, or any field of knowledge. In that sense, one does not need to be a recipient of financial grants/sponsorships to be called a scholar.

In Singapore, where we prime and worship economic development, sustenance and progress like a legend and religion, we are only too prone to seeing things in the economic perspective. Things are measured and weighed for their economic benefits and worth. We are surrounded by rhetoric that promote economic rationality and pragmatism. Happiness and dissatisfaction are also intricately intertwined with economic desires and esteem.

Scholarship has long been tied to prestige and to an extent, esteem and self-worth. Its demand is greater than its supply. It seems so lucrative and exclusive. But why is there a demand in the first place? Who created this demand?

As such, the "scholar" is almost an entirely economic entity in the Singaporean political and economic ecosystem. The best mind gets the best reward, and also gets to run the country. In the case of the "scholar", has the pursuit of knowledge been hijacked by extrinsic interests of the domain of politics and corporatisation?

Are the bonding and binding contracts of "scholarships", or rather financial sponsorships with bonds, determining the focus, development and direction of knowledge? "Scholars" are after all recruited to sustain the achievements and growth of organisations and government agencies with vested interest. Can they be scholars if they do not question or challenge? Can they be scholars if these bright minds are recruited to be just spokes in the wheel of the organisation, where everyone spins in the same direction? How can there be knowledge when there is no questioning or challenging?

The reason why we have knowledge and the growth of knowledge is because people challenge conventional wisdoms and taken-for-grantedness. Authority fears being challenged and questioned.

Power is the virginity of any authority that constantly harbours fears of rape.

I believe most scholars (recipients of financial sponsorship) are intelligent, hardworking and individually creative in many ways. Can organisations that recruit them bring the best out of them? If scholars are recruited into government agencies just to follow orders, for example, shouldn't the government just recruit any one who will want to follow?

Our kiasu society is also one of mercenaries, where everyone has a price. We are paid to follow orders, fined and punished for not. In most cases, we are not even rewarded for doing "normal" things, but sanctioned for not doing them. Any way, who benefits the most from this?

If one was given a "scholarship", who will ultimately benefit?

Moreover, there are "scholars" who sign their scholarships and bonds in their late teens and after completing their studies in their early adulthood, feel unhappy. Perhaps it's the "low pay", or perhaps it's the "working environment". Some cannot wait to finish their bond and leave, while some will gather enough funds to break their bond.

Is it the "scholar"'s fault? Is it society's fault? Is it the state's fault?

We are often too quick to dismiss the dissatisfaction as greed - psychological reductionism. We should also be open to the fact that society has socialised us into a form of greed that we cannot do without. The state then uses this mechanism to ensure its position of power is sustained.

The state does not take into account that people are able to change their minds in this respect. They may believe that a 21 year old is mature enough to vote, but simultaneously are eager to exploit 17 and 18 year olds and make them sign long term contracts/bonds.

I don't have the solution where all parties can mutually benefit, because the relationships concerned are always unequal.

For the moment, I will be very delighted and grateful to be granted a financial sponsorship, which happens to be called a scholarship, socially qualifying me as a "scholar". It is more than just personal achievement, but rather an "achievement" of how people have been socialised into believing so.

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