The budgets allocated to support students with financial needs increase annually. The Government provides financial aid through schools, Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), directly to needy students and indirectly by subsidising education costs.
These increases supplement support from civil society, self-help organisations, social service organisations, caring neighbours and relatives to create a comprehensive level of support.
Fortunately, these allocations are generally supported by society. Unlike other developed countries, Singapore lacks fundamental or widespread doubt over the justification for such social support. There’s a consensus that Singapore’s system of meritocracy depends on levelling the playing field, and that doing so requires supporting people with merit – merit of all kinds – including those whose families lack the necessary financial means.
However, from time to time, people may wonder, given Singapore’s prosperity, is there a systematic need for this support? Are these funds worthy of our tax dollars? Does it make a significant difference?
Lest anyone question the fundamental importance of such funds, our research is able to answer these questions in the affirmative. The Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) have teamed up with my students and I to collect evidence that shows that such support must be maintained and even deepened.
Over the past year, we’ve interviewed nearly 100 adults who had the experience of going through the Normal Technical (NT) stream. From this research, we’ve unearthed insights into ongoing unmet social needs these adults face, as well as developed an understanding of what factors help some NT graduates succeed where others struggle.
Among our conclusions, one is especially prominent: the importance of the aid, bursaries, subsidies and other forms of support appear in interview after interview. While these funds are virtually never, on their own, sufficient in fulfilling all of a student’s needs, they have made demonstrable differences.
We found this from nearly all our interviews – from the youngest to the more mature, from all genders, and all races.
One young male respondent shared about his experience of being brought up by a single mother, whose father does not pay child support. Although his mother works hard outside the home, resources remain tight. The four dollars he received daily as a secondary student meant he would never have to skip that meal. It meant one less thing his mother had to worry about. It also meant eating side-by-side with his peers, both poor and better off. This young man is now in Higher NITEC, studying chemical processes and is well on his way to a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
In another interview, we heard from a young man whose father is a gambling addict. In his primary and secondary school years, he reacted to the violence and dysfunction at home by becoming the “class joker”. His grades suffered. The financial aid he received was part of a mix – one-on-one support from teachers, and a well-timed role model – necessary but insufficient. The father’s addiction hit the family hard but, thanks to bursaries, he’s now in higher NITEC studying business administration at ITE – and studying with a purpose.
These are some examples among dozens who related how the financial assistance helped to purchase textbooks, lunches, and transportation, among other benefits. All of this took pressure off the family. Young people who otherwise would have to juggle part-time work and precious study time could instead concentrate on their studies and strive toward their futures.
Financial assistance worked in much deeper ways. Another young respondent was adrift in his life until he was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to study marine engineering at ITE. To him, this represented not just financial assistance per se but a pathway to a promising career, being bonded as a maritime firefighter.
The budding pharmacist related being supported financially to go to Cambodia on an overseas community service project. This is what sparked his passion to make a difference, hence his interest in the pharmaceuticals.
More than one respondent described the support as making them want to help others in turn. They know how it feels to not have, and what it means when those needs were met. When they are in a position to do so, many will invest in helping others.
To be sure, financial aid is not a panacea. Multi-pronged assistance such as mentoring, psychological help and caring teachers are indispensable – but financial aid is a crucial component of the mix. In most cases, it was insufficient – but it was absolutely necessary in nearly every successful case we saw.
In addition, we talked to many respondents who somehow fell through the cracks, failing to receive needed financial assistance. Some of these had to do with their family. For instance, some families were unaware of – or too stressed to find out about –financial assistance. We talked to others whose family pride – one referred to it as an ‘ideology of hard work’ – meant turning down offers of much-needed assistance. Some families are dysfunctional, barely taking care of their children’s needs, let alone applying for assistance. Since the family often must apply for aid on behalf of their children, it is these students who suffer when their families fail to do so.
Sometimes aid fails to cover hidden costs of education. For one post-NT student who is studying baking in ITE, the support she received did not cover equipment costs, a real burden on her family. Another, studying film-making in higher ITE, cringes every time she has to ask for her family’s help to buy film and other required – and expensive – supplies. Some faced systemic barriers. One young man’s family was turned down from receiving financial aid because she had working siblings, even though they were not in a position to support her. We talked to one young woman who escaped violence of the home, but was denied enough financial assistance because her family’s income was still part of the calculation.
Sometimes financial aid is not enough to deal with fundamental family needs. One young female respondent from a working-class family recalls how she had to work from Primary Four to support the family. Another male respondent had to work part-time to meet basic needs. His grades – and his esteem – suffered greatly, and he was tempted to drop out of school entirely. We were also reminded by one of our interviewees that although financial aid usually helps students get through school, “it did little to [promote] our social conditions.”
In the impending budgetary season, let’s remember how supporting our students makes a significant difference in their lives. There is still room to change the structure of financial aid to plug remaining gaps. Moreover, many who receive financial aid need additional forms of help – opportunities for good educational programmes and role models, that is, people who believe in them.
As we look forward to Singapore Budget 2018 with hope, we must also remember that it is not only the government’s job to help needy students. While we anticipate that the government will continue its support, we cannot expect the state to do everything. Civil society and civic leaders, VWOs, religious groups and individuals with a generous heart, time and talent to share must continue and redouble their efforts.
Nevertheless, we were impressed by the impact that financial assistance could bring. For the lion’s share of those we interviewed, financial assistance, both direct and indirect, represented an opportunity, an encouragement, and an opening door. A chance for a different trajectory. An invitation to dream. ⬛
Assoc Prof John Donaldson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University (SMU). He also serves as a Senior Research Fellow with the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, working with the SMU Change Lab to research and design innovative solutions to unmet needs in vulnerable communities in Singapore.