Every year the Public Service Department (JPA) scholarship, and the university admission process, causes a ruckus.
The script is always the same: some excellent straight A students do not get the scholarship (or the course they wanted), the media reports make waves in the social media, and the cycle repeats the following year.
To be sure, this is not a negligible issue. This is a systemic, structural issue that should have been corrected long ago. But this problem is not the focus of this article.
Rather, I want to shine light on the lesser known aspects of this scholarship. The following account is just my personal observation, which may not be generalised for all JPA students.
I am also informed that the new JPA scholarship criteria and terms of contract are different from those of my batch, so take my account for whatever it is worth.
I come from a low-middle income family. My family live in a small flat and I do not have my own room.
We are not poor, but we are not rich either. Back when I was in secondary school, we did not own a car, we never had a family trip, and both my parents have full-time jobs.
When I was in Form 4, somehow an idea was planted into my mind. I dreamed of earning a scholarship that will allow me to study overseas and see the “outside world”.
There are many scholarships, but the most obvious candidate is the JPA scholarship.
The reason boiled down to quantity. There can be as many as 1,500 JPA overseas scholarships per year (or more).
There is an additional 2,000 JPA local scholarships. Compared to other sponsors such as Bank Negara, Petronas, or YTL, JPA is probably the only sponsor which provides over a thousand spots (opportunities).
For most of students, JPA scholarship is our best bet for a scholarship.
Some of us cannot apply for Mara scholarships, which further increases the importance of JPA scholarship as the only realistic avenue for scholarship for those of us who are not all-rounders or super top students.
I know of adults who were previously JPA scholars, so it is probable that JPA scholarship has been around for several decades.
Tens of thousands of (once) young Malaysians have been sponsored to pursue their tertiary education at home and abroad.
I applied for four scholarships after getting my SPM result. JPA was the only sponsor which called me up for an interview.
I remember it was held at Kepala Batas because that was the stronghold of the previous prime minister. During the group interview, we were asked one question in English and another question in Malay.
During my time, JPA scholars received their contract upon successful application and were required to enrol in prep-colleges (Taylor’s College, INTEC, Sunway etc).
After one to two years at those colleges (during which we have to maintain a specified CGPA), we are sent to study at a foreign university.
When I took the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Ohio, US, we made a transit at Narita, Tokyo. That was the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in a foreign land (Keep in mind that I never even get into Thailand or Singapore previously).
Like a village kid who just got into a big city, I was amazed by Japanese courtesy and facilities.
During both our studies at local prep college and foreign university, JPA scholars are given rental allowance and monthly expenditure.
Tuition fees are paid by Putrajaya and we do not have to take a single cent of loan. We basically have everything provided to us.
Occasionally, I come across statements by fellow JPA scholars that the allowance is not enough. The most vivid memory was when a senior JPA scholar at my university told newly arrived students that the allowance was too little.
I too wish for an allowance increase, but scaring off the juniors like that isn’t the right thing to do. Fact is, we are already being given everything.
Rent and monthly allowances are enough for decent living. If you want to eat outside every time, go shopping every weekend, or go travel every semester break, you have to work and earn the money to do so.
Quite frankly, too many JPA scholars have taken for granted the scholarship which we so determinedly and passionately pursued in the past.
We complain every time the JPA officer is slow to get back to our emails, but we never say a word of thanks when the allowance is deposited on time, every time.
We criticise the state of our country, the lack of economic opportunities, and the “backwardness” of our countrymen.
But we forget that we are the ones who are given the opportunities to enjoy quality education and to graduate debt-free, and in return, we will lift our countrymen upwards – not looking down at them.
We say we are too qualified for certain jobs in Malaysia. But without the scholarship funded by the people and given to us by the sponsors who trusted us, do we have the qualifications we now have?
I’m not asking everybody to return and serve the country. Sometimes you can contribute better from the outside, depending on your field of expertise and available opportunities.
Plus, most JPA scholars never served their bond anyway because the civil service is bloated.
There is too much supply (of JPA scholars) and too little demand (vacancies in the civil service), so many JPA scholars have to find their own jobs.
No other country on earth sponsored so many of her citizens every year to pursue higher education at home and abroad.
Welfare states provide free tertiary education, but do not sponsor their students to study abroad in so many numbers. And everybody pays 30-40% tax.
At the Ohio State University, Malaysians make up the fourth largest international population behind China, India, and South Korea.
Most of the international students pay their own tuition fees, while easily over half of the Malaysians are sponsored by either JPA or Mara.
American students take up college loans which they will have to work and pay off for the next 20 years of their life.
Our neighbour down south, Singapore, is well known as a talent hub. To its credit, Singapore knows how to attract and retain talents.
Even several of our MPs are the beneficiaries of scholarships provided by the Singaporean government. But meritocracy has its cost too. Singapore provides scholarships for the best and brightest, local and (especially) foreign students.
Malaysia, on the other hand, provides scholarships on a large scale to its own citizens continuously for several decades.
Sure, there are many things to be fixed with the system and too many are left out.
But as it is, if you are a Malaysian citizen, you know that there is always an opportunity for you to chase your dreams if you work hard enough, with the help of a bit of luck.
Even if you do not get a scholarship, tertiary education in Malaysia is much more affordable than developed countries.
Even after you adjust the currency rate and household income, Malaysians can afford to obtain education if they want it.
There is also the MyBrain initiative, which offers scholarships for Malaysians to pursue Masters and PhD.
We are lucky in the sense that Malaysia is still a developing country which needs to grow its talents.
In America, the pool is crowded and PhD holders are working as adjunct professors with minimal pay and job security. In Malaysia, we are giving money to people to study PhD.
I know there are things in Malaysia which could, and should, have been much better. But in the midst of our complaints and political differences, let us not forget to appreciate the many good things that our country has which other countries don’t (Besides the food, of course).
At the bottom of the article, I have listed a number of scholarship websites. Hopefully more Malaysians get to enjoy quality education and appreciate the opportunity given to us by others.
To fellow JPA scholars, “Pandang langit, jangan lupa tanah”. You and I are not entitled to the privilege which we enjoy today.
The money could have been used to build schools or invest in someone else’s life. But we are the ones who get to enjoy this privilege.
Let’s carry ourselves to the best of our ability and show some return on investment through our character and achievements. – May 2, 2015.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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