LIKE many Malaysians, I am naturally proud of ex-Muar High School boy Tan Zhongshan’s extraordinary academic feat (“Malaysian is top law student at Cambridge University”, The Star, Oct 19).
By chalking up the record as the overall best law student in the entire Cambridge University, his performance has probably even surpassed that of the university’s luminary alumni like Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife.
Tan is but one of the thousands of young and bright Chinese Malaysians who have received scholarships from the Singapore government to study at different levels from secondary one to university in the city state.
It is no secret that Singapore officials would only recruit the “cream among the crop” for this purpose and those who excel will be sent to Oxbridge colleges and the Ivy League universities. Upon graduation, they would be bonded to work for a number of years in Singapore or elsewhere in Singapore-owned corporations. By then, most will not return to Malaysia.
Needless to say, many such children from poor families who were unable to get state aid in Malaysia have benefited immensely from this financial assistance. In return, they generally feel grateful to the Singapore government.
In Tan’s case, he said he would join the Singapore legal service. This is another achievement because only the very best of law graduates would be selected to join the Singapore judicial and legal services. It is also financially rewarding considering that a Singapore High Court judge is said to draw an annual salary inclusive of perks amounting to about S$1mil (RM2.4mil).
However, one has to take up Singapore citizenship if he aspires to become a judge or hold a senior position in their legal service.
This reminds me of my own experience. Unable to get financial aid from the state, my family had to privately finance my law studies in England. At that time, the then British government had begun imposing full-cost fees on foreign students as well as prohibiting them from seeking employment while studying there.
I wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher telling her that the common wealth of the Commonwealth ought to be commonly shared! I did receive a reply from the British Department of Education and Science on her behalf justifying the new policy on the grounds of national interest.
My father had to dispose of a six-acre rubber plantation in Yong Peng and I was also blessed to have my sisters who substantially financed my studies. Fortunately too, I had housemates in London from well-to-do families – like former Health Minister Tan Sri Chan Siang Sun’s daughter and the daughter of a cousin to Tan Sri Robert Kuok – who helped me whenever the cheque for my monthly £200 allowance arrived late.
When I emerged as one of the 38 out of 1,000 plus Commonwealth students to obtain a second class in the British Bar Final exams (there was no first class award that year), I decided to start my career in Singapore after being called to the English Bar. But I returned to Malaysia after spending about a year in Singapore. There were probably two main reasons.
Firstly, there was this incident where I was chosen as one of the young lawyers to meet the then Singapore Chief Justice, Wee Chong Jin, to give our views on the inception of the Singapore Academy of Law. When I returned to report about the meeting, a Singaporean lawyer asked me whether, as a Malaysian, I was fit to represent them.
The majority of Singaporeans present were not happy with her and she probably did not realise that Wee was also a Malaysian. Though it was an innocuous question, the incident made me realise that, unless I took up Singapore citizenship, I would always be judged on my nationality if I had stayed.
Secondly, with a background as a hot-blooded student leader imbued with nationalistic feelings, I felt a bit awkward practising the laws of another country. Had I been a medical doctor, engineer or accountant, the story could have been different.
But this should not mean that the 300,000 or more Malaysians who live in Singapore are disloyal. The same goes for the 100,000 or more Malaysians who commute daily between Singapore and Johor Baru to work and study.
One interesting fact is that only a small fraction of them are prepared to give up their Malaysian citizenship despite many attempts to lure them to become Singapore citizens. Most of them still make it a point to return and vote during our general elections.
It is for this reason that our government must know why these Malaysians continue to stay on despite various restrictions imposed on them by the Singapore government.
These restrictions include:
• Foreign workers, students and PRs can only drive Singapore-registered vehicles in Singapore.
• All male PRs who reach 18 are required to undergo a two-year national service.
• Education fees for PRs and foreigners who study in Singapore will triple by 2012.
• Promotional aspects for sensitive and senior positions in the Singapore civil service are only possible if the PR becomes a Singapore citizen.
• Only a married PR couple or PR working siblings are entitled to purchase a resale and not new Housing Development Board flat provided they also do not own any other private property in Singapore or elsewhere including any property they may have inherited in Malaysia.
• New laws are in the pipeline to require Singapore citizens and PRs who own landed properties to dispose of the same within two years after they give up their citizenship or PR status; failing which there will be a penalty of S$20,000 (RM48,000) or three years’ jail.
If you ask many of these Malaysians (including my three sisters), who are all die-hard supporters of the PAP government, they will tell you that in Singapore their talent is being recognised and appreciated in a system based on meritocracy.
What is important to them is the ability to make an honest living without having to bend any rule or seek patronage under any person.
To them, Singapore is a place which provides equal opportunities for young people regardless of race to learn, grow and improve themselves.
Hence, for the sake of their children’s future, these resilient Malaysians would not mind putting up with these inconveniences.
Further, with a strong currency and one of the best education systems in the world with English as the unifying medium of instruction in schools, they no doubt enjoy a high quality of life and in return contribute to the success story of Singapore.
At the same time, they follow the political development in Malaysia closely, always favouring a cordial working relationship between leaders of our two nations.
But can we blame them when our own government did not assist them in their time of need? For example, they could not comprehend how our government was even prepared to grant scholarship in 1997 to a 13-year-old Oxford math prodigy, Sufiah Yusof when she is a British citizen without any intention to migrate to Malaysia to serve our country. Sufiah, as you know, later became famous for a wrong reason.
And I, for one, can feel that it is beginning to be reassuring under Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s leadership. It was him who transformed Malaysia into a regional education hub when he was the Education Minister, making foreign tertiary education more accessible locally.
It is hoped that the Talent Corporation set up to bring home highly-skilled Malaysians will also help stem the exodus of local talent. In this respect, the MCA leadership should be commended for securing more scholarships and university places for deserving non-Malay high achievers.
How successful in this humongous task of talent recovery will much depend on how committed and sincere is our government in making them feel a sense of belonging here instead of having to put up with the shenanigans of Datuk Ibrahim Ali and the like.
If UMNO pursues and tenaciously pursues the politics of moderation and helps poor citizens regardless of race, I am confident that in no time the non-Malays will return to the Barisan Nasional fold.
Until such time, it is perhaps pointless for the government to remind the Malaysian diasporas of the oft-repeated words of President John F Kennedy on serving the nation. To them, it is: Ask not first what I can do for my country but what my country can first do for me.
*The above article (the bold print representing the original version) was first published in The Sunday Star on 24 October 2010.