Saturday, July 25, 2009

"What the PSC wants in its scholars"

Obviously, I have to comment on this. Just as hundreds of other bloggers in Singapore will. With varying degrees of shrillness. Let me first say to you the reader, thank you for reading my comment. I’d like to think that my perspective is still unique and fresh, a standard that I hope all my posts can meet.

For the benefit of the uninformed, the title of today’s post comes from an abridged text of PSC chairman Eddie Teo’s open letter to scholarship candidates, published in the 25 July, 2009 edition of the Straits Times. In it, he writes on, what else, what PSC is looking for in its scholarship applicants. While ostensibly advice for candidates, the content of the letter suggests that a wider audience was intended to read it (like, duh…after all the Straits Times carried it).

Go ahead and pick up a copy of today’s paper to read Eddie’s letter. If nothing else, good writing is rare in the national daily. And Eddie isn’t half bad at it. So reading the open letter is no hardship. [Reading the Straits Times cover to cover, however, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.]

I interviewed with the PSC years ago, when I was applying for a scholarship. It was a mortifying experience, mostly because I was still so green and immature. At one point, I can’t remember exactly how it got to that point, only the impression that one of the interviewers sensed weakness and moved in for the kill, I was asked if I needed a visa to go to Malaysia. I think it was a current affairs question and the interviewer, sensing how unworldly I was, wanted to plumb the depths of my ignorance with an unrelated question.

Seriously, at that point, I didn’t know whether Singaporeans needed a visa to visit Malaysia. Or maybe I knew, but I froze like a deer in the headlights. The interviewer (a curmudgeony-type old man) gave a dismissive wave of his hands and an expression of obvious disgust when I kept silent. At the conclusion of the interview (which BTW, is held by a panel of about 8, with the requisite good cop, bad cop routine and only about 2 interviewers actually speaking the whole time), I squeaked out a “Thank you for your time” and hustled out of the room.

[And for those of you who actually know me in person, if I hear any of you repeating this story to other people with me named in it, you are so dead.]

Despite my youthful ignorance, post interview, I was still offered an overseas scholarship (for teaching, which I had then indicated as a preference) to Cambridge, to read biology (again, my preference). Read into that what you will: perhaps my academic results really were that good (I flatter myself), I really hadn’t flubbed my interview too badly, or they were really hard up for biology teachers back then.

In any case, reading Eddie’s letter brought up some thoughts from me. I’ll append my thoughts at the end of each choice quote I take from his letter.

The psychologists are trained to look for signs and indicators that suggest…Let me tell you something, as someone who works with psychologists and has done psychology related research before, and who has an engineering background to bring an independent perspective to the subject, psychology is an inexact science. Most personality tests, for instance, have not been well validated. So take psychological assessments with a pinch of salt. This is equally good advice for HR professionals and college admissions officials, who put so much store in psychometric assessments, to follow. That doesn’t mean the entire field of psychology has no value though. That particular label applies more to mainstream economics.

The candidate’s level of commitment in serving the community serves as a proxy indicator for his commitment to the public service. Actually, by my time, community service on one’s resume was a required part of a serious application. It’s all part of the resume arms race. In this respect, applying for a scholarship is not so different from applying to an elite Ivy League type university. So the presence of community service on an applicant’s resume really means little. It’s absence, however, is a glaring liability on an application. Just like the absence of good grades.

Given his character and personality, is he likely to break his bond or stay overseas? I have a hypothesis, which I cannot disprove or find evidence for, because I don’t have access to the data, that the single greatest predictor of whether a scholar is likely to break their bond is the organization they go to work for after their studies.

This is not necessarily an indictment of the sponsoring organization, although there are some that have a less savory reputation than others. For example, it was much bandied about between the scholars that were my contemporaries then that the most sought after positions in government were at the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In contrast, MCYS was like a dead pool (no offence to anyone who works there). The reason for this is that it was conventional wisdom that experience in these two industry related ministries was deemed to have the most “market value”, and hence would allow scholars to leave for lucrative positions in the private sector the most easily.

There’s anecdotal evidence for this of course. In the pre-recession debt-fueled economic boom, I knew of countless contemporaries who broke their bonds at MOF and MTI to join investment banks. The government was aware of this. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (another hot property among scholars) apparently circulated a private memo to all banks to “STOP POACHING OUR PEOPLE”.

A corollary to this is that for my year alone, it was widely acknowledged that the most talented students of the year had turned up their noses at the President’s scholarship. The real deal for my year was actually the GIC scholarship. $$$$, y'know.

Whether this is good or bad, well, it really depends on your personal views. I would not presume to judge my fellow scholars. Personally, I’m ambivalent. The issue is not that breaking bonds is good or bad, the issue is that people respond to incentives. And the lure of big money in banking was irresistible to many. What I will say is that trying to accurately determine whether a scholar will break their bond will necessarily require an assessment of what options a scholar will have other than to serve it out. The irony is rich that the most competitive positions in government, that attract the ablest candidates, are also the ones that empower their scholars the most to breakaway and leave.

It is all right to be critical, even skeptical, … the public service is not looking for conformists…you only need to be yourself, relax and feel free to express your views…if you fake your personality, you will tie yourself up in knots and will very soon be found out. This is all actually very good advice, not just for PSC scholarship applicants, but for all interviews in general. And I think Eddie is being honest when he says that the PSC really is ok with opposing viewpoints. PSC is probably more interested in how candidates defend their opposing views, and of course, how they go about disagreeing with the government’s stand on various issues, which is an opportunity to assess communication skills. It’s always worth mentioning [in case anyone reading this blog is fishing for advice on handling difficult PSC questions] on how to take difficult questions. Some tricks: repeat the interviewer’s question slowly to make sure you heard it right the first time (and it gives you precious seconds to think so you don’t come across as a complete moron), pick something uncontroversial the interviewer says that you can easily agree with, and say so, for those extra EQ brownie points. Then stake out your opposing position clearly, in all its nuances.

[But y’all knew this already, didn’t you, all you intelligent folks reading my blog who aren’t PSC applicants. =)]

The problem, of course, is that while disagreeing with the official line is ok during an interview, it’s less ok when you’re actually working for the government. People in power generally don’t like to be disagreed with. That’s why mavericks usually get sidelined in any large bureaucratic organization. The evidence is clear when you consider how uniform the composition of the senior levels of government is. They all attended the same schools, institutions, even churches, and have similar opinions on various issues. Oh, and they generally all play golf (ugh). True mavericks frequently rise only when there is a crisis (a terrible thing to waste!), when conventional models no longer work.

While we do select from student who are at the top in terms of academic performance, our experience shows that above a certain cut-off point, academic results cannot help us differentiate between candidates. Very true, and is something known to college admissions officials as well as professors assessing graduate school applicants. Good grades are merely the price of admission to an interview.

When assessing a candidate’s leadership skills…we favor no single leadership model because the public service is looking for a diversity of leaders. Sounds great on paper. Unfortunately, doesn’t work so well in real life. As most people who are actually working would know, there is no good way to assess a person’s job performance during job appraisals and career assessments. This is an old and very common HR problem. So what do organizations do? They use things like (the dreaded) Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). What this generally means is that “assertive and task-focused leaders” appear, at least on paper, to accomplish more than other kinds of leaders. And they rise through the ranks. And the composition of leaders at the top of the organization starts looking more and more uniform over time. If you’re not the assertive and task-focused caricature of a leader, and you’re looking for an organization to join, it’s probably best to look for organizations that don’t have such leaders at the top. That is a true indicator of how much the organization values diversity.

Candidates who come from humbler backgrounds may lack the polished exterior of their more privileged colleagues. We must look beyond appearances to determine the substance. Bravo, but can you actually do it?

I have no neat conclusion for this post, so I will end here. But if you have comments and questions that you would like answered, I’ll be happy to oblige through the comments section.

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