Total Recall: Scholarship Woes in 1998

Our government has recently refined the national budget due to the slowing economy in Malaysia. One of the victims of the modified budget is the JPA scholarship programme. You will find details about it reported elsewhere.

I’m not going to talk about the rightness or wrongness of reducing the JPA scholarships. What I intend to do is share a story – one that is familiar with the scholars around my age.

The year was 1998.

We were promised scholarships to pursue our studies abroad the year before. Then, the Asian Economic Crisis hit and the government had to tighten its purse strings. One of the victims was the JPA scholarship programme, but it wasn’t the only one.

Those who were already overseas were fortunate as they were allowed to continue their studies abroad. However, there were many who were less fortunate.

Those who had just finished their pre-university studies and had gotten offers from various universities around the world, and those who were partly through their pre-university studies were hit the worse. These two groups were redirected to local universities – mostly UTP, MMU and UniTEN – and made to sign new local scholarship contracts that superceeded the overseas scholarship contracts that they had signed previously.

The worst hit were the ones who were only partly through their pre-universeity studies. Since the highest academic qualification that they had at the time was SPM, they had to reboot their education and start over. Effectively, they lost a year of their time preparing for a pre-university examination that they never took.

At the time when JPA announced its cuts, there were many other scholarship awarding bodies – such as PETRONAS – who did not announce any cuts. In fact, many PETRONAS scholars thought that our scholarships were safe because oil is traded in USD and PETRONAS was not that badly affected by the falling exchange rate.

However, due to government policy, other government related scholarship funds made similar changes. I got caught up by this as we were told that our scholarship program was cancelled. I will always remember the day that I received that letter printed on thick paper with a PETRONAS letterhead in the post box starting with, “dukacita dimaklumkan…”

Those of us who had yet to begin our journeys were redirected to local foundation programs and offered local scholarship contracts instead. We were the lucky ones as we had just finished our SPM and hadn’t yet gotten a foot on the plane yet, unlike our seniors who were kicked off the plane.

Some still managed to appeal the decision and got to go overseas but these were treated on a case-by-case basis and were far and few between and often required a trade-off.

I had a fellow PETRONAS scholar on a Chemical Engineering programme who opted to switch to a MARA scholarship for Accounting as he was insistent on going overseas and he didn’t really care what course he did.

When I was asked to reconsider my engineering course for an accounting one, I barfed at the idea.

I had a room-mate who was one of those JPA scholars who had already completed his pre-university and had received an offer from a university in the UK. He was extremely unhappy with his change of situation and expressed his frustration very visibly.

However, we all got on with our lives eventually.

Orientation week at our local university was like attending an AA meeting. We would begin by introducing our names, then telling each other what course we were supposed to pursue in whichever country we were supposed to be in. This was followed by our current course at the local university.

In a way, I think that this was therapeutic as we were surrounded by hundreds of others who were caught in the same situation and were equally as frustrated and unhappy. This also helped us to bond as a group as we were going through adversity together.

In the end, I think that things turned out for the best as I still had a wonderful time at university.

I think that our lecturers enjoyed teaching us too as we were essentially the crème-de-la-crème of the country who would have normally ended up studying abroad but are now studying locally instead. They certainly gave us a lot of room to work and shine independently.

Looking back at this experience, I think that it taught me the lesson that there are many things beyond our control in life and plans do not always go the way they were inteded. However, it isn’t the end of the world. Life is much more than an overseas education experience.

As they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

In the end, I still managed to work my way to an overseas education for my PhD, at one of the top universities in the world.

So, this story has a happy ending.

 

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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