09 October 2006

Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund 2006

Don't you think Syahid deserves your support, the advertisement asks. Err... no. I'd rather support those who clearly need it - students who are poor and weak in their studies.

In fact, ST hopes to raise 2.7 million dollars to 9000 students who, like Syahid, "excel despite the odds". I struggle to comprehend why they would STILL need any kind of monetary help, and I really struggle to comprehend why the Straits Times feels it should fund poor top students and not poor, weak students.

I may not be a singapore economist (I sometimes wish I were), but let's see if the ST school fund makes any economic sense, and what kind of economic sense if it does.

From the looks of it, the ST pocket money fund is a Meritocratic Charity. The advertisement (you can click on it for a full-size image) says the money is especially for needy top students. Why needy average or needy struggling students won't receive your money is made through a silent appeal to the word *DESERVE* in the ad headline.

But really:

1. Decreasing marginal returns.

It is far easier to pull up a straight-Cs student to a straight-B performance than to pull up a straight A student like Syahid to straight A pluses. You'll need less resources to benefit the more numerous weaker students than to benefit the elite (but poor).

2. Deserving to needing.

Social statistics available online (for other countries) could be used to predict a student's salary on their first job from their grades in school. Syahid's straight As are an indicator of his probable rich bastard or high-flying senior civil servant status 15 to 20 years down the road. This is like tax cuts for the rich, even before they become rich.

He doesn't need the money. The weak students who will be stuck with lesser education and MacJobs in the future do. Syahid has the means to break out of the circle of poverty. They don't. His current poverty will be outweighed over time with the riches he'll be earning in the future. For society to give him money now is to tip the balance even further. For society to privilege him over poor and weaker students is to simultaneously create a legion of the "undeserving poor", the poor that you should spit upon and despise because they fully are responsible for their poverty.

I believe society has a duty to alleviate its poor out of the poverty trap, and that takes precedence over... setting up a meritocratic charity.

3. (mis)Allocation of resources?

From the description, Syahid is doing tremendously well for a poor kid. Poverty has not impeded him from getting straight As, having a healthy ambition, and ample extracurricular activities. Like most other star students, Syahid will be streamed to a class taught by the best teachers in his school, following the next round of streaming. He has access to an entire pool of resources that poor, weak students can never touch.

Tell me, if he's such a star student, doesn't he already qualify for some scholarship? I can imagine half a dozen school and community centre bursaries. If he's dirt poor and brilliant, there are plenty of avenues for him to get the money, even if I feel he doesn't need and shouldn't need the help.

Evidently state and quasi-state welfare schemes are insufficient means to help poor students, and the question is... what's wrong with the way they are allocated, why not enough of it is going automatically to the kids who need it, and how this famine of support can occur despite our national reserves.

20 years from now, as Syahid leads a department, will his underlings admire him because he was brilliant but poor, and succeeded to the top due to his own efforts, or because he was brilliant and taxpayers eliminated his poverty?

I prefer a little truth in advertising here: ST should just rename this fund to "Tax Cuts for the Future Rich", "The Straits Times Meritocratic Charity", or simply the "Straits Times Bursary/Scholarship". Don't go on about pocket money, because that's not the real issue or motivation for the fund.