Some of you are aware that I was awarded the Sime Darby Foundation Scholarship after my A-Levels and I am currently serving my 5-year scholarship bond. A few days ago, I commemorated my 7th month on the job and I would like to spend some time writing about the things I wish I was more aware of when I was 19 years old before I inked my signature on the contract some 4 years ago.

1. The Scholarship Value is a Very Large Amount of Money

When I signed my scholarship agreement in mid-2009 to UCL, I just knew that studying in the UK is expensive. What nobody tried to put into sense to me was, IT IS VERY VERY EXPENSIVE.  For my 3 years of studies in the UK, it is worth about US$150,000 (RM450,000) as it covered tuition fees and living allowances.

The scholarship value could buy a double-story detached house in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur or a massive bungalow in one of the smaller towns of Malaysia. With starting salary of about RM2,500-3,000 per month (~RM30,000 per annum) for a fresh graduate in Kuala Lumpur, it is worth nearly 15 years annual salary for a fresh graduate to fund the cost of studying in the UK.

2. The Scholarship Bond Period is a Very Long Period of Time

My scholarship bond period is 5 years and many people will say that it is short compared to other scholarships’ bond period. But 5 years is a very long period of time. It represents 50% of your twenties. Being tied down to a single company in a single location for 50% of what is supposed to be the prime of your life removes a lot of freedom associated with your twenties. You cannot just simply move to a different country, company, job type or lead an alternative lifestyle because you have essentially tied down your future to that job.

3. You Will Change a Lot After Going Through University

Your interest and aspirations will very likely change after going through university, regardless of where or what you studied, with or without a scholarship. What you thought would be a perfect job or opportunity as a late teenager may differ from your point of view of a perfect job as a fresh graduate. Your horizons will broaden and your interests change and you will feel like doing a different thing post-graduation. With a scholarship bond, you will be placed in a job that requires your skills due to business demand and sometimes you may not fancy the job role, company, industry or subject matter any more after university.

4. It Does Not Make Business Sense To Sponsor A Student for Overseas Education

It costs about RM400,000 to RM1 million to sponsor a student to US, UK or Australia for studies. This does not make business sense to any organisation at all. A simple returns on investment calculation will suggest that you need to create discounted business value throughout your scholarship bond period over the amount invested on you for the investment to be worthwhile.

It is highly unlikely that any scholar could generate that much business value from an entry level position during the bond period. If it makes business sense to sponsor students abroad, all the big firms would be doing it. Besides, the risks are high as many scholars fail to perform at school and at work. That is why most scholarships are given from the Corporate Social Responsibility budget i.e. in other words, you are a charity.

5. Your Parents Want What is Safe for You, Not What is Best for You

This is perhaps the biggest revelation to me. Your parents will tell you they want what is best for you, but really, what they mean to say is they want what is safest for you. Your parents will urge you to take up the scholarship while playing down the long bond period because that is the safest option. It’s an overseas education experience versus working experience tradeoff.  You get immediate benefits while deferring the payoffs to a later date. You get a free US$150,000 education without having to worry about money and you are sorted with a job after graduation. That is safety to most people.

6. There Is No Free Lunch In The World

When I applied for scholarships post A-Levels, I viewed scholarship bodies as banks giving out free money for me to go study. What I definitely forgot to factor in was banks DO NOT give out free money. They give out loans and you are expected to pay back what you borrowed plus interest.

In many sense, the scholarship bond has taught me a lot about debt and its crippling effect if not used properly. When you buy a house or car on loan, the bank essentially owns the purchase because it is a collateral by itself. In a scholarship agreement, you are essentially a resource to the organisation and can be deployed to any business unit according to the business requirements. The unfortunate part is, your deployment may or may not be to your liking.

7. You Are Very Lucky

If you received a scholarship, the first thing you should do is count your lucky stars. Do not even try to rationalise that you deserve the scholarship because frankly you don’t. Winning the scholarship simply says that you fit all the criteria that the scholarship bodies are searching for. I’m sure there are many other smarter people who just do not fit the scholarship criteria.

8. Pray That You Join a High-Performing Team with a Good Boss

This is probably the single biggest factor in whether you will feel happy serving your scholarship bond. Getting into a high-performing team with a great boss is really a matter of luck. If you found a good fit, you will be able to perform on your job. Very importantly, be nice to the HR personnel handling your scholarship file. They know which departments fit your personality and they know the vacancies available in good teams.

The corporate world is not created equal. Good bosses and jobs with good prospects are not found everywhere. So far, I can say that I’ve been one very lucky guy to join a dynamic team in HR Systems pioneering HR Analytics in the Group. We are probably one of the earliest companies in Malaysia to dabble in HR Analytics and being a pioneer in your industry is almost always a good thing. I can only count my lucky stars every single day that I’m serving this bond.

Now don’t try to misinterpret this by saying that I’m not grateful for the opportunity to study abroad provided by the scholarship. The fact is I can’t be grateful enough for the opportunity. I would have had a very different life and would not be able to expand my horizons meeting all the interesting people in London and travelled extensively across the world had it not been for the scholarship.

At the end of the day I think the scholarship decision is really about the positives of having an overseas education versus the negatives of being tied down with a scholarship bond. I wished I was more aware of the other side of the scholarship coin so I could better appreciate my university experience. This Singapore Scholarship Guide I bumped into a few months ago is pretty useful and talks about roughly similar topic in greater detail.

In Economics, it is a basic assumption that people optimise their utility (happiness) subject to their constraints. This is not always the case in real-life because the rationality and perfect information assumptions do not always hold true. I can safely say that in my case, there is no way I can optimise any further with my career so far.

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