Sometimes, when living in a country different to the one of one's birth, it can be surprising to read the newspapers. So it was, today, for me.
I stumbled upon a story of a new initiative between Duke University and National University Hospital (NUH), to found a graduate school in medicine. The Duke-NUH Graduate Medical School is to provide medical training for would-be Doctors, with a four year degree in Clinical Research (as far as I could gather, from a quick lunch time glance).
Now that is all well and good: a new course to allow new people to become Doctors. Fine. What was surprising - even to one who had seen other examples of this phenonomen in Singapore - is the financial handcuffs, locally called a "bond", involved in this course. The would-be Doctor would have to sign a contract with NUH agreeing to serve a certain number of years work in Singaporean Government Hospitals, if they took the course. If they broke the bond - and did not complete the course - or did not serve the requisite (unstated) number of years working in Singapore's hospitals, they would have to pay a penalty of $800,000.
I will state that number in words lest you think it is a mistake: EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS. That is the penalty for withdrawing from the arrangement. Now, that sum shocked me. It is an awful lot of money. I am a father of three and I look at that number and think: "That would go a long way to raising my children." It is a far from insignificant sum. It is, as it is intended to be, a PENAL sum.
Why is the bond there at all? Well, it is intended to ensure that Singapore does not lose out, in any way from the arrangement. Should a Doctor be trained in Singapore they will either have to work there for a certain number of years (I don't know the number, but all examples I have seen before have been measured in years) - or they will have to compensate Singapore for their early departure to the tune of $800,000. As far as I am aware, this bond is not graduated. By that, I mean that technically, if you leave one day short of the period of servitude - that you will be liable for the WHOLE amount. I used the word the servitude deliberately for this style of contract is a hang-over from the early days of bonded servitude in times past. It is still very common practice here in Singapore.
When I first came to Singapore, discovering the "bond" was my biggest culture shock. Early job interviews I went to, often ended abruptly, from my point of view, when I learnt that the employer wanted me to sign a contract that meant that I WOULD HAVE TO PAY HIM A LARGE PENALTY EQUAL TO SAY SIX MONTHS SALARY, if I left before two years. In all such cases, I never agreed to sign - because I have no idea what working for such a man would be like. It could be two years of hell: after all - what incentive has he to be a reasonable employer, if unreasonable behaviour, which forced me to leave, would be rewarded by a lump sum for him?
Here is the essential problem of bondage: a bond rewards bad behaviour on the part of employers (or, educationalists, for that matter) - with a large lump sum. In such circumstances, one can expect a less than ideal environment. The employer - or the educational institution - has no incentive to provide a good environment for their staff - because THE STAFF CANNOT LEAVE VOLUNTARILY. This can only lead to a situation of neglect at best - and active abuse at worst. It is very, very telling that in many organizations I am aware of that use bonding - ALMOST ALL THE STAFF LEAVE WHEN THE BOND IS UP. If they had been happy there, they would not leave the moment they are free of their bond. If a staff member is bonded and leaves the moment the bond is over, it proves that there is something wrong with that organization.
So, I have a principle which I have abided by since I came to Singapore: if there is a bond, don't sign it and don't work for them. A good workplace would have no need for a bond, because a good employer would naturally retain its staff. It is the mark of a bad employer, that they should have a bond.
Back to the Duke-NUH GMS (Graduate Medical School). Should a student be unhappy there, there is nothing they can do. If they leave, they will be burdened with an almost million dollar debt. There are many reasons why someone might be unhappy in an institution - and I think it is unfair and unkind - to punish the unhappy person further by impoverishing them, too.
Before starting the program and before coming to Singapore, there is no way that a foreign student can know what it would be like to study in NUH or subsequently work there. Yet, if all does not work out, there will be a huge price to pay. A Singaporean might have a better idea of the environment - but even they will not truly know until they do it. What both locals and foreigners would have in common, is the bond. Should anyone of any nationality break the bond, they have to pay the penalty. Note that this bond is in addition to any fees that are paid. Education is not free here. The student will pay six-figure fees - and then, should they leave before the contract period is up - pay an almost seven figure fee for the privilege.
What effect will this have on recruitment? Well, it may scare off many good candidates. Many forethinking prospective students will think: if I study in any other country in the world, I will not have to sign a bond - so why shouldn't I study elsewhere? Many will make that decision. Many will decide not to study in Singapore. So, by having this policy Singapore loses out on many potentially good Doctors.
It is also very bad PR for Singapore. What do you think will happen if someone is really unhappy at Duke-NUH and really does have to leave? They will be saddled with a massive debt. That person will spend the rest of their lives badmouthing Singapore for what happened. They may go to the press with their story. Overseas newspapers are very likely to cover such a story because, from an international perspective it really, really does look like bad practice. There would be no end to the negative PR effect of such an incident. Yet, there could be many such incidents - and much such negative PR.
Why do Singaporean educational institutions have such policies? Well, it is because they say that they subsidize the costs of education - and that they cannot risk not getting a return on that subsidy. Thus, anyone who accepts a place at a subsidized institution must repay the subsidy by serving some time in a Government institution, in return. That is the logic. One can see their point. Yet, is it reasonable? Other countries achieve the same ends not by coercive, penal contracts/bonds - but by being good employers that everyone wants to work for. In such situations, enough people voluntarily decide to work in the country of their education, to make it worthwhile.
So, there are two ways to achieve the desired end for NUH. They can have a penal bond, that is truly of fearsome magnitude - or they could be such a great place to work at, that no-one would ever think of upping and leaving after their course is over.
I know which approach everyone, the world over, would prefer. I also know which one NUH will always prefer: the one that takes no financial risk for them.
I have a suggestion which might help both camps: why not have an unsubsidized
option, so that some students could choose NOT to be subsidized - and also not to have a bond. Then they could be educated in Singapore, without the risk to them, that all would not work out - and, to be fair, who knows what will happen? - and they would then have to pay a huge penalty. It might prove to be a very popular option.
(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, or Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html
I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children, and gifted adults in general. Thanks.)
Labels: bond, bondage, choice, Duke University, Duke-NUH GMS, Education, employment, financial penalty, freedom, Graduate Medical School, National University Hospital, NUH, servitude, Singapore