Saturday, April 9, 2016

Want to be a MINDEF/SAF scholar? Get set for the tough selection process.

If there was one thing you could say to the Prime Minister (PM), what would it be?*

To you and I, this topic may (or may not?) kick start an interesting conversation.

To several of Singapore's top A Level students, their essay on this topic could make or break their scholarship prospects.

The process of weeding out the wheat from the chaff is, to many Singaporean teens, a daunting and highly competitive one. At stake is a career with a top Singaporean ministry and a well-chartered career pathway that could lead to a lifetime opportunity to serve Singaporeans through public service.

To get there, however, involves fending off competition in a selection process the likes of which Singapore's school system doesn't prepare students for.

Writing test
There is the mandatory writing test - which many dread.  The essay topic is merely a device to see how candidates perform when they put pen to paper.

To many applicants, words and ideas flow effortlessly. Those who have made it to the scholarship interview stage are likely A-listers for the General Paper who can mount persuasive and beautifully crafted arguments where their words sing.

Then there is the face-to-face interview.

Donning his or her best business wear, the youngsters stride into the interview room knowing it is make or break time.

Interview process
For a youngster barely out of his or her teens, the experience facing a panel comprising about 10 senior civil servants can prove unnerving. There have been cases where candidates mentally expect perhaps three interviewers to quiz them, only to be floored when they crack open the door to the interview room and come eyeball to eyeball with an upsized interview panel just short of a soccer team.

The look of shock and awe is priceless.

Some millennials wilt.

And so the imposing panel serves a role in sieving out the high potentials from the wannabees even before the chit chat commences.

Those of you who have sat as part of a scholarship or job selection panel would know the challenges involved in coaxing candidates to say something coherent and intelligent that brings their (limited) resume to life.

Many candidates are book smart but cannot sustain a conversation to save their life.

Those who succumb to stage fright fritter away that one chance to impress and land that coveted scholarship.

And then there are the chatterboxes fresh from charm school. These you can spot with their textbook placement of hands and feet, that fleeting eye contact with all panel members that doesn't morph into a staring match, the witty comebacks that buy time for the candidate to process his/her thoughts, the gestures, the knowing nod of the head, the winsome smile - right out of the etiquette school playbook.

Get the formula too perfect and one can come across as being stiff, plastic and robot-like - yes, many of your interviewers are aware of the charm school playbook too.

So one has to be yourself and yet exude promise and future potential that suggest a high CEP.

For defence-related scholarships, conversation topics du jour run the gamut from how much Singapore should spend on its defence to current affairs. The South China Sea? You better know where it is, not just geographically but also be au fait with the political dimension with the many issues and flashpoints centered around this patch of water.

Current affairs is a conversation killer.

For MINDEF/SAF scholarship applicants, this phase of the selection has tripped up many an aspiring applicant who pays the price for too much time on witless social media pursuits and a distinct lack of interest in things going on around the world that could affect their lives. You're not looking for a walking Wikipedia but a candidate who shows promise in understanding and appreciating tiny Singapore's place in the world, its immediate neighbourhood and the special circumstances that underpin its future when many small states have failed. No easy answers here.

The young candidate will  have to fend off competition from like-minded teens, all gunning determinedly for a handful of prestigious scholarships that would lead to the world's top universities.

The hand-picked scholars will have much to prove during their career serving Singapore as many eyes - from subordinates to peers and superiors - will be upon them once they start earning their pay.

* Inspired by the essay topic from this year's Defence Merit Scholarship (DMS) selection.

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