Dissecting the Dr Eng Kai Er Issue

Dr Eng Kai Er. Two time scholarship holder. A*Star scientist. Aspiring artist, and recently staged a play called ‘Fish’. Once walked down naked in Holland Village. A name that has dominated Singapore’s online discussion for the past few days, because of the “No Star Arts Grant” that she was disbursing, purportedly from her own pay. Or more specifically, the description that she gave her ‘grant’:

“No Star Arts Grant is a real arts grant. Successful applicants will get real money! The grant maker is only one person, Eng Kai Er, who is an employee of an organisation that cannot be named. She wants to give $1000 a month, out of her salary from her bonded employment, to fund art projects. She wishes to fund projects in all arts genres, including and not limited to fine art, visual art, dance, music, circus, theatre, film and literature.”

Ever since her story came out, she has been quite a hot topic of discussion. People are picking on all parts of her story, ranging from whether she was grateful or not, to her reasons of wanting to transfer her bond, to the arts fund itself. Most arguments and comments I have seen so far focuses mainly on one aspect of the story, for example the legitimacy of her arts fund or her supposed ungratefulness with her employer.

I personally have different opinions about different parts of her story, in which I will elaborate more below:


To be honest, I think the idea of the arts grant is commendable. Taking out your own pay to fund an interest of yours is a great idea to help those who are less fortunate, and to push innovation in the field that you support. This has been done since the Renaissance in Italy, and I think the grant on itself is not useless. 1000 dollars per month until October 2015 is not cheap you know, and personally I would feel that the money could benefit a lot of people. So we should support it.

The only question that I have is only whether she will be committed to paying this money continuously until next year, and not drop out halfway. So far there has been only one recipient of the award, Andrew, so I will have to reserve my judgement on the effectiveness of the award for the time being.


A lot of people in support have written about how Dr Eng should be given a chance to pursue what she likes and enjoys (some even praised her for speaking out), and to be honest, I wholeheartedly agree to the notion that we should be given the freedom to choose. 

It's the foundation of our society that we should be given a chance to do what we want to do, which in my opinion was not taken away from Dr Eng. From how she was able to stage a play called Fish through the Director's Lab programme under Substation, I don't think she was barred from pursuing her own interest at all. In fact one could argue that she got all the help that she could for her debut project. 

Which brings me to the next point...


Basing on the news reports, I think the issue arose when Dr Eng's application for a transfer to the National Arts Council to serve her bond was rejected. In all honesty, I don't think that this move is wrong, because the scholarship awarding body reserves the right to determine where you're bonded. It is their money after all. Some may take issue with this it because they think it makes us a slave, but this is no different from working for a job or a client. 

When you're receiving money from your boss, you are expected to do the work your boss wants you to do. Because it is his money. That's the expectation that comes when you receive something. That you have to give something back. And if you're unhappy with what you are supposed to do, then don't accept the money. Simple as that

Besides, when I'm paying you to be good at A, it doesn't make sense for you to go and focus your attention on B right? To use a different analogy, a company pays to train you to become a graphic designer because they need a designer badly. You said okay to it, and goes for training to become a graphic designer. But by the end of it, you decided to not be a graphic designer instead, and tell the company that you're more suited to become a janitor. It would not be surprising that the company will get pissed off right? Not only the company has wasted time and money to train something that did not give any return at all, the position could have benefited someone else entirely.

I don't understand how some are saying that one does not have to be grateful to the organization that gives you the scholarship because she deserves it. Are you even serious about that comment? It almost seem to imply that we shouldn't say thank you to the people who saw the potential in us, and gave us the opportunity to succeed? So are we supposed to adopt a 'I deserved that' attitude rather than a humble and grateful attitude to those who help us? No wonder our children are getting so self-conceited nowadays, thinking that everyone owes them a living

Scholarships are like an investment. You invest a huge sum of money in someone in hopes that they will be good in one field and come back to share their knowledge and expertise, thus helping society in general. I'm not diminishing the role of arts, but in this case, Dr Eng has been groomed an trained in the field of science for more than five frigging years. That's a lot of time and money. And A*Star is not wrong to see result in the field that they were interested in, as well as the field that they sent her to study for. Besides it was all written in the contract when you signed, so why are you complaining now?


But she's not complaining, some might say. She's not even protesting. But from the way she describes herself, you cannot help but to feel that she is terribly unhappy with the situation that she is in now. She certainly sounded like someone who is oppressed by a bigger force, which in this case happened to A*Star, the institute that granted Dr Eng her scholarship. According to other sites, Eng Kai Er wrote that she "is not interested in science at all, but has to serve her bond or pay, as of 30 September 2014, around $741,657.37 in order to quit her job. Since she understands the pain of having a paid job that is not aligned with her interests, she wishes to change the world by having more instances of paid jobs aligned with people’s interest."

I'm not sure of how she really sees her situation, but from the paragraph above, I would warrant a guess that she views her life as painful, stuck in a job she does not like (correct me if I am wrong to make the deduction). I think the issue that we all have her is the sense of self-entitlement that oozes out from the statement that she made. Granted, a lot of us may be stuck in jobs we dislike and all of us have the rights the complain. The only reason why Dr Eng is taking so much heat is because she is complaining from a much privileged position, while most of us can only dream of having what she has. Akin to a first world problem. 

Okay, maybe she can complain. Because all of us deserves the right to. But when you take it online, especially in a net savvy society like Singapore, you are bound to be scrutinized and criticized. Like the English saying goes, "Never air your dirty laundry in the public net" 


I guess the bottom line is I would question Dr Eng's intention of putting such a strong worded statement online. I'm okay with you wanting to support the arts and wanting to donate your money, but I am not okay with you playing the victim especially when you are in a much more privileged position. Heck I myself am stuck with a bond and debt I need to repay, and yet I know that I have to tough it out because that is what I signed on for. And if you're wondering what grant is that, it's the MOE tuition grant where I need to serve the bond in any Singapore registered company. Going by your logic, should I complain as well for Singapore not letting me serve my bond in in Germany since I have always wanted to live and work there? Because I think you're missing the whole point of scholarships here

Of course, we don't know what are Dr Eng's real thoughts are on this issue, so perhaps I would not go so much on it. I just find it sad how I can am stuck in a daily 9 to 5 job barely making ends meet and how someone can spend 1K every month just to make a statement. I guess life is unfair like that


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