Interview Feature: Tommy Koh, 2014 President’s Scholar

By Michelle Zhu (15A01B), Valerie Chee (15S07B)

The President’s Scholarship, awarded to only the most deserving PSC (Public Service Commission) Scholarship recipients, is arguably the single most prestigious scholarship awarded in Singapore.  It is awarded to ‘students who have gone beyond excellence in academic pursuits and co-curricular activities to distinguish themselves,’ and who have ‘strong ethos in public service’. This year, three of our Rafflesians, Eugene Lim Zhi Wei, Lee Zi Xin, and Tommy Koh Kit Shaun have had the honour of being awarded the scholarship. We speak to Tommy Koh, now studying in John Hopkins, about his thoughts.

Tommy with Past RI-BOG chair Prof. Tan Ser Kiat, Acting PRI Mr. Mag, Mr. Michael Rollason, Mrs Nicola Perry and Mr. Jamie Reeves from the Humanities Programme
Tommy with Past RI-BOG chair Prof. Tan Ser Kiat, Acting PRI Mr. Mag, Mr. Michael Rollason, Mrs Nicola Perry and Mr. Jamie Reeves from the Humanities Programme

Press: What do you think makes a student deserving of the President’s Scholarship?

Tommy Koh (TK): I see the role of a President’s Scholar as embodying the values and ethos of the public service in a role subject to the additional expectations and scrutiny of others. At the current moment, that may mean best embodying opportunity, purpose, assurance, spirit and trust, values which Singaporeans identified as important through the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) process.

The word ‘deserving’ has many connotations. I don’t think it’s as much about why someone is necessarily ‘deserving’ of the scholarship – which boils down to varying core competencies or capabilities of potential candidates – but about why a student may be ‘suitable’ to assume that role at the particular time.

Press: Were there any parts of your RI experience that were particularly significant in sparking your interest in the civil service?

TK: RI played a large role in shaping my understanding of the concerns and needs of our community and this increased sensitivity made me ask where I could best give back and serve those around me. It’s hard to answer this question directly because there were so many different aspects of my RI experience which have influenced my values and beliefs.

One main area would be community service. And here it’s not just about carrying out the service or even emotionally connecting with those being served (both of which are crucial) but also thinking further about the different impulses that influence a problem. I was part of the Governance and Civic Engagement Program (GCEP) in Year 5 and I found it to be an invaluable platform (both through classroom discussions and Meet-the-People attachments) to have these important conversations about the challenges people face. If we want to solve or alleviate long term problems through the service we do, there needs to be a commitment to not just the momentary act of service but also the sustained process of thinking about causation, effects and solutions.

Another area would be student leadership. Working with others, under others and for others increased my interest in building not just working relationships but also effective organizations. Some leaders look within their organization and focus on building a spirit of family, that’s very important; just as important is the commitment to excellence and the idea of doing something meaningful. My RIPB experience of working with an EXCO of dedicated leaders to lead the Board through a period of change remains an experience which has shaped me greatly. In both RIPB and Student Council, I was inspired by the potential of those who worked with me and a recurring question of how best to develop and explore the limits of such potential has always intrigued me. In many ways, the experience of building people, building communities and building organizations sparked my interest in the public service.

The last area is academic discourse. There were many times where I was inspired by class discussions to think further about certain problems that Singapore and the world faces and through that process, gained both an increased appreciation and interest in ‘how things work’ at various levels be it individuals, communities, societies, countries or more. This doesn’t just apply to General Paper (where we had great class discussions with Mrs. Elaine Toh and Mrs. Uma Chong) but also other subjects in both the Humanities and Sciences. There’s always room to ask the question ‘why’ and my interactions with my Humanities Program tutors- Mr. Reeves, Mr. Rollason, Ms. Lye, Mrs. Perry and Mr. Sowden- have always reminded me of the importance of curiosity and asking not just how we can we what we’re currently doing well but also asking what more we can do beyond what we’re already doing.

Tommy, Zi Xin, and their Council TIC Ms Michelle Kwok
Tommy, Zi Xin, and their Council TIC Ms Michelle Kwok

Press: In what manner are you most capable of contributing back to society after receiving this scholarship?

TK: Each member of the civil service commits to embodying the values of integrity, service and excellence. That’ll represent a first step. We should avoid prescribing a ‘most capable’ manner of contribution as that represents an unnecessary undermining of the adaptability that is required to respond to unique situations. If anything, the best way to contribute may be to realize the fluidity of the forces around us and commit to challenging existing limits of understanding and being adaptable in our responses. Such a capability would then have a general – rather than situation-specific – nature.

Where I am today though, I think a good place to start will be spending more time listening. By committing to hear the experiences, challenges and aspirations of others but at home and abroad, I’ll be able to have a greater understanding of what people feel, want and need – what a global society feels, wants and needs. Apart from shaping my worldview, along the way I’ll hopefully also be able to inspire others and make a difference, one person at a time.

Press: Looking back, if you had a choice, would you have done anything different in the past few years, both academically and non-academically?

TK: In hindsight there are always many more opportunities that present themselves, although I wouldn’t give up any experience even if given the chance to choose again simply because it’ll probably make me a different person. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to improve on the things I’ve done. Academically I would have tried to find ways to be more consistent. There were times where I felt overwhelmed by the things I had to do and ended up neglecting certain subjects/pieces of work on the pretext that I’ll spend more time on it another day when I ‘had more time’. It’s a much better idea to not drop the ball no matter how tempting it is, especially on those ‘least favorite subjects’. This is something I probably would have wanted to prioritize – to be consistent with work so that no subject will be a struggle and to thus avoid playing the unnecessarily painful game of catch-up.

If given the chance I might have tried to find even more ways to maximize my time to see if I could make more out of my 24 hours. That’s probably a huge task though. If I had more time some of the things I considered and would love to have explored include starting a travel blog about how to maximise value for airfares/hotels, people-watching, or having more conversations about the future with peers and juniors and seniors.

That being said, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore both in and out of the classroom and to do things which largely align with my interests in the past few years. It doesn’t stop here and I’m excited to continue exploring in the years to come (and maybe even write that novel someday)

Tommy at John Hopkins
Tommy at John Hopkins

Press: Now that you are studying at Johns Hopkins, how are you finding life in America?

TK: It’s been a great first few weeks here. The sense of community is amazing and the experience has been phenomenal so far.

Academically, I’m surrounded by individuals who are committed to exploration and discovery. (The Whiteboard Walls in our Learning Commons is a good reflection of Hopkins’ culture of collaboration). The modular system of classes at Hopkins encourages a deep exploration of a specific subject area (e.g. UN as part of Global Governance), unlike the broader approach at JC level (where things like the UN would come under the larger subject of History). I’m currently doing a mixture of courses across Political Science, Sociology, Psychology and Anthropology which allows me to draw relationships between these disciplines, further enriching my understanding of issues such as poverty. Looking forward, I hope to do research here at Hopkins and participate in a Political Science and Social Policy related fellowship either at our Washington DC campus or here at Homewood. Both these options will help enhance my understanding of issues within my areas of study.

Beyond academics, I’m involved in various student groups on campus including the Residential Advisory Board which plans residential life programs and am also training to be a peer-listener with a place to talk’, a student support group here at Hopkins which commits to listening to and supporting fellow students. I’ve started off my Hopkins journey with a commitment to serve and learn about my immediate community and expect to expand that commitment to the extended Baltimore community next year, something made easy by Hopkins’ strong focus to community involvement. Another important weekly event on my calendar is lunch on Saturday where I join my friends in searching for Baltimore’s best Asian food. (Missing food from home is a very real thing!)

Being 9630 miles from home, remaining connected is particularly important. Life away from home is a reminder that we cannot live as isolated individuals. In my first few weeks here I’ve been spending time connecting with family and friends- peers back home in the SAF or in university, peers abroad in the UK/US and juniors who are still in Raffles. While we can’t be physically present, I find it important to still be ‘present’ as a source of support for those we care about. Distance shouldn’t mean ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Especially with the juniors writing the last chapter of their Raffles journeys, it’s been really exciting listening to their future plans and providing support where I can.

Press: Any last words for Rafflesians who are aspiring to become PSC scholars?

TK: If you’re aspiring to be a PSC scholar it’s important to ask yourself why you’re making the choice to embark on such a path. One possible approach is to concurrently ask ‘what can the organization give to me’ and ‘what can I give to the organization’ It’s a two way process and if there are convincing arguments on both sides, it’s more likely than not that the choice is suitable and aligned with your values and interests.

My personal advice would be to find a larger purpose in the work of the Service before aspiring to be a scholar. You’re going to be serving for 6 years. Why do you want to serve? What do you want to do? Who are you going to benefit? Recognize also that you won’t be able to plan what is essentially the next 10 years of your life with absolute certainty. Some of it is going to be a leap of faith. But if you’re doing it for a cause that goes beyond yourself, that choice might both be easier to make and easier to sustain.

In order to make an informed and sensible choice, find time to discover more about the public service, about the scholarship. Try for an internship or talk to a current public servant. Speak with seniors who have made similar choices- ask them why, or why not. Ask your teachers and friends if they think you’ll be a good fit, ask for their reasons. These different perspectives will be invaluable when the time comes for you to make a decision.

Regardless of what stage you’re at on your Raffles journey, you have access to a network of alumni who can listen to you and share their experiences. If you’re contemplating or aspiring toward a scholarship and career with the PSC, you’re always welcome to connect with the existing scholars. Be it about scholarships, opportunities or plans, we welcome and look forward to having a conversation about the future with you.

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