By Iman Talia Zahiri Han-En (24S03E), Pan Haotian (24A01B)
“The ones who answer the call to serve must lead by example,” said then-President Halimah Yacob during this year’s President’s Scholarship Award Ceremony. The President’s Scholarship is considered Singapore’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarship, awarded only to individuals who have “stood out among their cohort, demonstrating excellence in various pursuits”. Awardees are “dedicated to improving the lives of Singaporeans and exemplify the ethos of the Public Service”.
Raffles Press recently interviewed Mei Feifei (batch of 2022), one of this year’s President’s Scholars. Feifei is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of Chicago.
Besides the long list of accomplishments to her name, Feifei radiates a palpable fervour and sense of self-sacrifice that drives her every step. Fueled by her determination to contribute to policy areas she is passionate about, Feifei has chosen to study Economics.“If you think about the public servant as someone who is responsible for Singapore’s economic and social growth, as well as preserving our environment, Economics stretches across all three domains,” she tells us. Read our full interview with Feifei below!
Firstly, just for a little bit of background, what activities and programmes were you a part of in RI?
I was involved with Raffles Press, for one. I was in HP (the Humanities Programme), which shaped my academic experience a lot. I did volunteering outside of school, and I have volunteered with FaithActs since I was in Year 3. I was also in a SVIA / CE01 (community service project) called Project Edifiante. We organised donation drives, we did a digital literacy workshop for children at a family service centre.
With FaithActs, I was a volunteer tutor and it was a 1-on-1 tutoring relationship. I followed the same kid up from Primary 3 to secondary school. That kind of 1-on-1 tutoring is very helpful to get to know the kid you’re tutoring as a person too. It’s not just showing up for a couple hours every week to go through homework, it’s also about understanding the challenges he’s facing in school – maybe he fought with his friend and then how can I help him, give him advice to cope with these challenges and stresses in his life. So that was very meaningful for one.
I also like working with children a lot because they are very fun and energetic. Even though sometimes it’s a bit hard to get them to listen to you, it’s still worth it because you’re helping this child grow and you’re also growing alongside them.
As for Project Edifiante, we did a donation drive and a digital literacy workshop. For the digital literacy workshop, we thought of it during the pandemic when we as a group signed up for an online tutoring programme and that’s when we realised that a lot of kids weren’t familiar with using Google Docs, Google Slides, and even Zoom, and we thought that was something that needed to be addressed especially as they grow older and need to do group projects (a lot of schools are doing more e-learning now) so we saw that as a gap that needed to be addressed.
We went down to a family service centre for 3 weekends to talk to them and teach them how to set up a Google Doc, how to do a survey, and how to do a presentation. It was in part also to get them to be better at public speaking and to be more confident in themselves—a holistic experience.
You’re currently reading Economics at UChicago. Is there anything from your studies – be it from your major or just your general experience studying overseas – that you hope to take into your career in the public service eventually?
Technically, I haven’t started on my major classes yet because UChicago has a pretty strict core requirement, so right now I’m just doing my core classes and I haven’t ventured into actual Economics yet, but I’m planning to do that earliest by spring quarter and latest by autumn quarter next year.
In terms of my major, what I hope to bring into my future career is the kind of analytical thinking that is required of economists: to have that solid analytic framework to understand problems to break them down, and to look at them through economists’ lens. It’s a bit different from a conventional perspective because economists aren’t just thinking about costs, they’re thinking about marginal costs; they’re not just thinking about benefits, they’re thinking about marginal benefits. That kind of marginal cost-benefit analysis is very important in guiding decision-making.
From the core curriculum—the goal of the core is really to inculcate critical thinking and the ability to be familiar with a broad range of subjects. That’s very valuable to a public service career, especially because as a scholar you get rotated through multiple different roles. It’s important to adapt quickly and to not have a particular knowledge gap that will prevent you from performing a certain role well. The core will make me a more well-rounded, more critical thinker that can fit into any role
Being in the US, specifically being in Chicago, has made me a lot more appreciative of Singapore’s safety. The Hyde Park neighbourhood that UChicago is in is particularly interesting because the university itself had a part to play in urban renewal campaigns in the 1990s.
Understanding the university’s relationship with its broader community, how those historical tensions play out today, and what efforts the university is putting into trying to repair this—that’s something that’s very UChicago specific, and it’s very interesting because it relates to Singapore, where we think about how we can better integrate different groups into society. These are transferable ideas set in different contexts that we don’t really see in Singapore, because NUS didn’t make anyone homeless when it expanded, but UChicago did.
Why Economics (as your university major)?
There’s definitely a passion aspect. I liked JC Economics a lot and I liked the lessons, where we discussed problems, a lot. After my JC Economics experience, whenever I read a newspaper, I feel like I’m not just reading words—I know the links of causation. It’s a good way to understand the world around you.
The lessons themselves were very fun (shoutout to Ms Elaine Wong), though the exams…not so much.
If you think about the public servant as someone who is responsible for Singapore’s economic, social growth, as well as preserving our environment, Economics stretches across all three domains. A lot of things in the real world are so tightly linked to Economics that having an understanding of Economics is essential to understanding the world. Specifically, when we learnt about fiscal & exchange rate policy in Y6, that was really interesting and was something I wanted to learn more about.
The PSC scholarship comes with a 6-year bond that may deter many from applying. Why did you choose public service, despite the 6-year bond?
I wouldn’t say despite the 6-year bond, but rather because of the 6-year bond. You shouldn’t view the scholarship as being a free ticket to an overseas education/an overseas experience, and people who take up the scholarship despite the 6-year bond do not get the most out of it and do not give back as they should. In JC, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the future, I knew that I wanted to try out different types of work, i.e. not limiting myself to becoming an expert in any particular niche industry.
The bond is fantastic in that it allows you to rotate across a range of industries and get a diverse set of experiences, which is what I wanted. For me, I feel that serving in the public service is the most direct way of giving back to the community that I have benefitted a lot from. There’s meaning in every job, of course, but it just so happens that a career in the public service aligns most with my personal values, and is something I think I’ll be able to derive the most meaning from. Hence, because of the 6-year bond, I took up the scholarship.
In general though, there are a few things I look forward to doing during my bond. A mentor once told me that the core values of the public service–integrity, service, excellence–are about doing what is right, doing what is good, and doing it better.
That’s the goal that I have for myself: to do right, to do good, to do better.
More specifically, what that would look like is contributing to policy areas that I am passionate about. For one, dealing with environmental challenges – we’re talking about mitigating climate change, adapting to climate change, but also more about how to adapt to worst-case scenarios i.e. black swan events, and what we can do to prepare in case an environmental catastrophe does happen. I interned with the Ministry of Trade & Industry earlier this year and I think trade is also a very interesting realm: I’d like to consider how we can make our FTAs (Free Trade Agreements) more effective in helping businesses.
Do you have any role models or people whom you are grateful for?
Many of my peers in JC were involved in an insane number of commitments, but still managed to put their whole heart and soul into every single one of their projects. That level of devotion was what stood out to me, and working with them transformed how I thought about leadership.
In Raffles, I think sometimes you get caught up with thinking about yourself in terms of achievements, or in terms of quantifiable metrics. My friends guided me through thinking about a lot of these moments of insecurity and self-doubt, which was essential for me to grow as a person.
Beyond that, my teachers in RGS and in JC also changed my perspective on specific social issues, and the way I view myself. My years in secondary school were really the formative years of my life. Before that, I was quite shy and reserved, and I didn’t really possess the knowledge of how to be a good leader. Witnessing the prefects, peer support leaders, and house captains’ confidence and infectious energy during orientation rubbed off on my leadership style, and they were definitely huge positive influences on me.
Tell us a bit about your application process, and any advice you may have for people looking to apply for the PSC scholarship. What do you think made you stand out as a candidate?
The application process consists of multiple stages. You can find the details on the PSC website. You will need to submit an online application with a personal essay, and there will be several rounds of interviews.
What’s more important in this process is to not try to present yourself as someone that you are not. A big part of being a “good” candidate–not in the sense that you will get the scholarship but in the sense of being a candidate others will respect–is to be able to own up to your mistakes and show how you’ve grown.
The goal is to be authentic and to be truthful because it is, generally speaking, bad to lie and it is quite obvious when people lie about certain aspects of their experiences, whether they try to blow up an achievement or cover up a mistake.
What do you see in your role as a President’s Scholar and how does that affect you?
I must acknowledge that the title of a President’s Scholar inevitably comes with more spotlight, even though it’s very temporary. The standards of being genuine, integrous, and disciplined are constant and don’t change with or without this title. It’s definitely a huge honour that I didn’t expect, and I’m very grateful for all the different people, moments, and experiences that have led to this point, but it shouldn’t be seen as a reward. It’s an honour, but also a responsibility; the fundamental responsibility is to contribute back to the service and to Singapore as a whole.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
For the upcoming holidays, take a deep breath now that PW is over and have fun during the holidays, because the chances of having fun in J2 are slim (though non-zero). Really take this time to relax, but also don’t neglect studying. Work on things you weren’t good at this year and prepare yourself academically but also mentally mentally and emotionally by having fun and letting go of stress!
Be patient! There’s no need to be too anxious about things that don’t seem to work out in the moment. There are a lot of things that seem quite crushing, like getting a bad grade or saying something embarrassing in class. In the moment, you’ll think it’s going to stick with you forever, but that’s not true. The goal is to not hold on to things that happened in the past, but to give yourself the time and space to grow.
Also be open minded—there are a lot of opportunities for you to grow, and there is something to learn from every experience. Be willing to take up opportunities, be open to them, and don’t just stay within your comfort zone. Think about what will stretch you just a little bit more. Don’t overcommit and don’t sign up for things just to have it on your resume.
Think about why you want to commit your time and energy to something, make sure it’s something you find purposeful, and commit to that instead of committing to something half-heartedly.
Lastly, one of the most important things I learnt from JC Literature is to try to hold back the pride and prejudice that you have. A lot of subconscious areas of pride prevent you from being open-minded and from identifying what’s really meaningful to you, and a lot of prejudices prevent you from making connections with people. You’re missing out on all these things–you should FOMO!–if you are prideful and prejudiced.