Should government scholars be grateful?

Should recipients of government scholarships be grateful? Grateful to whom?

Kee Thuan Chye 

I’m asking this because former minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil mentioned recently that PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli was a Petronas scholar and yet he appeared to be going against the people who had given him the scholarship. As the Petronas scholarship is a government scholarship, she implied he was being “ungrateful”.

She even suggested that other young people of Rafizi’s generation might also be “ungrateful”.

But should Rafizi – and other Petronas scholars, indeed all government scholars, including those awarded the Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) scholarships – be beholden to the Government and eternally grateful to it?

First of all, what is “the Government”?

It is the entity that rules and administers the country. And in our democracy, it is made up of the party or parties that won the most number of parliamentary seats in the last general election to gain the right to rule the country.

This party or parties can lose the next general election and cease to be “the Government”. In other words, it is only the government of the day.

Governments come and go, as people say, which means no party or parties can claim ownership of the title “Government” forever.

Barisan Nasional (BN) is the coalition of parties that makes up the current government of the day. In years to come, it may no longer be that. In fact, it may cease to be that sooner if it loses the upcoming 13th general election.

So if “the Government” is something that is subject to change, how can anyone be beholden to “the Government”? How can anyone be eternally grateful to “the Government”? 

To supposedly back up her call, Shahrizat said, “I come from a generation that is grateful for things happening to you and we are taught not to bite that hand that feeds you. And somebody who is seen as biting the hand that feeds you would be deemed as derhaka (betrayal).”

But whose is “the hand that feeds” all recipients of government scholarships?

Where does the money to fund the scholarships come from?

Does it all come from the pockets of the ruling elite that helms the government of the day?

Of course not. The money comes from the rakyat. The money from the taxes they pay goes into the coffers of the government of the day. Of course there’s also Petronas money, but that is also the rakyat’s money. And part of this collective money goes into funding scholarships.

By this simple reasoning, “the hand that feeds” all government scholars is the hand of the rakyat.

So if government scholars need to be grateful, they should be grateful to the rakyat. Not the government of the day.

They can show their gratitude by serving the rakyat, by looking after its interests.

Rafizi chose to do this by joining an Opposition party.

Since looking after the rakyat’s interests is what political parties – ruling or Opposition – should do, his opting for that should not be an issue.

After all, the ruling party is supposed to ensure that the rakyat’s welfare is served through the policies it formulates and implements while the Opposition parties are supposed to point out lapses in the implementation and expose the shortcomings. Simplistically put, they should both serve the same cause.

By that token, Rafizi – as well as other government scholarship recipients – should be free to join whichever party they choose. It is their democratic right. Besides, our Federal Constitution itself grants every citizen the right to free association.

Indeed, by exposing the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) scandal, Rafizi was actually serving the rakyat’s interests. He showed us that our money which was given to the National Feedlot Corporation was allegedly not being used to serve its avowed purpose.

How then could Shahrizat suggest the contrary – that Rafizi was being ungrateful to the provider of his scholarship and was committing derhaka?

What derhaka? He should instead be commended for what he did. In fact, he should deserve the rakyat’s gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, there is one thing more – something basic which I think needs to be examined.

Why should Rafizi or any young person be grateful at all to anyone for getting government scholarships?

I think they need not be. Because it is the responsibility of the State to see that our young get proper education. If we the rakyat pay taxes that go into giving the young scholarships, we should accept it because we are helping to fulfill that responsibility. It is money correctly spent. It’s like what we would do for our own children.

Besides, as citizens, these young people are entitled to such help – provided they deserve it. And if they are entitled to it, why should they need to be grateful?

From what we can see of Rafizi’s track record and the things he has done in the public sphere, he appears to be a brilliant man. He must have deserved his Petronas scholarship. If, as a taxpayer, I were to have had a hand in funding his education, I would have been more than happy for having done that.

I would not expect him to be grateful – although he has nonetheless performed his duty to society by exposing the NFC scandal.

And by extension, I would not expect any deserving government scholarship recipient to be grateful.

They needed it, we helped. That’s the end of the matter.


* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia.