SINGAPORE – Having a deep understanding of religions practised in Singapore is relevant to making sound policies, and policymakers are vital in ensuring religious harmony, the Public Service Commission (PSC) said on Monday (July 22).

It added that it wants to have scholarship recipients in the humanities, arts and social sciences, besides fields like engineering and technology.

It was responding to recent criticism over which courses PSC scholarship recipients study, and concern over whether certain courses are not as relevant as ones that could be more “practical” for Singapore.

Two members of the public wrote to The Straits Times’ Forum page questioning the choice of study of a recent recipient who will pursue a master’s degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in September.

Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli, 27, had read philosophy at Nanyang Technological University. He is one of 93 newly minted PSC scholars.

In a Forum letter, Mr Cheng Choon Fei wrote: “Courses paid with scholarships funded by the public must be relevant to Singapore’s economy and development.”

Another letter writer, Mr Stanley Ong, asked how a course in Buddhist studies would be of value to Singapore, compared with others in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“And why choose to do Buddhist studies at a high-cost, elitist tertiary institution in a high-cost country when there is no lack of Buddhist institutions of learning here?” he asked.

Dr Ng Li Sa, director of the PSC Secretariat, said in a reply to The Straits Times Forum: “In the Singapore context, secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content. Our public space is shared by Singaporeans of different religions.

“Policymakers in Singapore take an active role in working towards religious harmony.”

She added that when selecting scholarship recipients, the PSC looks for “authentic, open-minded individuals with clear thinking, who are aligned with public service values, eager to learn and driven to serve Singapore”.

“In sending them to read a diversity of subjects, we hope that each one will bring back a special perspective to contribute to the team, to bring Singapore forward.”

The PSC’s aim is to develop talent across a range of disciplines, and people who have varied experiences and broader networks, said Dr Ng.

“While we continue to promote engineering and technology, we also want to have scholarship recipients versed in the humanities, arts and social sciences. Having a diversity of strengths makes the public service more resilient, and better able to anticipate the complex and cross-cutting challenges Singapore will face.”