What do Monk Sri Nithya Turiyananda Swami, Professor Naresh Agarwal, Strategist Nitin Pai, Mountaineer John Gomes and CEO of Hotstar Ajit Mohan have in common? The clue is in the picture below – The NTU Graduating Class of 2016 which marks the 25th year Anniversary of NTU.
This picture looks like any other graduating picture. But it is special. The new intake for the SIA NOL scholarship, which enabled many Indians to come to Singapore and study in NTU or NUS, was discontinued in 2012 after running for 20 years. This means that in the picture above, there are some people who are the last graduating class of Singapore Airlines - Neptune Orient Limited scholars! The scholarship was started 25 years ago in 1993 and this year, 2018, marks End of an era and what an era it had been!
For more than a generation, the scholarship helped many turn their starry-eyed dreams into reality. The scholarship not only covered full tuition fee but also took care of accommodation and living allowance, thus removing the entire financial burden whilst opening the doors to world-class education.
Benefits Of Award
- Full coverage of tuition fees and all compulsory miscellaneous fees.
- Living allowance of S$6,000 per academic year.
- Annual accommodation allowance pegged at the lowest double room rate for on-campus accommodation.
- Settling-in allowance of S$200 (one-off).
- One-way air passage from India to Singapore at the commencement of the programme and a return air passage upon completion of the programme.
Scholarships in Singapore usually come with a bond. In case of SIA-NOL there was a six-year bond to work for a Singapore registered company.
Terms & Conditions
- Scholarship holder is required to serve a six-year bond with the Sponsor or organisation as directed by the Sponsor, or if not so required to serve, work in a Singapore-registered company.
- Scholarship holder may not, without the approval of the University, hold concurrently any other scholarships, bursaries or university loans.
- Scholarship holder is required to maintain a minimum Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 3.5 out of 5.0. Academic performance will be reviewed every semester.
- The Scholarship may be withdrawn at any time if, in the opinion of the University, the scholarship holder's progress or behaviour is deemed unsatisfactory.
- If the scholarship holder decides to terminate the scholarship prematurely, a repayment will be imposed.
Last week, I was discussing the discontinuation of the scholarship with INSEAD Alumnus Nagitha Kumarasinghe, founder of Singapore’s most successful Education Test Prep and education consultancy company. To quote him verbatim, “The selection process was amazing. I have never met anyone from that program who was not capable. Actually, I’m keen to know exactly how they did the shortlisting, can’t have been just on grades”.
And it certainly wasn’t just grades. Initiated in 1993, the scholarship’s modus operandi has changed a few times. What did not change, however, was the emphasis that was paid to extra-curricular activities and leadership traits in addition to grades when shortlisting the candidates. The scholars were selected on the basis of Class X & XII (O and A Level) grades, performance in an aptitude test akin to SAT comprising Verbal and Mathematics sections and an interview. On an average, almost everyone selected in the 1990s had over 90% aggregate score in Class X & XII. That number started moving north of 95% in the 2000s and at some point went as high as an average of 97%. It was not uncommon to hear people with 98% being rejected (perhaps due to lack of extra-curricular activities and/or leadership traits). In the initial years, students had to indicate up to three courses they were interested in at NTU or NUS. And they did not know which university they were allocated until much later. This system changed at some point when NTU and NUS started administering the scholarship independently. Students applied to the university directly and indicated if they would like to be considered for SIA-NOL scholarship. Over time, NUS dropped the aptitude test in its selection criteria whereas NTU introduced a written long-answer type entrance exam in three domains - Mathematics, Physics and English. In 1993, the scholarship started with 20 scholars in NTU and 30 in NUS. During my time at NTU we had 30 odd scholars at NTU and about 50 in NUS.
I remember writing the NTU Entrance exam in Hansraj Model School in Punjabi Bagh, being interviewed in Taj Hotel Delhi, signing the Bond in Singapore Airlines Delhi Office in and taking my maiden flight just past midnight at 00.05 am on July 15, 2005. I had the last seat on the plane and sat next to a fellow scholar. We talked for a while and she went to sleep. I was too excited to sleep and ended up chatting with one of the flight attendants with whom I still keep in touch. We talked about my schooling, about the scholarship criteria, places to check out in Singapore among many other things. She did not know what NTU was and later when she visited me at my university after a few months, she told me that my maiden flight was special to her too - It was her first commercial SIA flight prior to which she worked for Jet Airways in India.
I was also lucky enough to also have a chat with the Captain of the plane when he walked down the aisle. I couldn’t stop but ask him if he was Indian. Captain Naqvi told me he was Pakistani. I had a lively chat with him including asking him a naïve question as to who was flying the plane if he was here. When I asked him what the difference between India and Pakistan was, he smiled and said, “Half an hour”. This was my first taste in cross-cultural interaction – something that would later become an integral part of my life.
After five hours in the air, as the sun was rising in a fiery orange sky, I landed in Singapore and could see the lush greenery at Changi Airport from my window. The same flight had quite a few other scholars and we were met by a bus which was sent by NTU. After 30 minutes of zipping past buildings such as Esplanade, Merlion etc. over the Pan Island Expressway (PIE), I finally reached the place that would be my home for the next many years to come. Funny enough, the officer from NTU Admission’s office, Zafar, who came to pick us up gave us a crash course in how to drink water from the water dispenser. Unlike in India, in Singapore people don’t usually use their hands to cup the water while drinking and rather drink directly from the jet. This was a new experience to me and I couldn’t help but think of how much water gets wasted in drinking this way. Dropping off our luggage in our respective Halls, we next were taken to the International Students Office (ISO) for the necessary formalities. Little did I then know that the following year I would be appointed by ISO to oversee this process for my immediate juniors. After completing the necessary formalities and eating a coconut bun which ISO had given to all of us, we marched towards Canteen A to open a bank account. I could not understand why the coconut bun was free. I was not used to such royal treatment☺.
At Canteen A, I found a payphone stuck to the wall and called my parents who to inform them how good my first impression of NTU was. Later we were taken to a Lecture Theatre where Head of ISO (International Students Office) Ms Chua, Head of NTU’s Power Engineering Prof Lalit Goel and a graduating student Vikram Bajaj welcomed us to NTU. Prof Goel was a known face to students as we had seen him proctor the entrance exam in India. Prof Goel was yet to become the Youtube Prof with his viral video on NTU student survey and a few years away from becoming the Dean of NTU Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.
The Indian city of Lucknow where I am from happens to be a stronghold for the Indian flavour of Cambridge O/A Levels viz. The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate administered ICSE (Class X/O Level) and ISC (Class XII/A Level) exams – this year alone 18 of top 49 students in India came from Lucknow. This puts the relatively unknown city of Lucknow (the first direct Flight to Lucknow from Singapore was only started in December 2015) on the Singapore Ministry of Education’s radar. My school, Seth MR Jaipuria School, has had its fair share in producing All India ISC and ICSE toppers. The school’s very first school captain Abhinav Singh was a trailblazer for generations of Jaipurians (Last being Swasti Srivastava in 2010) to come to Singapore for Undergraduate studies at NUS/NTU. Abhinav was the school captain from Grade 8 all the way to Grade 12. A fiery leader who commanded so much awe that I dropped the ice cream I was once eating outside the school for the fear of him giving a lecture on how unhygienically it was prepared. Abhinav went on to study at NUS which to quote my current Principal Mrs Promini Chopra, “At that point, we did not know the value of this university so people really wondered why he had chosen this option despite being such a bright student. Conventional careers and Indian Universities of repute were the only choices the school was aware of”. This was 1997 - in an era when we only had 14.4kbps dial-up internet in Lucknow. Forget about Facebook, even Google was yet to be born and we survived on Yahoo! Mail. There was no credible university ranking either unlike today’s QS World University Ranking or Times Higher Education Ranking both of which put either NUS or NTU as #1 in Asia. US News rankings did exist but they were too US-centric and I personally remember looking up AsiaWeek Rankings in 1999 and 2000 which put NUS and NTU in top 10 in Asia. Among Science and Technology Schools Korea’s KIAST and Postech led the pack while Singapore’s NTU came in at eighth. FMultidisciplinaryary Universities, Singapore’s NUS was ranked sixth best in Asia. Since then, of course, both NUS and NTU have climbed up the ladder and today are undisputedly considered the best universities in Asia by all major rankings.
In its early days, one person who unknowingly became the poster child and Information disseminator for SIA-NOL was Naresh Agarwal. Naresh has no idea how many people came to know about the scholarship simply by chancing upon his deeply passionate blog. The blog was initially hosted on an NUS server and even to this date, a copy may be accessed here. Not surprisingly later in life, Naresh started playing an even bigger role in Information dissemination – Today he is a Professor of Library & Information Science at Simmons College in Boston, USA. I have never personally met Naresh, however, I did meet one of his batchmates Pavneet Singh Bedi in 2014 when he was studying Executive MBA at NTU and I was an MBA Exchange student at NTU – yes you read it right, both of us came back to NTU for our MBA ☺. When I first met Bedi, I did not immediately connect that he was Naresh’s classmate. It was much later when he posted the picture below on his Facebook page that I was able to make that connection.
SIA NOL scholars have been making tremendous economic and social impact in not just Singapore or India but globally.
Awards and Honours
In early days of the scholarship, Showbhik Kalra and Dilip Krishnan put NTU on the world map by winning a Digital Signal Processing competition and USD 100k prize from Texas Instruments. Similarly, in the early days, Manish Bharadwaj got a National Computer Board Gold Medal in 1996 and went on for a PhD at MIT cementing the academic might of SIA-NOL scholars. Nikhil Sarin was the topper for Computer Engineering in 1999 winning the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal and the Institution of Engineers Singapore Gold Medal. He is now a senior scientist at Google. Shridhar Mubaraq Mishra won the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal and the Institution of Engineers Singapore Gold Medal for Computer Engineering in 1998 and went on to do a PhD at University of California, Berkeley.
Rajesh Menon, the legendary student in NTU who had more Distinctions than As on his transcript, went to MIT for PhD and now is a Professor in Neuroscience University of Utah. Prof Naresh Agarwal teaches Information Sciences at Simmons in Boston. Prof Karthik Natarajan is Associate Head of Pillar at SUTD. Prof Vinod Venkatraman teaches Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prof Rahul Kapoor teaches MBA at Wharton. Sam Garg is a Professor in HKUST Department of Management.
Politics, Social Work and Leadership
Shadab Taiyabi was one of the most successful students at NTU and went on to be the President of NTU’s Student Union in the University’s 50th Year of establishment (NTU started as a Chinese language University in 1955 under the name Nanyang University) and during his tenure he oversaw NTU becoming autonomous. Nitin Pai of the first batch of SIA-NOL scholars co-founded the ThinkTank Takshashila - an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization to contribute towards building the intellectual foundations of an India that has global interests.
Rishi Israni and Pranoti Nagarkar founded Zimplistic, the world’s first Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things enabled RotiMaker and has even been mentioned by Singapore’s Prime Minister in his National Day Speech. Sourabh Sharma co-founded Milaap and later was country head of PayTM in Singapore. Abhishek Gupta co-founded Singapore’s only virtual Telecom Company CircleLife. Samir Rath is a Silicon Valley investor and Co-founder and CEO of BluefireAI. Rohit Dugar is a Beer Entrepreneur in Hong Kong. Anuj Khanna Sohum is a serial entrepreneur and innovator with his last venture being ad2c in 2012.
The CEO of Star TV’s digital arm Hotstar Ajit Mohan is a frontrunner for Facebook’s top job in India. Gaurav Tholia serves as Head of FX Flow Sales Asia & Japan at BNP Bank. Manish Bharadwaj after graduating with gold medal in Computer engineering went on for a PhD at MIT and now is CEO of IPX Consulting. Balagopal Kunduvara is General Manager of Singapore Airlines. Manik Gupta is VP Product, Maps & Marketplace at Uber. Prateek Prakash is Head of Technology for Investment Services Private Markets at GIC. Himanshu Chaturvedi is Managing Director at Cambridge Associates. Manik Saha is CIO of SAP APAC and Japan. Rohit Nagarajan is Senior Vice President, Industries & Innovation, at SAP. Ashwin Chari is CEO and Country Head for Philips in Philippines. CV Satish is Head of Client Services and manages Flextrade's Asia business, a NY based algorithmic trading firm. Avinash Abraham is Chief Investment Officer at Torq Capital Management. Sayan Ghosh is Portfolio Manager, Head of Singapore Office at Balyasny Asset Management L.P. Tanuj Dutt is a Senior Portfolio Manager - Nikko Asset Management Asia. Gunjan Kalra is Managing Director at Citibank. Showbhik Kalra after graduating from NTU in Computer Engineering did an MBA at Harvard and now is the Head of Products, APAC at Schroders Investment.
Performing Arts, Films, Authors and Offbeat
After scoring top-notch grades at school, getting a world-class scholarship and working as an Investment Banker, Arpit Singhal gave up the material world to become a monk and re-emerged as Sri Nithya Turiyananda Swami.
John Gomes has been climbing mountains and his fabulous pictures may be accessed here. Sussan De, Founder De for Dance, is a Salsa queen and regularly performs at Esplanade. Samir Rath wrote a book No startup hipsters. Madhav Mathur is a script and book writer. Varun Viswanath is a Film and Television Editor.
Thanks to the SIA-NOL scholarship, I have come a long way from being a nerd who had not even gone to Lucknow’s downtown Hazratgung alone to becoming someone who graduated from NTU interning across three continents and visiting over 30 countries. As I once summed up my NTU experience to one of my juniors, Rahul Mehdriratta, after wrapping up a session with Aswath Damodaran, a distinguished Alumnus of my MBA school – my MBA school IIM gave me what I was looking for but my undergraduate University NTU showed me what to look for!
I feel a sense of desolation that without the aid of the SIA-NOL scholarship, many budding youngsters may never learn what to look for, and will forego the experiences that made me what I am today.