Friday, November 17, 2006

Post No. 93: Student Politics & Representation: Then, Now & Beyond?

As you all surely would be aware, it was recently reported in the news that, in its most recent donation drive, the National University of Singapore (NUS) only managed to get donations from a mere 1% of its alumni population. This news report particularly caught my eye since I myself am currently studying in NUS. A variety of reasons, ranging from people's perception that the Government & NUS administration should be the ones providing for needy students to the observation that the majority of NUS graduates do not earn enough to donate back to their alma mater in significant way, was put forth in the wake of this news report to explain the phenomenon reported in the report.

Of all these possible explanations, I found the explanation put forth by Mr. Aaron Ng, a final year undergraduate at NUS, in this blog entry of his to be particularly thought-provoking. According to him, if I may slightly rephrase his main thesis, the main reason as to why 99% of the NUS alumni population did not donate back to NUS would be that they, in particular and especially those studying in NUS during the late 1980s and 1990s, do not have a sense of belonging & ownership towards their alma mater. And this in turn was a result of them, during their undergraduate days, not having a strong voice in the affairs of the university and not having adequate representation by the NUS Students' Union (NUSSU).

Mr. Ng then moves on to describe how there seems to be a "great affective divide" (My words, not his. Or should I say it's Ms Catherine Lim's words?) between NUS undergraduates and the NUS administration and the NUSSU (thought the last is comprised of NUS undergraduates). He then described how the NUS administration is perceived to be non-consultative in the way it runs the university and even when it does consult the opinions of the undergraduates, little is done to act on the opinions gathered (I am not fully sure how true this perception of the NUS administration is since, as of now, has only spent less than a semester studying in it). As for the NUSSU, according to Mr. Ng's arguments, the general impression/opinion of NUS undergraduates towards it would be most probably a non-positive, if not negative, one. The NUSSU is perceived to be not doing much stuff of significance, in effective in its dealings with the university administration and just an organiser of events such as orientation events, bashes & bazaars.

Well, having my curiosity stirred by Mr. Ng's remarks about the NUSSU, I went to did some research. And, unfortunately, it seems to me that my research validates the remarks made by Mr. Ng (though perhaps my research is not accurate or representative enough). I asked several of my friends, who are currently studying in the various local universities (by my count, 3 are from NUS, 2 from NTU and 1 from SMU), about their impression/opinion of the students' union in their respective universities. From what I can observe, the general trend amongst these 6 friends of mine is that they have a neutral, if not indifferent, attitude towards their respective students' unions since they see them as not actually having a significant impact on their undergraduate lives and as not doing very much. In fact, most of them are not aware of what it is that their respective students' union actually do (one NUS friend of mine could only think of the NUSSU giving out "exam welfare packs" when I asked him what the NUSSU does) and do not know who are in their respective students' unions (in a way, this seems tantamount to Singaporeans not knowing who their MPs are). And in case you all are mistaken, not all 6 of these friends are, like me, in only their first year of university studies, 2 of them (1 from NUS & the other from SMU) are already in their third year of study.

Well, perhaps this indifference towards and lack of knowledge about their students' unions by local undergraduates may be a good thing. I mean, it may be a case in which the various students’ unions are abiding by Lao Tzu's (老子) principle of that the best government is one which governs least and/or not even have the people governed by it know about its existence (“无为而治”; “太上不知有之”). Of course, I doubt that most of you all would find this plausible and I myself do not think that the various local students' unions are aware of such a principle.

Also, while doing research on this topic online, I happened to come across this interesting forum discussion thread on "Funkygrad". Again, the comments found here in this discussion thread seem to echo the non-positive impression/opinion which local undergraduates have of their students' unions, with some comments on how those in the students' unions are just there to make their curriculum vitae look more impressive in the future and/or are attracted to the amount of CCA points offered to those in the students' unions (especially those in the management committee). There was also the opinion that the students' unions have become just another CCA group and not a representative body for the undergraduate population.

To add on, interestingly enough, my third year NUS undergraduate friend recounted to me this conversation which she had with this taxi driver when she was taking a taxi ride into/out of (I can't recall whether my friend was going in or out) of NUS campus. From what I can gather from her, this taxi driver was an undergraduate studying in NUS (then still known as University of Singapore) in the 1970s (this was a conclusion she & I got to since the taxi driver was in his 50s and which will put him in the same time period as Mr. Tan Wah Piow), was a member of the students' union back then, went overseas to further his studies and just came back to Singapore for a while & was just driving a taxi to pass time (yes, I know it seems mildly suspicious). According to this taxi driver, based on his experience & observation, the local students' unions of today do not resemble students' unions, or at least they are starkly different from the students' unions of his time. As recounted by my friend, this taxi driver described how the students' unions & leaders of his time (with he being a member of the students' union, of course) served with passion, commanded much respect from the undergraduate population and even had protests on the university campus grounds (then still located at Bukit Timah where the NUS Law Faculty is located now). Thus, in comparison with the students' unions of his time, the taxi driver felt that the local students' unions of today do not act or behave like real students' unions.

Indeed, if we bother to look into the historical records of Singapore, we will no doubt see that, back in the "bad old days" (i.e. the 1950s & 60s), local students, together with their students' unions leaders (this included not only students from the universities but also from the secondary schools), were so active that they were widely regarded as a significant & potent force on the local political scene. They staged & participated in massive protests, demonstrations, rallies & strikes against the authorities and the school administrations. Of course, now, the official historical narrative portrays this state of heightened student political activism as being inspired and instigated by the pro-Communist forces which infiltrated these local students’ unions.

However, do not be mistaken, this state of heightened student political activism was not restricted only to the 1950s & 1960s but it also spread into the 1970s. This can be seen from this following passage from Chapter 1 of the book "Lee's Lieutenants: Singapore's Old Guard", edited by Lam Peng Er and Kevin YL Tan.

"In 1974 the campus was rocked by student unrest. In December that year, immigration officers accompanied by riot police conducted a pre-dawn raid at the university campus at Bukit Timah Road. They caught and deported six students who were active in the University of Singapore Students' Union (USSU). This took place just before Tan Wah Piow, the president of USSU, was to appear in a district court on charges of rioting. Tan and his comrades had earlier taken part in a demonstration in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, against the eviction of squatters, organised the Bangladesh flood relief campaign, and were involved in the Retrenchment Research Centre and the affairs of the Pioneer Industries Employees Union. The PAP government sought to emasculate the USSU activists because they believed that these students were using the university as a sanctuary to promote their political aims, which went beyond legitimate student affairs. The detentions triggered off students protests, boycott of lectures and, according to a newspaper report, approximately 2000 out of a total enrollment of 7500 turned up for a 2 hours student rally against the arrests. However, Toh avoided further punitive action against the dissenters, and simply allowed the protests to peter out." (pages 11-12) (emphasis mine)

[note: the "Toh" mentioned in the passage above refers to Dr. Toh Chin Chye, former Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959-1968, who was also the Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Singapore (SU) from 1968-1975 and concurrently a governmental minister & chairman of the PAP till 1981.]

Recognising the stark difference in the state of local student activism of earlier decades and today, I suppose a question which will emerge in most people's minds would be: what happened to result in such a stark difference?

Well, though I would not say that it is solely responsible for the current state of student activism (or lack of, for that matter) but it would seem to me that the policy of "de-politicisation" of the local student population, put in place by the PAP government after Singapore’s independence in 1965, is mainly responsible for the current situation. Again, this can be seen from the following passages from Chapter 1 of "Lee's Lieutenants".

"Nonetheless, Pang Cheng Lian [a Master of Social Science (Political Science) graduate from NUS] warned that Toh's appointment as Vice-Chancellor would de-politicise not only the university but also Singapore: '...The two universities from which opposition or criticism of the Party might be expected are kept under close surveillance. The appointment of a senior CEC member as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore since 1968 is likely to inhibit critics of the Party on the campus.'

The commonly held view that universities should perform the role of social critic (at least in liberal democracies and in traditional Confucian philosophy) was obviously unacceptable to the PAP Old Guard.

...Toh's and the PAP's approach to student activism at SU has a close fit to [Samuel] Huntington's model of depoliticisation: students should concentrate on their studies and not get involved in politics. During his tenure, Toh tamed the student unions. He was concerned that students might succumb to the currents of political activism sweeping various academic institutions in the world, especially in the wake of the US Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War protests and student revolts in Paris."
(page 11)

This "de-politicisation" of the student population did not only take place in the University of Singapore but also in the Nanyang University (Nantah), as we can see from this passage from Chapter 7 of "Lee's Lieutenants".

"Jek, contending that 'Nayang University must be a proper academic organisation completely free of politics'..."(page 148)

The above remark was made in the context of the 1963 General Elections in which Mr. Tan Lark Sye (陈六使), founder and a member of the Nantah Management Committee, openly declared his support for several Nantah graduates that stood for the elections on the platform of the Barisan Socialis.

[note: the "Jek" mentioned above refers to Mr. Jek Yeun Thong, who later became Singapore's Minister of Labour after the 1963 General Elections and who, together with Mr. Lee Khoon Choy (another member of the PAP Old Guard), was appointed as government representatives in a Joint Government-University Liaison Committee in 1960 to negotiate the issue of official recognition of Nantah's degrees with the university management of Nantah.]

Hence, it may be observed that this process of "de-politicisation" of local university undergraduates has effectively limited the powers of the students' unions and restricted their scope of activism to include only issues and causes that are sanctioned by the Government and/or the university administrations.

Yet, it should also be noted that there exists other contributing factors that led to the current situation. These would most probably include the non-consultative manner of the university administrations (perceived or actual), the limited amount of time which each batch of students unions leaders have to serve on the management committees of these unions, the heavy workload faced by students which deter them to be concerned about matters outside of the scope of their academic requirements and, finally, the lack of support for the students' unions from the very undergraduates they are supposed to represent.

Of course, with regards to the last contributing factor mentioned above, in my opinion, there is perhaps a self-fulfilling cycle (see below) which perpetuates this lack of support by undergraduates for their students' unions.

The Self-fulfilling Cycle:

Students' unions are perceived to be ineffective ==> undergraduates withhold their support for a students' union which they see as ineffective ==> lacking the necessary support, students' unions have limited negotiating power when dealing with the university administrations ==> students' unions fail to gain any significant "victories ==> undergraduates perceive their students' unions to be ineffective ==> and the cycle goes on...

(a hard cycle to break, this is)

Okay, now that we have looked at the past and present situation of students' unions activism, it is time we look at how it may develop in the future. In my opinion, it is quite evident that it would be counter-productive and near to impossible to attempt to resurrect the old model of student activism from earlier decades (for reasons which I think I need not elaborate upon) but, at the same time, continuing with the current model would be no less an evil. Hence, it seems to me that it is necessary to develop a new model, different from both the old and current models, for local students' unions.

I am no seer and thus I would refrain from saying what this new model ought to be like. However, it is my opinion that regardless of what form this new model takes, it should preferably have these key basic features: i) university administrations which are more open and consultative, ii) students' unions which are more pro-active in representing & fighting for the interests of undergraduates, iii) a student population which is more aware and concerned about the world outside of their academic curriculum and iv) a student population which is more supportive of their students' unions. If these features are not possible to implement, then at the very least, the new model of students' unions activism should be able to instil a sense of belonging and ownership in local undergraduates.

In the end, we all need to recognise that education, in particular university education, serve not only to equip students with knowledge & skills that will allow them to find good jobs but also to enable them to become critical thinking, aware and active citizens.


A pre-emptive reply to possible criticism of this essay:

To those who will argue that the local students' unions do more than just organising orientation events, bashes and bazaars and/or giving out "exam welfare packs" and that they are effective in representing & fighting for the interests of the students they represent, I would just answer that, in my essay, I have only stated there is a general perception amongst local undergraduates that their students' unions are ineffective and do nothing much of significance. And I add: something needs to be done to correct this perception, for sometimes, perception is everything.

And to those who will argue that since I'm not directly involved in any students' unions, I do not know the difficulties they face and thus, I should stop being an armchair critic, I would answer that, while I acknowledge that local students' unions do face certain difficulties, I see no reason why I need to be directly involved in a students' union to be able to comment on them. Anyway, I am technically also a member of a students' union (i.e. NUSSU), considering that all NUS students are automatically members of the NUSSU. And being a member of the NUSSU whose interests are supposedly represented by them, I think I have a right to comment on it.

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