In the first of our series of interviews with the MC nominees, we interview 4USP:
- Law Zhe Wen (Chemical Engineering, Year 3, running for President)
- Varun Soni (Engineering Science, Year 3, running for VP of Student Welfare)
- Talia Seet (Political Science, Year 2, running for VP of Community Life)
- Elson Ng (Life Science, Year 2, running for Academic Director)
Q. What made you decide to run together?
Zhe Wen: Because four of us are seniors, we have spent a reasonable amount of time in USP, and have had USP in the back of our mind. And so the four of us decided to run for this together.
Varun: We were approached by people in the current MC at a time when all of us were thinking of running for MC ourselves. We had some ideas, and we realised that the four of us had similar ideas of what we wanted to achieve. Through several interactions and many conversations, and thinking very hard about this, we realised we should run together and run in our respective positions.
Q. What are these ideas and goals you have for USP?
Zhe Wen: All of us came in during a period when USP was just – is still, actually, I would say – transitioning into the RC, and a lot of new initiatives were being driven, such as the houses and neighbourhoods. We’re still finding our feet on what kind of activities we want to centre on, and what kind of interest groups we are forming. Having said that, as we transition, we very much feel an important need to find our own identity. Who are we, and what is this mystical thing called USP? How do we stand in relation to Yale-NUS, as well as the main NUS body? All these were questions that popped into our minds when we were considering running for MC.
Q. So do you guys feel you have the answers to these questions?
Zhe Wen: We began to notice that a lot of our activities are essentially very inward-looking, the kind of activities that focus a lot on building the USP community. They are often social and sports-centric. Because I guess we were new to this place, and we were trying to explore how we could use this space. These were very natural and easy options that came along. But as someone who has been through the transition, you somehow feel that the potential for USP to do a lot more is there, and it’s very much lost in this move to the RC.
Elson: I think people have discovered that USP is not just an academic programme. There is much more to USP than just academics. But at the same time they seem to forget that this is an academic programme in the first place. Outside of the modules taken, no one really focuses on critical thinking or questioning. This atmosphere of academia is missing from USP. People who are in USP tend to only engage in academics through the modules they take, and even so they try to avoid the more difficult modules. People are very afraid of taking modules that are outside their comfort zone. They are scared it affects their grades, but I think this goes against the whole idea of USP of pushing your limits and learning outside the areas you are comfortable in and exploring your interests. On my side, I’ll be looking at non-academic ways of improving this learning culture. I’ll try to tie it in with academic interest groups and entities we already have, such as Confluence. I’ll like to work closer with them.
Q. In the past few years, I’ve seen how people have been willing to start interest groups, but they weren’t able to be sustained as there was a lack of participation in quite a few of them. Do you have any solutions to this problem?
Varun: Coming from someone who started interest groups before, I think a big reason is that events are being crowded out in the RC. There are just too many events going on; there are a lot of clashes that prevent people from going for certain events. It’s not that they don’t have interest in academic activities, for example. They do. People do want to go for these events, but the problem is that they end up clashing and people have to choose one or the other. But I also believe that because of the spontaneous nature of interest groups, if the interest for it dies out, then it’s perfectly fine for the interest group to stop operating. What I think the MC can do for IGs is provide them the support to continue if need be; administrative support, financial support, and if maybe some manpower support as well. We can help to connect them to the right people; for example, to similar IGs in Tembusu and CAPT.
Talia: Firstly, I think we definitely need more focus on the kinds of activities that are going on and prioritise them, which is not something we are doing right now. We are trying to accommodate, but in doing so, we are saying that all things matter equally, and so for example something like a social event might be seen to matter just as much as an academic talk by an illustrious professor that would benefit many USP students if they went for it. So I think that the kind of focus and prioritising is important. It will be difficult and that is something that the MC has to explore further; on what basis is the MC going to prioritise certain activities? I think focus can also be done in terms of just administratively coordinating the activities with some kind of centralisation that says that ‘this is our calendar and here’s what we’re going to do’ to make sure that USP students are not called for ten different things at the same time on the same day and have to make a difficult choice. The second thing is culture plays a big role. I’m not sure I fully agree with Varun when he said that it’s not that people don’t have interest, just that they don’t have the space to pursue them. I think it could be that many people have latent interests, but they are not being expressed and harnessed. And I think that this has got a lot to do with our culture. As Elson mentioned, I think we have lost sight of our academic culture and we have even become ashamed of it. I’m not saying that I see USP becoming an elitist club which only talks on an abstract and intellectual plane, because that is far removed from reality. And yet at the same time, if close to nothing of that kind of discussion is what characterises our interactions in the dining hall, in suites, and among friends, if there’s nothing that makes USP different, then what are we really fighting for? Is this really a community that is different? The third thing is, we need to redefine our idea of interest groups. When I say interest groups I mean more of interest-based groups and not interest groups as it is traditionally understood. The idea of an interest group currently is it is like a CCA. But I think there is room for exploring alternative structures to interest groups. Some of them could possibly be seen more as short-term projects.
Q. So interest groups could be like initiatives such as DOHLDENG?
Talia: Yeah, something like that. That’s what I mean by interest-based groups, where people come together because they have that common purpose, interest, and passion. It’s not like a formalised group that has to persist in the way that we currently conceive of it.
Q. What is the one problem here that irks you the most that you wish you change?
Zhe Wen: I expected USP to have a lot of diversity, where different voices, different opinions, different perspectives and different interests can come together and give rise to different kinds of activities. When I came in here though, it was not what I expected. There were different voices and different interests but they don’t interact. It is my personal belief that a lot of interesting things, where a lot of new, funny initiatives and a lot of exciting ones, typically come from the intersection of disciplines and the intersection of interests; to quote a TED talk by Matt Ridley, when ideas have sex. The main gripe I have is that this is not happening enough. Interesting international programmes – especially student-led ones – have stopped coming up. Even interesting student-run projects set in Singapore such as Save That Pen have also stopped coming up. More ground up initiatives are needed. If you just look a few batches before us, the situation was quite different, and I feel that there is so much potential for USP.
Varun: This is my gripe: we have a lot of institutional challenges imposed by NUS bodies that prevent us from having very simple access to facilities here. The RC is imagined as a breeding ground for ideas; for students to really come together to make things happen spontaneously. When you have very silly rules that hamper this process, I think that’s a problem. By silly rules I mean things that have some sort of vague justification for being put in place, but have a much larger justification for being removed. For example, one thing that was pushed through last semester was that all non-residential USP students could have access to the dining hall even outside of meal time hours. But what happened this semester is that they went back to square one and no longer allow this. I understand that there are concerns that these offices might have about security, but I think that there are larger justifications for removing these rules.
Talia: What’s really on my heart for the USP community is to see people get a meaningful university education, specifically here in USP. I think a lot of what Zhe Wen has mentioned, the lost potential that we have in this community, I think that looking into that is essential. I have been talking to people, and I know that there are people who are disgruntled and who do find that USP is not everything that they thought it would be and that it just seems like another hall programme. We have many things to be grateful for, but there is still so much more to be done, and so that is what I see happening. I know this kind of change would take a long time and a lot of effort. And if anything, mindset changes and these huge idealistic changes will demand a lot to be able to be pushed through, but I believe that we can at least make some headway.
Thank you Zhe Wen, Varun, Talia, and Elson for the interview. All the best for the Q & A session!