A chat with Soon Hao Jing, NUSSU President candidate and USP student

“This is empowerment. This is enabling students to reap more benefits from student life. Because you are not just paying for your modules, webcasts and all that, you are paying for so much more…"

By Yugo Kawai, with contributions from Samara Gan

UPDATE: Hao Jing was elected Vice President in the internal elections held on 22 September 2018.

“Get the heart of the union to start pumping again.”

If elected as National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU) President, that’s what Soon Hao Jing (Y4 Chemical Engineering + USP) wants to do.

Together with six other students, including Chester Su (Y4 Law + USP), Ko Chang Ming (Y4 Political Science + USP), and Goh Wei Shern (Y2 Accountancy & Business Analytics + USP), he is running in this year’s NUSSU elections.

The group, which dubs themselves “Concerned Students”, published a manifesto on Facebook and their website detailing what they hope to achieve if they were to be elected into NUSSU.

“We are a group of concerned students focusing on student concerns,” their manifesto reads.

“… rather than being the voice of the student body, it appears to us that NUSSU has been used as props by the NUS management – attending pompous events, shaking hands and posing for photos – instead of propping up student interests. The current state of affairs should not and cannot continue: NUSSU needs to actually realise its purpose for existing.”

However, the “Concerned Students” would not be the only ones campaigning for positions in the union. Another group of students by the name of “To Listen, Serve, and Represent”, are also campaigning for the roles.

When asked what is the main characteristic that differentiates “Concerned Students” from their rivals, Hao Jing said: “On my side, we have people from more varied backgrounds outside of elected positions, and we bring in perspectives of campus residents that the other side doesn’t necessarily have.

“I think this matter of identity and background is important because your background shapes your perspectives, thought and methods.”

Soon Hao Jing NUSSU

This will not be Hao Jing’s first time running for a position in the student union. He was NUSSU’s Deputy Welfare Secretary two years ago.

When asked how he came to be involved in student politics, he said: “During my freshman year, I was literally running for the shuttle bus.

“Because [back then], the moment I missed the shuttle bus at 9:50, that was it. The next bus was only going to come at 10:00.

“So I decided — rather than just sit and complain about it, why not figure out what is going on myself and see if I can help. Even if things don’t work out, I can at least tell people why.”

But this year, he is running with a different motivation. Having experienced life beyond the USP community, his year as a Deputy Welfare Secretary also allowed Hao Jing to realize that there were way more serious issues out there than just those surrounding the Internal Shuttle Bus.

He said that he believes students need to be more aware about the things that NUSSU and the university are planning and doing: “Like, what is on the cards is that the engineering cafeteria is going to shut down, and that is not only going to affect engineering students, [but] the design and environment students, and the faculty staff as well.

“But how many people actually know [that]? Not a lot.”

This lack of awareness is also due to the poor communication between NUSSU and the university, as well as the student body, he said.

“NUSSU has rarely questioned the university about how certain things are done; on certain key objectives,” he said. He believes that NUSSU needs to communicate more often with the university, which in his opinion, “hasn’t been done in a long while.”

He brought up the recent renewal of NUS’s mission, vision, and values as one of the key examples of something that was done which escaped the students’ notice.

Also, he said that the renewed mission, vision, and values reflect nothing about student life, which is also a key part to students’ overall development. In fact, NUS undermining student life is one of the biggest issues around campus, he said.

If NUS continues to undermine student life, the students “are going to be book smart, but not much else,” he said.

He said that NUS is practically running “a four-year vocational school” (aimed only at preparing students for employment), which may not necessarily be bad, but is “piecemeal and risk averse”.

He pointed out that the university is largely concerned about making students “employable” as seen in the simple addition of modules like GER1000 based on employers’ feedback.

He also mentioned the many restrictions when it comes to student life events, like freshmen orientation programmes or conferences, which hinder students from running these events in a viable manner.

If NUS continues to undermine student life, the students “are going to be book smart, but not much else”.

“Participating in student life events and making them happen contributes a lot to students’ leadership development and soft skills development, but NUS doesn’t necessarily see it that way,” he said.

“The whole point of this campaign is to get people to start thinking,” Hao Jing said, as he added that he wants to change the nature of how people face their education and experience in NUS.

“This is empowerment. This is enabling students to reap more benefits from student life. Because you are not just paying for your modules, webcasts and all that, you are paying for so much more…”

“This is only possible if the students start thinking about their time on campus.”

Hao Jing said that he will be applying a two-pronged approach in reforming NUSSU into becoming the voice of the students: (1) a shift to a rigorous data-driven approach, and (2) better communication between NUS and the union, as well as the union and the students.

Relating to the first approach, he said that research needs to be done so that NUSSU can develop the capacity to discuss real issues. In recent years, the union did not conduct rigorous research to truly understand the problems students face so that they could relay them to the university.

“Policy makers are going to ask, is this a real problem? How many students are affected by this problem? How do we know that the recommendations you are giving us actually work? To get ready for these questions, we have to do our research.”

He plans to attract willing volunteers for research by linking them to the right stakeholders, and by giving the volunteers resources and support.

The research could also come from the students through their Independent Study Modules, he said, referring to when the union worked with students from the Faculty of Engineering to conduct research on campus transport.

He said that this research could also serve to help the union understand how to encourage students to join the union and to stay on.

Relating to the second approach, he said that the union needs to be aware of what the university is planning, and that students need to be aware of what the union is doing, hence a need for better communication.

Most students are unaware of what is happening in the university, as seen in the examples mentioned above.

Hao Jing said that it is NUS that plans and executes these changes, but the onus is on the union to consult the university about their plans, and communicate them to the students.

He has recently launched an Instagram account together with the other NUSSU election candidates to facilitate communication between the student body and the union, should they be elected.

“But if anything were to change in that front, it is going to be the result of many years of research and negotiation, and I think I want to start it this year.”

He said that his reforms to the union — which includes reviewing the tuition fees and how polytechnic students are admitted into NUS, among many others — may be “disruptive, but for a good cause”.

When asked if he thinks that the university would resist his reforms, he said that he believes that the university would be open to suggestions based on a data-driven approach, given his past experience in the union.

Overall, Hao Jing’s long-term goal is to improve student life in NUS.

“NUS has a lot of workload. Students see it as necessary. But because of that, students are not able to take the time, the effort and the mental bandwidth for student life activities.

“But if anything were to change in that front, it is going to be the result of many years of research and negotiation, and I think I want to start it this year.”

In recent years, only one percent of NUS undergraduates have been taking part as volunteers or student leaders. Similarly, only about one percent of the students voted in the last election.

As student involvement continues to shrink, Hao Jing believes that the union would soon face a shortage of people who are interested in serving the students.

Although he understands that his plans cannot be achieved in just one year, he has a clear vision about laying the groundwork for future student union members to achieve his long term goals.

As Singapore heads into its 200th year of history since its founding, and NUSSU towards its 40th executive committee, Hao Jing believes that it would be fitting for 2018 to be considered “year zero” —

A year for change.

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