Observations from a Politically Involved Senior

Guest writer Soon Hao Jing shares his thoughts after serving multiple terms in student government.

By Soon Hao Jing

23rd August marked my fifth and final time voting in the annual USC Management Committee (MC) elections. Reading candidates’ nomination forms, I found a lot of familiar terms and concepts that had surfaced in previous years’ elections. I did not watch the Q&A live this year; listening to the speeches and some of the questions and answers delivered later, I did not feel that I had missed too much of what the candidates said. Overall, it left me quite concerned about what the MC would do after it was elected.

I am concerned that our MC-elect may miss the chance to address greater problems that USP students face, because they did not seem to talk about some of the larger elephants in the room. Speaking from my own experience of serving in the NUS students’ union after I was elected last September, one year is an incredibly short time to get up to speed, plan, and implement projects. Just missing a head start of a month or two is enough to cause you, and maybe everyone else anguish. I know I have a lot of projects and proposals that I will have to hand over to my successor because some of them just take a longer time, and some of them I did not begin early enough. I am sure all candidates want to make their time and effort count. Therefore, it’s crucial to hit the ground running. The clock is ticking.

I want to share some of the reflections and thoughts that prompted me to stand for the NUS Student Union (NUSSU) elections and to get people to run together to make a change last year. Student government is not just about fun and community. It is the one platform undergraduates have to address systemic issues in the university, faculty, and our community. There are serious issues that no other student organisation is capable of tackling nor are they functionally meant to resolve them.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

I hope our candidates want to make an impact on the USP community that no one else can. Our MC should be doing the important stuff no one else is doing. Unlike other faculties, we have other ‘grassroots’ groups that serve our student population. The MC need not duplicate their work, which risks treading on others’ toes needlessly.

Our MC should be doing the important stuff no one else is doing.

We have six Houses, 18 residential assistants, peer mentorship networks, various interest groups, and informal friendship networks. They connect us, watch out for our wellbeing, and add colour and noise to USP life.

The fact that groups like these are doing critical work in gelling our community together ought to give our student government the space to take a step back, survey our overall situation, identify inadequately filled needs, and then focus the MC’s attention on these issues. The MC could afford to leave some of the more time-consuming, routine work to other teams to handle, and instead take on policy and thinking work.

The MC should not get bogged down in trying to jack up participation rates or the number of events happening in USP. Community life goes on with or without the MC’s involvement. But we can move the needle on USP students’ other concerns. Our student leaders should empower other students in the community to do their part, so that the MC can focus on the biggest challenges.

Some Issues to Focus On

Let me shortlist some issues where our MC could lead the charge, in concert with the USP Office, in no order of merit:

The MC should not get bogged down in trying to jack up participation rates or the number of events happening in USP.

  1. Mental Health
    USP students’ mental wellness and resilience. I highlight this as an issue the MC should investigate. During my term in NUSSU, I worked with my research director Wilson Prima and fellow students including Terence Mah from USP to administer the Kessler-6 questionnaire through the welfare pack survey in April 2019. Through this preliminary research concerning the NUS undergraduate population’s mental health, we found that USP’s mean distress level was higher than simply taking a weighted sum of other faculties’ mean distress levels according to USP’s demographics. We obtained more findings that may prove valuable to helping USP students, but I hope to discuss this research in another article.
  2. The USP Curriculum
    Reviewing how the USP curriculum is structured, curated and executed, and working with the faculty to ensure it continues to bear a strong value proposition for USP students. In an ISM I carried out in AY2018/19 with Leon Lim (Year 5, Business + LKYSPP + USP), we sought to understand the demographic makeup of USP and what motivated USP students to join or stay in the community. We found that most joined USP because of its focus on a multidisciplinary programme — something which also makes USP stand out from other residential colleges. However, our interviewees indicated that they chose to stay because of other reasons such as the community and pointed out potential gaps in just about everything except WCT. For a programme that defines itself as multidisciplinary, if the MC finds that a large number of USP students are choosing to stay in USP for reasons other than what USP’s academic programme ought to be about, might this be an existential crisis? Moreover, other new and attractive NUS programmes, such as NOC, majors and minors compete with USP for students. Given what I have shared here, I am concerned that USC must elect an Academic Director to lead the community in addressing these concerns with the USP Office. I would urge interested USP students to consider stepping forward to take up this role.
  3. Career Readiness
    Connecting USP students to alumni who are working professionals or in academia, to help open their horizons. The USP office is probably quite keen to help USP students with this, but from my own discussions with relevant staff and professionals working at NUS CFG, most local undergraduates don’t approach them until they embark on their job hunt in their final year. As our economy’s growth rate slows to a grinding halt over the next few months, competition for internships and employment may intensify.
  4. Research on USP
    Exploiting frameworks like Design Your Own Module and ISM/UROP to encourage USP students to undertake research (e.g. on mental wellness in this community) and independently driven learning that solves USP problems, serve USP interests while gaining academic experience and credit for those students. There are many problems that USP students could address using skills and knowledge they have picked up — or can pick up — from classes. Why not help fellow USP students gain academic credit and research experience while harnessing their work to improve our community?

Student Feedback and an ‘Apathetic’ Electorate

The points above concern some of the larger issues that should preoccupy the USP student community. However, I also want to address the apparent perception that students in USP are apathetic towards student governance or just do not take active part in community life. One explanation for this is simply that students are too busy with studies, projects, research, and applying to internships to bother themselves with what the MC should instead address on their behalves. Another simple reason could be that students do not perceive the MC to be addressing their key needs. The MC should thus set its crosshairs on USP students’ real pain points.

You are deeply rooted members of the USP community too. Chances are you know a thing or two about what fellow USP students think.

Some candidates also spoke of consultation and listening to fellow USP students. To me, this seemed to simply be a response to some of the perceived shortcomings of the outgoing MC, but not quite a viable modus operandi. I hope our MC-elect can still set its own direction and targets, and start moving even in an absence, or lack of detailed feedback, from the community. Not everyone in USP will have the time or interest to come down and contribute.

My point is this: you do not need to ask us voters ‘so what should I do?’ too often. You are deeply rooted members of the USP community too. Chances are you know a thing or two about what fellow USP students think. I trust you to speak and act in USP students’ interests.

I do not suggest you should operate in the dark, say nothing, and ignore what USP students think. Two-way communication matters. Regularly let students know what you’re doing and thinking. When students respond, you gather new ideas and support to back yourself up against those who may be reluctant to support your proposals. However, we students still need our student leaders in the driver’s seat to guide themselves. We students should not be backseat drivers.

Whenever you attain a policy milestone, share the good news with the community. This boosts the confidence of the USP community and MC’s subcommittees and inspires a reinforcing loop of interest and civic participation in the MC’s work.

The Benefits of a Work Plan

Lastly, I suggest that a good way to structure and sustain the MC’s yearlong communications and actual work would be to establish a work plan and keep giving updates about it.

A work plan is not a manifesto. A manifesto is just a wish list. If you publish only a manifesto, your voters will grade you based on whether you’ve made something happen or not, as of now. You will likely fail (cf the Pakatan Harapan administration in Malaysia now) unless you set a very low bar.

A work plan lays out not merely what you realistically hope to achieve, but the necessary intermediate steps, achievable mini-goals, key milestones, and when those steps should be completed.

A work plan helps your voters and your subcommittee/team understand which stage you’re at and what roadblocks you face.

A work plan thus crucially buys you time because then, they do not expect things to happen quickly. They would also understand, empathise, start giving suggestions, and before long, you can crowdsource ideas or get a sense of whether something is worth working on or not.

Without this, voters and your team might become disheartened by gridlock and lack of visible results.

You have twelve months, just enough time to do a few things. Whether you succeed or fail, learn from it, and hand over the lessons learnt to your successors. You’ve been set up for a year’s worth of learning by doing leadership and community work; I hope to read your acceptance speeches and find out what’s next. Add oil!

Soon Hao Jing is a fifth-year student in USP. He served as the Vice-President of NUSSU in 2018/19 and was the NUSSU Executive Committee Representative from USC in 2016/17. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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