University unions and councils in Singapore do a fairly good job organising a multitude of welfare and social activities within the institutions; yet, few would disagree with the view that they are in a prime position to galvanise student populations, and much can be done to strengthen student activism. Present endeavours are, unfortunately, insufficient. The basic premise would be for student-leaders to reinvent student governance – to get students actively involved in school affairs – before generating interest in socio-political affairs in Singapore.
Take the recent parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper for instance. Prior to the passing of the Amended Motion in early February, Singaporeans had been passionately articulating their perspectives on their woes and disagreements. However, amidst all the angst the potpourri of sentiments, the voice of the Singaporean undergraduate was noticeably absent. The observation is certainly ironic, since these individuals are the ones who will experience the effects of the policy recommendations. Beyond the customary “dialogue session”, the unions, the councils, and the political associations did not appear interested in soliciting the viewpoints of their schooling counterparts.
A month later, the National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU) and the NUS Political Association (NUSPA) have decided to – through a White Paper Poll – get a sense of what the undergraduate population feels about the debates and policies. Depressingly, the poll is as disappointing as it is underwhelming. The questions are poorly conceived, there is a pedantic fixation upon the population figures per se, and there is no sign of engaging interested students through a more meaningful platform. Both organisations seem content to bask in the comforts of the status quo, rather than seizing opportunities proactively. We are blinded by the allure of organising grand Ministerial Forums and getting more respondents for our studies, but we have not created an environment that encourages discourse.
While I concede that undergraduates might be pragmatic in terms of their priorities, valuing academic-scholastic or personal co-curricular pursuits to be more important, these focuses should not blind them to the significant developments within the country. And our college representatives should be cognisant of this. But there are so many ways to enthuse purportedly apathetic or lethargic students, to get them talking about concerns: publish the key points raised during dialogues, have them pen thoughts on issues and complaints – concerning school or the country – on a common platform, hold focus group discussions to get a better sensing of on-the-ground opinions. It matters to have a voice.
In fact, one can take comfort in the fact that students, independently, have been crafting spontaneous campaigns and projects to raise awareness of issues that they care about. It is just a pity that the formal student organisations have not taken advantage of these initiatives, and made use of its outreach to communicate the views of undergraduates.