Model a More Sustainable Future
Guest-of-Honour Speech, NPS International Model United Nations – August 11, 2017
1. A very good afternoon, Dr. Matthew Sullivan, Head of NPS International; Mr. Kris Bhatt, Principal for Secondary School; the Conference Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-Generals; teachers; student-delegates; ladies and gentlemen.
11 Years of Model United Nations
2. Thank you for having me, at the NPS International Model United Nations, or the NPSi Model UN conference. I would like to, first and foremost, extend my congratulations to the Secretary-General and the organising committee, on the success of this conference. The first edition of the NPSi Model UN in 2013 attracted 100 delegates, and this year – four years on – there are now around 250 delegates in over eight councils.
3. I know, first-hand, how challenging it is to start and to organise Model UN conferences in Singapore. I joined the United Nations Association of Singapore, or UNAS, six years ago in 2011, and when we organised the first edition of the UNAS Model UN Preparatory Conference, we attracted 153 students from 19 schools. And when starting from scratch, for the first time, the list of potential problems is long: Convincing teachers and schools to register for something completely new, training the student officers and – with the organising committee – getting the venue, the logistics, the food, the water, the programme outline, the guest speakers, and, ultimately, delivering a good experience.
4. And I was doing all these, while completing my National Service in the army. In fact, the day of the conference closing ceremony was also the final day of my military obligation.
5. But progressively, we have had some success over the past six years, and last year we attracted 673 students from 55 schools. That is an increase of 340 per cent, in the number of students, and I believe the new team will do even better this year. The secrets to our continued success are not exactly secrets: Start registration and publicity early, establish and maintain good relationships with teachers and schools, and take feedback seriously. At the end of our conference, the feedback form has two main questions – what are three things you liked, and what are three things you did not like – and we often focus more on the negatives. Praise is good, but knowing where we went wrong is even more important.
6. Above all, the team – the administrative staff, the student officers, and the organising committee – appreciates the benefits of Model UN. I started my own Model UN journey 11 years ago in 2006, as a delegate at THIMUN-Singapore, and since then I have participated, chaired, organised, and advised conferences in Singapore and around the world. All of us have a unique Model UN story to tell, and only through reflection do we become more cognisant of the lessons we have learnt. Through my decade of conferences, I have become more confident, more empathetic, and a more humble team-player.
Model a More Sustainable Future
7. Yet, many will still ask: “Why Model UN?” You may have heard similar questions: “What are the benefits of Model UN? Are you doing it, just for fun?” Or perhaps, some may even ask: “Why do you bother discussing or debating global issues, many of which are thousands of kilometres away from Singapore? After all, what can we – the young ones – do about North Korea and its intercontinental ballistic missiles? Or the ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela? Or even the geopolitical stand-off between Bhutan, China, and India at the Doka La Pass?” Here at the conference, for the next three days, ECOSOC will discuss trade liberalisation, SPECPOL, Crimea, and SOCHUM, the human slave trade. In the bigger picture, do we really make a difference?
8. Recently too, a meme about Model UN made its rounds on social media. Some of you might have seen it, but for those who have not, it reads, and I quote: “[Model UN] is an event devised on the format of [the] UN wherein instead of UN policy discussions, students will pose for candid pictures which can later be utilised to gain Facebook likes”. It goes on to add: “If you are a rich, wannabe cool (sic), have a blazer, and a pair of trousers, then come register for this event that will bring out that pretentious child in you”.
9. Now, there is, inadvertently, some exaggeration in what I just shared. Yet, there are also kernels of truth, which I think are applicable to simulation conferences in Singapore. Three kernels of truth, in particular, can be gleaned. First, the lack of intellectual rigour, when the networking or social aspects of a Model UN conference take precedence over substantive discussions. Second, on the barriers to entry into Model UN, when conferences are too expensive, or when first-time students and schools feel intimidated because of their lack of experience. And third, not quite understanding that Model UN – like similar conferences – is a simulation, upon which future endeavours are built.
10. The critical thing, in this vein, is that conferences – including the preparatory conference organised by UNAS – must consistently improve. And, in addition, we as members of this community must hold the Model UN scene, and ourselves, to higher standards.
11. In my view, Model UN provides skills and knowledge, not to solve these global problems right away, but rather to first create awareness and to shake us out of our apathy, to render us more attuned to our privileged obligations to a common humanity, as well as to get a useful head-start. In other words, change does not end with that speech you make, that amendment you submit, or that resolution the council passes: Change starts from them.
12. And if we were to model a more sustainable future, then at some point we will have to translate the Model UN rhetoric into more tangible action. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example – with its 17 targets and 169 indicators – provide a helpful blueprint, when we are thinking about how we can contribute to our communities. Us taking a first step means taking full advantage of the potential of Model UN. It is therefore up to us to inject that much-needed rigour, to stretch ourselves intellectually.
Shape Your Model UN Experience
13. So, to make the most of your three-day experience at the NPSi Model UN conference, allow me to conclude by sharing advice to the three groups of student-delegates who are in attendance this afternoon: First, if you are participating for the first time; second, if you are an experienced delegate; and third, if you are a student officer, or a part of the organising committee.
14. To the first-time delegates: Make the best of your time here, and do not be afraid to speak up. You might feel intimidated, but take comfort in the knowledge that you will definitely do better than I did. During my first conference in 2006, as a delegate of Poland, I was shaking and trembling whenever I was at the podium. And if you do shake or tremble, learn to slow down, breathe, and take your time with your speech. So here are my targets for you: Within the first two days of this conference, raise at least a point of information on each day. And by the end of Sunday, aim to make at least a speech, on the floor.
15. To the experienced delegates: Be kind. And be constructive. At first glance, it is often assumed that the best delegates are the ones who are the most aggressive, who dominate the discourse, and who take the lead with the resolutions. Be that as it may, the best delegates I have worked with also understood the value of collaboration. That does not necessarily mean a compromise of your country’s position; instead, they negotiated, and they worked together. With your expertise, empower the rest of the committee.
16. And finally, to the organising committee and the student officers: Give thanks, and strive for bigger projects. Show your appreciation to the school and the teachers who have guided you, by putting in your best, in whatever administrative or logistical responsibility you are tasked with. And as the conference winds down, start thinking bigger – beyond the school and the country – about how you could contribute, and give back.
17. Because in the face of all that is happening across the globe, it is very tempting to give in to cynicism. Towards the end of his presidency, in April 2016, former United States President Barack Obama said, and I quote: “Do not give up and succumb to cynicism if after five years poverty has not been eradicated and prejudice is still out there somewhere and we have not resolved all the steps we need to take to reverse climate change”. Progress must be fought for over the long-term, he added, and President Obama too will be the first to concede that he did not have a perfect eight years. And the challenge for us to model a more sustainable future will be with us, for a long, long time. For us, it is a reminder – if we plan to bring about change – to stay the course, to persevere, and to never give up, in the face of adversity.
18. On this note, I hope the NPSi Model UN conference will be a launch-pad for meaningful endeavours in your future. Thank you very much, and I wish you a very fruitful three days ahead.