reflections of a “student leader”

Just around this time in 2018 I was eagerly awaiting Union Day. For many of us, it’s an otherwise ordinary day with a minor perk: classes, by law, are not allowed to be conducted between 10:30am-2:30pm. For me it was a day of reckoning, where my fate as a “student leader” lay in the hands of my peers. In the month leading up to the big day, I had applied for the role of Union Representative (now “Union Executive Committee Representative”) in SSS Club, and had my plans all laid out for a corresponding role in the NTUSU Exco as Corporate Communications Executive (Relations). On Union Day, undergraduates are empowered with the ability to vote and elect a handful of representatives to their school Club, as well as the Big 3 (CAC, SC, WSC). And I was one of those hopeful applicants, filled with dreams and grand visions of a building a better place for students.

look at this sellout!

Fast forward two years and here I am – no longer a student leader of NTU, but a student who can say she’s had the experience of being one. Still, I remain invested in the election affair every year not only because it is an event of personal significance, but also that many of my friends have opted to contest for various positions in the clubs/societies they identify with. But enough about me – this piece wasn’t written for me, but for NTU students.

I aim to answer two questions, broadly:

  1. What is the significance of the student leader?
  2. More importantly: why should you care?

I will juxtapose two perspectives: as a leader from my experience in my junior years, and as an observer watching from the crowd following “retirement”.

The contested role of the “student leader”

What do you think about when you hear the phrase “student leader”? Responses range from the apathetic/nonchalant to mild approval to aggressive frustration. The last one is typically the most salient, perhaps because of the negativity bias. (In other words, we are more likely to recall unfavourable information, and we are tea-loving drama hoes).

There is a murkiness that surrounds the exact responsibilities of student leaders, though I will endeavour to state that this is largely deliberate – this is so that leaders can absorb a range of functions without being unnecessarily restricted. But while its abstract nature offers freedom, it also means little guidance and the leader is left to concretise it themselves. In my role as CCE(R), my overarching aim was to “bridge the gap between students and administration”. That could be anything. I opted to build U-Insight and U-Feedback, since they were the main channels of communication. But if there is not enough key initiatives or functions achieved that distinguish the role, then it is easy for onlookers to claim that the leader is not doing enough, or even that the role is redundant. They’re not necessarily wrong.

I’ve observed a disjuncture between the perceptions of students “on the ground” vs. student leaders on the issue of what they actually do. As a leader, it’s easy to list out all the things that I did – craft and disseminate timely information, manage social media channels, provide copywriting for all publicity materials, respond to students’ concerns… the list goes on. On the other hand, ask any cynic what they think student leaders do and you might get a diametrically opposed view.

this is not uncommon to see. it is not exclusive to the SU.

A compilation of some strong criticisms of the so-called student leader. I address all below:

  • Selfish; only out for ourselves and our resumes, without real intention to benefit the student community.
  • The image of the porcelain doll is apt here: filled with an air of unwarranted self-importance, yet not serving any real purpose other than to look pretty.
  • Limited in power, yet corrupted by power. (Make up your mind!)

I personally believe there is a positive correlation between individuals driven by power/achievement and the likelihood of taking up leadership positions. But this does not necessarily mean they will be selfish. The ability to make a change is imbued with power, yet this proposition attracts different kinds of people. Some are motivated by a real desire to do good, and I also know of others whose ego is wildly out of proportion to their capability. It is unfair to make broad generalisations of the entire character of a group based on a few eye-catching examples. The best way to know is to judge for yourself, and this is not via hearsay. It is about hearing from the candidates themselves. I elaborate on this later.

Another common accusation is that clubs and societies are merely extensions of the administration/upper management. Here is where I recall an article I read in a module on organisational structure (HS2005) by Kanter (1994). It addresses issues of power. I took it the same semester I was in the Students’ Union, and thus found it particularly relevant. Kanter proposes that there are three sources of power in any organisation, and I attempt to contextualise them here.

Power

First is lines of supply – the more capacity a leader has to bring in new resources such as money and materials, the more powerful. It is important to establish here that virtually all events are funded by the school/SAO. Thus, proposals by student organisations are subject to multiple layers of approval and careful consideration of costs and benefits. This means that bargaining power is relatively limited, especially if it is not in line with the consensus from management.

Next we have lines of information – knowing current affairs and relevant news. The club has a bit more power here if they can manage to conduct surveys that assess members’ opinions, which they can then use to strengthen their claims to the administration. However, due to the inherently hierarchal structure of the system, information on school policies is often ambiguous or not conveyed to student leaders altogether. The opacity of the decision-making process at the highest levels of NTU is common knowledge – only when decisions have been confirmed are they announced to students. While there is an effort to include representatives in this process, this is not always a guaranteed. Furthermore, the rapidly-changing nature of key events such as Covid-19 means that things are constantly in flux. When students write in asking for certainty in uncertain situations, there are a very limited range of responses student leaders can pursue. It takes time to clarify.

Last we have lines of support – the power to call for extraordinary, innovative, but risky events without having to worry about resistance. This is arguably the most complicated. A bureaucratic structure is naturally predisposed – by design – to maintain the status quo as far as possible. The life cycle of any ambitious uprising against the current order is like that of a bug’s – short and usually quashed before it can grow into anything bigger. Irreversible upheavals are anathema to the existing order. Even at the policymaking level, many initiatives may be delayed with the rationale that “more research is required to avoid unforeseen consequences”. And that is rational to say considering any change has implications on up to 24,000 undergraduates at an institutional level. But that is not to say extraordinary things can’t be achieved. I don’t believe that the history of NTU has ever seen a fully S/U-able semester until last year. And that was achieved because students were able to collectively galvanise their interests, providing the sufficient momentum for student clubs to campaign for changes. However, it comes with great difficulty, and you need the right time, place, and people.

Agency

One note to make is that our system of (school) governance is not universally applicable to other cultures. When I was in McGill University I saw critical reports on existing practices all the time. But that’s not how it works here. It seems like a very cop-out answer but I believe it is best understood within the broader climate of Singapore’s political ideology.

Student leaders, by virtue of their position, are agents created to perpetuate the existing order. This is not their fault. They still do their best with the resources and constraints they have. There is a lot going on behind the scenes that members sometimes take for granted. Those “welfare pack” events every year that some mockingly disparage even as the same people readily join the thousand-strong queue for them? They take months of planning and logistics. Not to mention that there are tons of other activities occurring across the year. And even event-running is pivotal to maintaining school culture. We take student activities for granted until they disappear.

Leaders as just “overhyped event planners”? I recall the time my colleague showing me a 50-page document reviewing a school policy based on a large-scale survey that he had teamed up with another colleague to implement (hi A if you’re reading this, pat on the back for you). I would have disseminated it but got shot down before I could. His partner (also A, love y’all fairies) worked himself half to death over policies relating to student life, personally tailoring thoughtful 300-word responses to students who were flagging issues they faced. He finally saw his ideas come to success after months of back and forth, but was it worth it? Either way, I know he did his best.

The student not immersed in this reality only has a partial view into what leaders actually do – but that’s not their fault. The student-member doesn’t see what’s going on, because they don’t have access to this privileged information. I argue that this is due to the limitations on the part of clubs (and perhaps by default the system as whole) in measures to ensure accountability and transparency.

Accountability and transparency

I had the pleasure of attending the SSS Union Rally last Friday via Zoom. I noted a discrepancy in the recruitment emails and final rally line-up sent earlier that week by the club, and thus I sought to clarify the matter as a Concerned and Invested Member. Unfortunately, I picked an inappropriate time to do so, during the transition between two candidates — the Returning Officer appeared visibly thrown off by my question. Seemingly offended by my indiscretion, he first spluttered that I should have “done my research beforehand based on the information available” (but I did, or I wouldn’t have a question to ask in the first place…). He then proceeded to inform me chidingly that it was rude and unbecoming to unmute and show my face in a rally(!) without seeking permission to do so.

Throughout this lecture, he did not answer my question nor seek to clarify what I meant. He did say it could be asked at the end of the rally “when the questions are open to the floor”, but I left because I have better things to do than sit in for another three hours. Still, don’t take my word for it – verify it with the recording of the rally! If they make it publicly accessible, that is. (Maybe if a Student Advisor was present, there might have been a better outcome to this? Hahaha!) Of course, there are many potential innocuous explanations for the discrepancy. The club is welcome to respond to my question and I will revise my account where necessary.

every voice, always heard.

Every year leaders face the same problems and ask the same questions — how do we increase student engagement, and actually make changes that benefit the members’ welfare. These are questions with no answers and no end: we can only inch forward slowly in trying to discover what works and what doesn’t. One way to start is to increase transparency and accountability of all processes, and not ignore students’ concerns. If the students know what is going on then they can be invested in it. But this is, of course, not as easy as it sounds.

Before Covid-19 happened, there would be a period of time where applicants’ details were publicly displayed at the foyer for students to peruse. Inconsistencies, if found, could be raised to the election committee, and disqualifications could ensue if they were found to be legitimate. For example, I believe there is a rule whereby you cannot have a fellow candidate endorse you (you need a supporter and seconder for your application). Maybe in the transition online, this process was omitted. I didn’t know who my representatives were until two nights before the rally.

I have good faith that the student leaders did their best for SSS Club during their term. They organised a few events, e.g. a welfare-themed one. In response to students’ concerns on the newly implemented S/U option, they provided relevant clarification on questions raised by students. They created a new social media page @sss.academics to address academic concerns. There are a lot of background processes running at any given point, and we should give them credit for what they have achieved.

I believe that the onus is on student clubs to make information about club proceedings and updates easily accessible to their members. That means that relevant documents should be stored in an online location that is retrievable at a click and not hidden in some dusty treasure chest. In my opinion, reports, constitutions, or meeting minutes should be sent without question upon request – and the member shouldn’t even have to ask for it to be privately sent in the first place. It should be a given that it is publicly available. Fun Accountability Test: send an email to any club asking for their constitution and assess the response you get. I will qualify this by saying that clubs often have to strike a fine balance by deciding what is shared and what is not, because you don’t want to risk inundating your members with information to excess and driving them away or detracting from other relevant matters. Presidents should also regularly conduct reviews to ascertain if certain positions are doing too much or too little.

Walkovers

A final phenomenon to tickle your interest is the overwhelming tendency towards walkovers in school elections. This means that only one person is running for one position. But did you know that all roles, as long as you meet the prerequisites, are open for contest? Some societies do engage in deconflicting strategies to maximise student fit but a position doesn’t “close” even if there are no vacancies – nobody is guaranteed a position until they are officially voted in on Union Day / Annual General Meeting. So watch out when you receive a recruitment email where certain positions are omitted. Oftentimes you can still apply for those omitted from the list – and you should raise alarm if you receive a suspicious, deflecting, response. The reservation of roles is not allowed. But nobody is handing you anything on a silver plate – you want it, you should be prepared for it. Anyway, walkovers are the norm, and contests are the exception. This creates a troubling situation sometimes when onlookers perceive leaders as incompetent (but there is no better choice). Yes, if there was a better choice they wouldn’t win… but where are the contestants?

Okay, so what?

The takeaway for students is: if you’re frustrated at the current state of affairs, demand accountability. Make your opinions heard, and stand for constructive change. Even if you think student leaders suck, being one is better than being a sitting duck lamenting that nothing is happening. In case anyone takes my words out of context: I have NEVER once blamed students for any of this. I have made it clear that it is a STRUCTURAL issue. But you have the POWER to change it.

Vote. Know who the people representing you are. Ask questions (at the right time, I guess). Save the receipts. Demand accountability. Attend your AGMs and rallies and ask your questions and find out what events are relevant for you. It’s not as if you have anything to lose. Watch out for leaders who present with an arsenal of lofty, abstract ideals (hot air) but have no concrete plans to back it up. If they say they want to “improve the welfare of students”, ask them what examples of initiatives they have in mind and how they will implement them. Don’t be afraid to vote against people that you feel don’t reflect your ideology or are ill-equipped. Again: your vote counts. It will tomorrow. It always will.

Wow, you’ve made it!

Special section for Psychology students only. Come for AGM tomorrow! (See @ntupsychsoc on Telegram.) I wish to promote my friend Tarif who is running for president in PsychSoc this year. He is an outstanding student who excels academically and socially. As a former student leader, whatever that means, he has my stamp of utmost confidence. But decide for yourself! Tune in to PsychSoc AGM tomorrow (Tues, 15/9) 6:45pm on Zoom to hear more about his plans and ideas. (He has concrete plans!) And of course, vote – your opinion matters. Note that you need to be registered as a member to attend the event.

he’s on the left.

Update for my tea-loving drama hoes

Woke up this morning to this:

nice new vision
look ma, now i can ask questions on the spot

Coincidence? Whatever it is, remember to vote and question.

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