Little known to many, the National University of Singapore has a rich, illustrious, and from our modern perspective, almost provocative political history. NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU) alumnus from various eras congregated at the Guild Hall of NUS Guild House at Kent Ridge to commemorate the 65th year since the NUSSU’s initial inception as the University of Malaya’s Student Union (UMSU).
Guest-Of-Honour Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (Dr V), who had served as President of the 2nd and 3rd NUSSU Council and as Chairman of the 4th NUSSU Council, began his address with a nod to the rich history of NUS and the evolving role that its students’ union had played within, and outside of it. Obliquely referencing the student protests that were experienced by many of the ’70s graduates present in the dining hall, he extolled the virtues of youthful idealism but cautioned that it can only be fruitful when balanced with the wisdom of experience and the humility to realize “one is not the centre of the world”. He drew parallels between the progression of the culture of the university’s student union and the political progression of her nation: our student union was one that reflected the state of times.
Supporting this statement, Mr. Ajit Nair, President of the 1st NUSSU Council in 1980, cited the merger between the University of Singapore and the Nanyang University to form NUS as a pivotal moment when the first NUSSU council had to work to preserve the independent, self-sustaining spirit of the previously privately-funded Nanyang University, to uphold the traditions of the University of Singapore as well as pave the way for a cohesive student body in the years to come.
Mr. Soh Yi Da, incumbent NUSSU Council President, effaced that while the Union in its current form was certainly devoid of any involvement in national level policy-making, it made its mark by facilitating student activities and organizing initiatives such as rideNUS that enhance the quality of student life. As a student, I’ve always looked forward to Exam Welfare Pack Giveaways and other tangible goodies, and have come to expect NUSSU staples such as the Student Welfare Survey – Mr. Soh may be assured that the presence, absence and actions of the Council and her bodies are felt.
Then, as is now, the union suffered from a lack of student engagement – and it was with a feeling of pride that Dr V left his role as President more contested than when he first assumed the position. Whilst many alumni, including the inimitable Mr. Donald Wyatt, UMSU President in 1959 and Mr. R. Joethy, UMSU General Secretary in 1962, admitted they joined the union as a means of recreation; they found they had developed skills, and hopefully effected change as well, in the process. Active involvement hones a variety of skills – organization, dedication and communication that are valued in many careers. If students needed motivation to join a student organization, Associate Professor Victor Savage, from the Office of Alumni Relations, joked that incumbent Mr. Soh had a job waiting for him in the wings – because of his participation in the union. Minister for Environment and Water Resources Dr V expressed some disappointment that not more members of the Cabinet of Singapore are graduates of NUS – politically-inclined undergraduates, you know what to do.
Another theme that would be echoed amongst the speakers throughout the night: relationships. Almost every guest spoke of the invaluable experiences and friendships they had gained through their participation of student activities. As with all student organizations, there were many fond recollections of the playful times members had shared. Perhaps not so poignant for us current undergraduates, but useful in terms of shaping the choices we make during our university life, Dr V left us with this phrase: “New friends you can make (…), but old friends you can only lose.” So it was with a great sense of gratitude towards their university and their friends that alumni gathered to share a few nostalgic hours together.
The dinner event was complimented by student performances from Safire, a diverse saxophone-only group sprung, but separate from the NUS Wind Symphony; the Lorong Boys, an award-winning quintet of reasonable fame who have been recently seen performing on the Circle Line; and Resonance, a no-experience, all-acappella mixed group.