I refer to Augustin Chiam’s “Friends, Students, Candidates – Lend Me Your Ears!” article in the Opinion Desk (pp. 28 – 29) of the October 2011’s issue of The Ridge.
Thank you, Augustin, for your considerable interest in observing how different faculties conduct their annual elections. In a year marked by two landmark Singapore elections, it’s sad to see how some students are vociferous critics of politics, but remain largely apathetic to what goes on in their backyard and how their subscription fees are being spent by their student management committees (MC).
Indeed, your question on representativeness and representation is a relevant one. These things matter for a whole lot of reasons. The most fundamental being that every undergraduate pays part of their miscellaneous fees (SGD$8) to their respective faculty clubs. All undergraduates are also automatically members of these constituent bodies, whether we like it or not. Likewise, all student MCs should effectively represent, articulate and act upon their constituents’ interests to the university administration, whether they like it or not. To what extent this has been the case, is another debate for another day.
The recently concluded Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Elections was far from being representative. Your statistics are fairly accurate – A total of 408 out of 5967 undergraduates casted their votes. Indeed, a 0.5% of popular support is hardly a majority, nor would it be considered as a strong mandate. The lack of popular mandate screams out for not for electoral reform per se, but a paradigm shift in the whole raison d’être of a faculty club in the first place.
Why No Vote?
So why wouldn’t students vote? Your first reason is that students are generally apathetic about any of the activities planned by the MC. You are right. Besides the usual Freshmen Orientation Programme events, most events organised in the past cater to a very select group of students (some targeting non FASS or even non NUS audiences) with niche interests. Management Committees functioned more like project committees, hardly keeping in mind the bigger picture of academic and welfare policy issues that affect the larger student body as a whole. The past two years have seen a gradual shift to the latter function, but mindsets and mentalities take a lot more time and effort to change. I see the Elections as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) – and the dismal number of votes is a stark reminder that, if our student leaders fail to develop policies and organise projects that truly cater to our students’ needs, the faculty club will completely lose its relevance to our undergraduates.
Secondly, you said that voting isn’t compulsory, and if there were a lack of choice, there would not be an incentive for students to vote for them. Once again, you are right. The last elections that allowed FASS undergraduates to vote were back in 2006. Back then, 744 students manually voted for 15 positions that saw 22 candidates contesting for. The number of voters, while still a fraction of the total population, was almost twice the number of those who voted this year. Inconvenience in having to physically cast their vote didn’t matter as much. Unfortunately in more recent times, the myriad of alternative school activities, the crush of our academic workload and the invention of Facebook have not only deterred many potential leaders from stepping up, but also produced many armchair critics who prefer to provide their highly-valued opinions from the comfort of their laptops, without having to ever lift a hand to do a thing, perhaps not even to vote. While student leaders may have the courage and heart to serve, not all may have the matching capabilities to lead, and such vicious and sometimes-uninformed criticism kills such potential in its tracks.
So what reforms can be implemented to resolve the problems? One – redesigning the purpose of the faculty club and MC, from one that merely organises events, into an organisation that provides meaningful platforms for student leadership to develop its full potential in truly caring for their community.
Two – candidates do need to learn the art of campaigning and vote canvassing. To be fair, the Elections Committee and outgoing MC could have done more to advise candidates on what would make for effective outreach. While not all candidates felt the need to do so, several made commendable efforts through the extensive use of online social media detailing their profiles and what they stood for, as well as the distribution of flyers. The difference in the percentage of votes garnered between the different candidates is a rough correlation with the amount of effort put in for outreach. That said, the time for campaigning itself was relatively short, and the coincidence of the campaigning period with Singapore’s Presidential Elections certainly did not help in terms of the competition for attention and interest. What I can only do is to recommend future campaigns to include a more personal element – candidates putting up more details on who they are, proposals for policy implementation, a meet-the-students session, or active canvassing along the walkways of FASS, for example.
Last but not least, compulsory voting is a necessary evil. Until this year, elections involving the undergraduate population were not even held – i.e. if the number of candidates contesting were equal to or less than the number of positions available, the entire cohort would have been automatically been elected into office. And these were the people that managed the tens of thousands of dollars of students’ subscription fees as they see fit. So much for any mandate at all (suddenly a 0.5% doesn’t look as bad as 0% does it). Only this year was the Constitution of the NUS Students’ Arts and Social Sciences Club amended to make elections a fixture, to give students an element of choice and to increase the representativeness and accountability of the faculty club. However, convincing the university administration to make voting compulsory for all undergraduates would take a long-term concerted effort from student organisations to see it through. Given the yearly terms of most student leaders, it would certainly be an uphill task to accomplish so much in such a short time. What can stand in the interim would be having better publicity efforts and having the faculty club perform more meaningful and relevant functions to attract and retain good leaders and interest in their existence.
Whether the student electoral system needs to change is not the question. Change has already begun. While there are still glaring flaws in a relatively new and untested system (a confusing online voting system, bureaucratic rules and ambiguous campaign guidelines, among other problems), I believe that the faculty club is moving in the right direction with regards to choosing its student leaders.
Elections are a good KPI, but they are just the beginning. We need someone who has the courage to overcome this disillusionment with the current status quo and the phenomenon of the “armchair critic”. We need good leaders with the courage, passion and qualities to run for elections in the first place – a more representative and effective student committee in the true sense. It has to start from somewhere.
Will it be you?
Yr 4 FASS Student
Returning Officer, FASS Elections 2011
 The exact number of undergraduates was obtained from our Dean’s Office, FASS. However, I must point out that exchange students were not allowed to vote, given their temporary stay here in NUS, and hence their numbers are not included in the figure given.
 This year’s elections were held online, spread out across two voting days.