Seated across from me, in his berms and flip-flops, one would hardly guess that this was Goh Ren Kai, 34th NUSSU President. The 3rd year Economics major describes himself as an “on-the-ground” kind of President, someone who is more comfortable talking to fellow students than attending countless meetings and making grand speeches.
As the President of NUSSU, Goh has to deal with many controversial issues and make difficult decisions. He is expected to be formal, strict and assertive. But Goh defies all the stereotypes.
“I want people to see me as approachable. When I address students, I do it as a student. It is from a student to another student. Why should it be very formal? But in front of the University Administration, that is a different story … of course I have to be formal then.”
“In fact, my secondary school friends are teasing me every day. We have this Whatsapp group and they named it ‘Mr President’.”
Goh is adamant that he is just a text message, a call away from discussing issues with ordinary students. He already has plans to casually approach groups of students to talk about the things that students are most concerned about. If students are not coming to NUSSU, he is determined to bring NUSSU to them.
Goh candidly shares that he feels like he has never been a “normal student” in NUS. His whole university life has been filled with leadership posts, a trend that started even while he was studying at Nanyang Junior College, where he served on the student council. According to Goh, it was not always this way. He says that he used to be pessimistic and introverted but attending a camp in JC really changed his outlook in life.
“Attending this camp, a group of facilitators helped me realise that I can decide the path I want to take and decide the things I want to do. As a result, I became more active in student activities, including setting up an Alumni Club at Kranji Secondary School.”
“If you ask me what the motivation for becoming the NUSSU President is … it is probably the unique experiences that will come my way – definitely not fame and glory. Maybe in JC, I would have answered fame and glory but not now.”
“I want people to see me as approachable. When I address students, I do it as a student. It is from a student to another student. Why should it be very formal?”
I believe him when he asserts that it is not for the fame and glory. Goh can walk through the Central Library with nary a flicker of recognition from any of the students there. How many of us even know who our faculty club presidents are? Being the President is often a thankless job. Yet, things could have turned out very differently if Goh did not decide to run for office. He only submitted his nomination documents at the very last minute, only one or two weeks before the deadline closed.
“I was in NUSSU for two years and I got very jaded … I didn’t quite enjoy my time in the 33rd NUSSU Exco.”
The problem was that even within NUSSU, not everyone contributed equally and often, personal agendas even among the smaller constituent groups or committees, triumphed over the larger student interest that the Union was supposed to represent. Goh admitted that as a freshman in NUSSU Bizcom, the Union’s marketing committee, he too, only felt strongly about how to expand Bizcom’s role but was not too cognisant of the “bigger picture” to advance student interest. It was only after he was elected into the 33rd NUSSU Exco that he “saw the greater relevance of Bizcom in the Union.” From his perspective, each constituency in NUSSU has diverse interest and trying to get everyone on the same page is like “mending a shattered piece of glass”.
Goh says that the short 1-year term is one major challenge for the NUSSU Exco. Good ideas are aplenty but they often require more than one year’s worth of deliberation and action. Another challenge is that not all of NUSSU student leaders necessarily know the full extent of their job scope and once they realise what they signed up for, it is often too late to back out. It can quickly get very exasperating when not everyone in NUSSU works towards what the Union was created to achieve – furthering students’ interests.
Yet, he eventually changed his mind and overcame that disillusionment. He cites his girlfriend’s decision to also run for an Exco position as one of the reasons he changed his mind. Cassandra Soh is currently the Financial Secretary in the 34th NUSSU Exco. Will there be a conflict of interest? Goh assures me that there are plenty of institutional checks and balances in place to ensure that no abuses of power occur. For example, all of NUSSU’s expenditure is ultimately subjected to approval by the Office of Financial Services. Instead, Goh explains that Cassandra is a pillar of strength and support for him during this, understandably, stressful period.
Still, that was not the only factor that changed his mind. He says that the other thing that caused a change of heart was the personal realization that he would regret it if he had the opportunity to change things but did not take it.
“I don’t want to regret … seeing the organization fail [for lack of leadership].”
Now that Goh is the president, fundamental reforms are in order. Although there was a constitutional review last year, Goh says that there was no “fundamental change”, only “an update of the language”. So this semester, the whole system of student governance with all the electoral processes and guidelines will continue to be reviewed and recommendations will be made. Although Goh is not optimistic about actually instituting any change in his term, he is satisfied with “simply starting that review [process]” and getting people to think about questions like “what exactly is the student government that we desire?” Goh believes that even if the recommendations are radical, NUSSU must not be hesitant to take action.
“If the conclusion [of the review committee] is that there is no need for a student government in our current context, then so be it. We will draft the appropriate recommendations, whether it is scaling down the union, closing it down or having it in another form.”
Expectations are high and members of the student population have already asked for change. Bernard Chen, a final-year History major, wrote in a Facebook note dated Nov 11, 2012 that “the time for a fundamental reform of the Union is upon us and it is with great hope that the Union and student body itself will initiate this process of reform and change, and restore the rightful place of the Union in the governance and polity of this nation.” That the Union is in need of reform is not often disputed but what form and to what extent this reform should take is a subject of countless discussion, both within and without the Union Exco and associated bodies.
“I don’t want to regret … seeing the organization fail [for lack of leadership].”
NUS used to be a hotbed of student activism but Goh personally believes that, in the current context, the Union should be apolitical because being political means necessarily “excluding certain parties” but he fully supports NUS students being more aware of policies that affect them and to “dare to question”.
“I’m not in favour of protest … voicing out of concerns is fine but not to the extent of protest, especially violent ones, because it is counter-productive.”
Goh says that there are sufficient channels for students to voice their concerns. For example, NUSSU recently submitted a proposal to the Public Transport Council (PTC) to reduce fares for tertiary students. Although there are feedback channels, the problem of student apathy remains a challenging one. He cites an example of an email that he sent to the approximately 29,000-strong student population, asking for feedback on issues that NUSSU had raised to the Senior Administration, but received no response at all.
“I think some students are apathetic not because they really don’t care but because some of the things we [NUSSU] do may not be relevant to them. For example, we can say that we give out welfare packs but if the students do not care about welfare packs then it is our fault because we fail to meet their needs.”
Given the on-going debates, ‘Rag and Flag’ seems to be the one event that is immune from the epidemic of apathy. It is an issue that remains deeply divisive with students sometimes holding very divergent views. Some see it as a waste of time and resources while others think it is a useful avenue for student bonding.
Goh was unequivocal about the fact that “Rag must continue” but he also conceded that it could be “marketed” better. The meaning of Rag and Flag remains vague and murky although attempts have been made to clarify it such as the documentary titled “Rag to Riches” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2u-0uOPQQMo). During his term, Goh has already had long meetings with heads of all the participating bodies to distil Rag and Flag into three main objectives. Firstly, Rag and Flag should be sustained as an important part of the NUS tradition and heritage. It is an event that started all the way back in 1959.
“It’s the only thing that links generations of NUS students together … most of the NUS alumni look back and remember Rag and Flag the most.”
Secondly, Rag and Flag is also about giving back to the community, both NUS, as well as, the beneficiaries. There will be measures put in place to get the beneficiaries to be more involved as well as for the participating bodies to be “more involved” with the beneficiaries.
Thirdly, Rag and Flag is also about the “bonding and the student involvement”. Every year, about 8000 NUS students come together to witness a showcase of creativity and energy. The process of putting those objectives into practice and figuring out ways to ensure long-term sustainability remains a key priority for the 34th NUSSU Council.
This semester, Goh is also on a Leave of Absence (LOA) so as to run NUSSU Enterprise. The business wing of the Union is not well-known and barely operational. However, it is not uncommon for student unions, both abroad and locally, to run business operations, such as merchandise or printing services, so as to generate a steady revenue stream for union activities and to provide essential student services at discounted prices. Not many are aware that NUSSU funds many student activities such as the entire student lounge operation at Yusof Ishak Hall, including utilities, as well as various camps. Corporate sponsorships are often unpredictable and that is the reason why the Union must persist in finding alternative streams of revenue.
Goh believes that having a healthy business operation that provides income for the Union is the “key to our future”. During his year of absence, he will run NUSSU Enterprise full-time. The LOA will give him time to focus solely on the business operations without having to worry about the impact on his studies and grades. Pressed for his plans, he suggests that the company will continue selling the popular NUSSU IFG bears, possibly collaborate with a partner to set up a flower service and, perhaps, to have a large-format printing service.
With his promise to be “on-the-ground”, dealing with controversies that routinely spring up and running a business operation, Mr President has a lot on his hands. In fact, I believe that the decisions that he will make during his term will have important ramifications for successive generations of NUS student leaders, not least the redefining of ‘Rag and Flag’. The question is, at the end of his term, will he be seen as sinner or saint?