Do you know that you, as a full time matriculated undergraduate in NUS, can vote in the NUSSU EXCO Rep Elections on Monday? Treehouse speaks to Tembusu’s very own Bryan Kwa who is contesting the elections together with a group of Concerned Students.

Can you introduce your team? How did you all decide to team up?

I’m running with a team of diverse individuals from various faculties and who each have specific expertise and experience to bring to the table.

Running for President through the constituencies of Engineering Club and Cultural Activities Club is Soon Hao Jing, a year 4 Chemical Engineering student. Running for Vice President through the constituency of Arts and Social Sciences Club is Deng Yushan, who is a year 2 Political Science and Economics student. Running for General Secretary through the constituency of Law Club is Chester Su, a year 4 law student. Year 4 Political Science student Ko Chang-Ming will be running for Deputy General Secretary through the constituency of Community Service Club. Running for Financial Secretary through the constituency of University Scholars’ Club is year 2 Accountancy and Business Analytics student Goh Wei Shern. Running for Welfare Secretary through the constituency of Community Service Club is Chua Khai Shing, a year 4 Economics student. Running for Student Life Secretary through the the constituency of Law Club is Li Jin Jie, a year 2 Law student.

I’m running for Communications Secretary through the constituencies of Arts and Social Sciences Club and Political Association. Two extraordinary designers – year 3 Biomedical Engineering student Jacelyn Yap and year 2 Industrial Design student Chang Zi Xin – are running for Deputy Communications Secretary through the constituencies of Engineering club and Design & Environment club respectively.

We decided to team up as we share a common vision for NUSSU. We are all concerned students who want to ensure NUSSU proactively advocates for students. All of us here have something immensely important to offer: A vision; ideas; the courage to stand up for students. Importantly, we don’t rely on NUSSU for a career.

Why is your team running for NUSSU, and what platform are you running on?

Both NUS and the country, in general, are in a period of rapid transformation. NUS has also quickly evolved, pushing out new initiatives such as cashless payments, a new module registration system to replace CORS, and even rolled out a new Vision, Mission and Values recently. In this era of disruption, we fear that we students will be hurt by changes made without our prior knowledge or input.

Students are generally way too busy, with academics, internships, part-time work to cover tuition fees and living expenses, CCAs, Hall or RC life, and so much more. Yet somebody has to tackle the bigger issues that will impact all NUS students – whether we can graduate on time, get the modules we want and need, afford to pay for decent food and course textbooks on campus, ensure our halls and RCs can continue to thrive. Thus, we decided to team up to run in the upcoming NUSSU elections. We believe that a student union should, first and foremost, be the voice of the student body and not be the hands and legs of the university administration – and we intend to make this belief a reality.

Contesting the NUSSU elections to ensure that our student union advocates for students is not an idealistic pursuit; it is a practical approach to a bread-and-butter matter for all of us. As the axiom on negotiation goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It is important that student interests are considered in policy decisions that affect students. We need to ensure NUSSU is represented at the decision-making table lest our interests get served. And this is why my team and I are running – and this is also our promise to you, should we be elected.

 Do you think NUSSU has so far failed to live up to its mission?

According to the NUSSU constitution available on its website, the objects of the Union are:

  • (1) To promote and safeguard the interests of the members of Union within the University.
  • (2) To uphold and respect the dignity and equality of every member of the Union without regard to religion, race or politics.
  • (3) To promote the welfare of members of the Union within the University.

Do you remember NUSSU proactively advocating for students in major issues – some of which made headlines – that impact all NUS undergraduates? Are you aware that NUS management is replacing CORS with a new module registration system by the end of this academic year? If you are aware, did you first learn about it through the school or via the mass media? Do you know the details of the new system and what would happen to your remaining CORS bid points? And what did you make of the announcement by NUS management that NUS will be a completely cashless campus by this year (until pushback by students led to NUS management moderating the cashless campus roll-out)? Or how did you feel about the way NUS management handled the orientation 2016 fiasco? In these instances, were NUSSU actively standing up for students’ interests? What is the purpose of a student union if not to speak up for students?

Rather than being the voice of the student body, it appears to me and my team that NUSSU has been used as props by the NUS management – attending pompous events, shaking hands and posing for photos – instead of propping up student interests. The current state of affairs should not and cannot continue: NUSSU needs to actually realise its purpose for existing.

Can you describe the role you’re running for? What is the job of the Communications Secretary?

I am running for the position of Communications Secretary. But before that, I have to clear the external elections. I am running under two constituencies: Arts and Social Sciences Club (only FASS students can vote for me), and Political Association (all Singaporean students can vote for me).

I understand the importance of communications in realizing the aims of NUSSU. If elected, my goals are to strengthen the communications competencies of the Union to proactively advocate for student welfare and interests, and to craft an integrated communications strategy to better facilitate the Union to achieve its objectives.

I believe that a student union should, first and foremost, be the voice of the student body. The Union must be more than an extended office of the University; the Union’s core business must be to advocate for the students.

We live in an ever-changing world – and university. I fear that students will be hurt by changes made without their prior knowledge or input. I believe NUSSU must speak on students’ behalf and work with NUS management to deliver changes based on a data-driven, consultative approach. Students deserve to know – NUSSU must keep students informed by obtaining information from NUS and encouraging NUS to communicate more openly.

I hope to help students address their bread-and-butter concerns regarding their education in NUS, and also promote NUS as an academic community that is open and inclusive to all who are admitted to study here.

I plan to achieve these goals by implementing a proactive, transparent and seamless communications approach where the Union shares its latest efforts and discussion results with NUS, besides relaying information about impending NUS actions (e.g. the closure of a canteen, cashless payment, new module registration system) to students. Knowledge is power: it enables students to provide feedback or make arrangements to safeguard their own interests or ensure minimal disruption to their campus lives or studies.

As the axiom in negotiation goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It is important that student interests are considered in policy decisions that affect students; We need to ensure NUSSU is represented at the decision-making table lest our interests get served. One way to proactively get a seat at the table (and not wait to be invited), is to proactively raise our collective voices: I intend to start a university-wide conversation on envisioning our ideal University. The university management will find it hard to ignore the wishes of the student body at large, especially when these wishes are presented in a respectable, spirited, and public manner.

I also intend to leverage the largest student-run publication in NUS, The Ridge, to engage, express and amplify the views of the NUS Community.

What makes you the best person for this job?

I have the relevant experience, expertise and enthusiasm. A year ago, I was elected Honorary General Secretary, 49th Executive Committee, NUS Political Science Society. While in office, I moderated a dialogue with Senior Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary titled “The Challenges Facing Singapore” on 20 February 2018 and emceed the book launch of “Critical Issues in Asset Building in Singapore’s Development” edited by Dr S Vasoo and A/P Bilveer Singh, on 24 August 2018 with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as the Guest-of-Honour and four generations of Singapore’s political leaders in attendance.

Separately, I served as a facilitator for Oral Communication Camp, organised by NUS Centre for English Language Communication, in May 2018.

At Tembusu College, I edit and write for Treehouse. As a core team member of the public policy and current affairs interest group Polity, I facilitate civil discourse by organizing dialogue sessions with distinguished guests. Of note, I emceed a dialogue with Minister K. Shanmugam on 19 October 2017, moderated a dialogue with Minister Desmond Lee on 16 January 2018, and moderated another dialogue with Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun on 26 March 2018. I am also a board member of the college’s diversity and inclusion community tFreedom. On 23 February 2018, I organised and moderated a panel discussion titled “LGBT Community: Where is its place in Singapore?” with a lawyer, sociologist and LGBT advocate as panellists. In addition, I serve as projects coordinator for the college’s theatre collective Slate, and have produced and acted in a theatre production on 4 April 2018.

As a freelance writer specializing in news and feature articles, my byline has appeared on SIX-SIX News, Yahoo! and Popspoken. I’ve covered SG50, GE2015 and ASEAN Para Games stories.

Prior to NUS, I graduated with a Diploma in Media & Communication from Singapore Polytechnic. I was a writer for SPirit, the polytechnic’s magazine, and wrote the cover story for the Vol. 3 2014 issue. I interned at award-winning global public relations and communications agency Weber Shandwick, where I was part of two practices: Financial communications and Healthcare. My clients ranged from investment firms to pharmaceutical companies. My responsibilities included scouring the Internet and trawling the news to compile and summarize news / analysts reports on clients, their competitors and any relevant industry news / analysis for bulletins and reports. I also managed media / analysts lists, liaised with third-party vendors and participated in brainstorms. Additionally, I conducted research for new business pitches, crafted media story ideas and supported the team in developing press materials.

I am not afraid to raise difficult questions beyond the confines – and safety – of the classroom. Since 2015, I contributed to The Straits Times Forum and TODAY Voices. One of my letters was cited in a report on LGBT rights in Singapore to the United Nations Human Rights Council for Universal Periodic Review on Singapore. Moreover, TODAY Voices editor wrote to thank me for my contributions, which he said led to good discussions on news issues of public interest. In 2016, I participated in three DebateIQs on hot-button issues in Singapore, posing questions and suggestions to eminent academics, activists and politicians. In 2015, 2014 and 2013, I participated in Singapore Model Parliament. In 2012, I participated in Youth Model ASEAN Conference where I was awarded Best Delegate in Committee (Economics).

Given my background, the role of Communications Secretary is a natural fit for me. I look forward to making NUSSU a proactive advocate for students!

What are some issues you plan to champion if elected?

My team and I hope to be elected so we can help students address their bread-and-butter concerns regarding their education in NUS, and also promote NUS as an academic community that is open and inclusive of all who are admitted to study here. After speaking to a diverse body of students, including international students, off-campus students, and minorities, we compile the following list of concerns.

On the impending new module allocation system, we are concerned about the transition away from CORS, how the new system works, and whether there might be unintended side effects, including making it harder for students to customise their education and explore modules outside their major or year. Thus, we plan to

  1. Work with Registrar’s Office to ensure NUS enforces transitional measures during the final semester of CORS in anticipation of students dumping their CORS bid points during bidding rounds.
  2. Urge NUS to publicly clarify the current status of its new module allocation system and explain its provisional features and allow students to comment and submit feedback for NUS consideration.
  3. Organise focus group discussions with students who will be affected by the new system, including undergraduates from majors or programmes with more electives, collate and organise qualitative feedback, and bring up their feedback during negotiations with the Registrar’s Office and the Provost’s Office.
  4. Initiate conversations with management about what NUS is doing to retain quality lecturers to teach core and elective modules to undergraduates, in light of lecturers leaving the University for other universities for higher pay or guaranteed tenure. NUSSU will work with the relevant faculty clubs and/or departmental societies to identify departments that have lost significant numbers of lecturers or slashed the availability of important modules and raise their cases with the Board of Undergraduate Studies (BUS).

On compulsory internships or attachments, we note that students in faculties like Engineering or majors like Social Work have to undertake compulsory attachments or internships. Students, however, are sometimes required to carry these out during regular semesters (especially IA for Engineering students) when they have to pay full tuition fees as well. We would suggest to NUS to either reduce such costs – especially when students do not receive big allowances and must spend these on food and transport – or ensure it devotes more attention to safeguarding students’ on-the-job learning experience. Importantly, students are in a weaker bargaining position as they lack experience and also depend on such internships or attachments for their degree requirements. They need someone to speak for them and protect them. Thus, we will:

  1. Urge NUS to either set higher recommended allowances for students or to return part of students’ tuition fees to them in the form of allowance top-ups
  2. Ask NUS or relevant faculties how companies seeking to take on NUS undergraduates, especially companies listed on NUS portals are vetted to ensure they are safe, fostering workplaces.
  3. Ask NUS to clarify how the University would render assistance and support to students facing harassment, mistreatment or working conditions in violation of the agreement between them and the companies, and investigate or report such cases to the civil authorities.
  4. Provide or transmit useful information for students seeking to know more about their rights with respect to their internships or attachments under relevant laws and regulations.

We will also urge NUS to reduce tuition fees payable by undergraduates carrying out compulsory internships or attachments during the semester or Special Terms, in recognition of the decreased contact time students have with lecturers and limited use of campus resources.

On mitigating the impact of increased tuition fees, we note that a report from CNBC two years ago reflected the huge growth in NUS undergraduate tuition fees across the past decade from 2007 to 2016, and fees have also increased since then. We hope to initiate a dialogue with NUS administration about the proportion of NUS undergraduates receiving financial assistance as well as whether NUS can continue retaining good lecturers so as not to compromise the quality of undergraduate education.

We are also concerned whether NUS may be simply adding module after module to undergraduate curricular requirements to plug gaps that employers have identified to NUS. Beyond helping NUS or students tick certain checkboxes, everyone would benefit from improvements to various modules including GET1031A and GER1000, which affects all NUS students, especially if students take away deeper learning outcomes or practicable skills.

We also hope NUS will become an academic community open and accessible to all groups that have been admitted to study here, especially minorities who have been ignored or neglected by the university or the union.

For full-time undergraduate international (or exchange) students who have just arrived at NUS, we call on NUS to engage them earlier in orientation activities and also issue them documentation earlier (including letters certifying their Singapore addresses as well as matriculation cards) to permit them to access NUS facilities, set up local bank accounts to facilitate cashless payment options and payment of school fees, and also secure student passes from ICA in good time.

For polytechnic graduates in NUS, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung indicated his ministry was open to revisiting the admission criteria for polytechnic students seeking entry into local universities. Besides discussing with NUS the possibility of relooking how poly students are taken into NUS – including the requirement that poly grads sit for the Qualifying English Test regardless of what course they studied – other smaller policies that distinguish pol-origin students from JC-origin students and make it harder for the former to enjoy freedom of education should be addressed. For example, we urge NUS to reinstate the withdrawn S/U credits for those poly-origin undergraduates who were granted exemptions or advanced placement credits because of their poly diplomas and who later chose to take up additional minor/major programmes.

On the availability of halal food on campus, we plan to study the feasibility of subsidising halal certification costs to ensure more halal-certified food options for Muslim students, faculty, and staff, and urge NUS look into further offsetting halal stall rental and utility costs for halal stallholders while making sure that cost savings are passed on to patrons of these halal stalls. Muslim students also pay tuition fees and union fees – can’t such fees be redirected to providing amenities for their needs?

We plan to make NUS more disability-friendly. Recognising the fact that there are different communities including the deaf, the mute, the visually-impaired, and so on, NUSSU and NUS should ensure such students have unimpaired access to NUS, including to residential life on campus if they apply and qualify. NUS should reconsider its blanket reimbursement-only policy since not all students may be able to afford paying out of pocket first for expensive equipment. We will work to introduce more lifts in less accessible faculties with many slopes and stairs.

On the hot-button issue of internal shuttle bus (ISB) services for students, we will

  1. Ask OCA for details concerning previous years’ shuttle bus budgets as well as the service contract with ComfortDelgro to determine whether there is scope to increase the shuttle bus frequency, considering the increase in the undergraduate population and the needs of NUS faculty and staff who also enjoy the use of the ISB services.
  2. Study the feasibility of increasing the frequency of B1 shuttle bus so as to ferry students between Biz and UTown and reduce the crowding on D1 so that UTown ←→ Computing or Business commuters can get to their destinations faster.
  3. Study the feasibility of having the BTC bus drop students off at UTown when travelling from Bukit Timah Campus to Kent Ridge Campus, so Law students can return to KRC more conveniently to take part in CCAs and RC life.
  4. Study the feasibility of future shuttle bus routes from MRT stations such as Dover or Haw Par Villa to locations on campus, to alleviate the morning crowds coming in from Kent Ridge, Clementi or Buona Vista MRT stations.
  5. Explore with NUS and OCA the possibility of implementing technologies to study crowds at bus stops and on board buses and traffic flow patterns and assist with route optimisation, deployment of shuttle buses and real-time rescheduling of buses.

On ensuring justice is delivered for students charged by the University for serious offences, we plan to

  1. Review the disciplinary system for students accused of serious offences and propose improvements in investigative procedure, prosecution etc. to ensure accused students receive fair trials.
  2. Request the Provost’s Office publicly release relevant directives concerning student discipline or sentencing norms for serious offences.
  3. Request the Board of Discipline and the Student Conduct Unit publish written reasons alongside verdicts and sentences handed out to convicted students to allow students to learn why and how they were sentenced and make an informed decision as to whether to appeal their sentences.
  4. Ensure that elected NUSSU representatives who sit on the Board of Discipline have undergone proper orientation to the system and equip them with guidelines such as to promote an ethically fair hearing.

On residential dining on campus, we will discuss with OHS the possibilities of allowing residents in RCs and Halls to subscribe to partial meal plans (e.g. 90% instead of full meal plan) so they can save costs, and allow people to visit any OHS dining hall to consume breakfast or dinner using the same credits.

How else do you plan to speak up and contribute should you lose? 

As a concerned NUS student – exercising my legal rights and fulfilling my civic duty.

Did you know that all full-time matriculated undergraduate students are automatically members of NUSSU – there is no opt-in or opt-out? Did you know that you pay subscription fees to NUSSU as part of your school fees – and that some of your money goes to the four non-faculty clubs which you must opt-in to join on NUSync? Did you know that as ordinary members of NUSSU, you are entitled to attend Council meetings and enjoy speaking rights?

And that’s why it is important that you cast an informed vote – not just in your home faculty club but also in the other non-faculty clubs – during the elections! Otherwise, you may find yourself being in a state of ‘taxation without representation’!

Beyond your campaign and, potentially, your term in office, what is your vision for NUSSU? What should NUSSU aspire towards?

We hope NUSSU never loses sight of its purpose for existing. We need concerted, targeted efforts from our student union, NUSSU, to address students’ difficulties together with the NUS administration and leadership. Students are the biggest stakeholder group at any university. We share many interests in common with NUS – we all want students to graduate on time, to be able to afford to pay tuition fees, and so on. NUSSU, the student union, can work with NUS in these aspects more easily. NUS and student interests sometimes diverge as well, and it becomes equally if not more important for the student union to speak for students and manage a win-win or agreeable outcome for both students and management. In both scenarios, NUSSU must work for all of us students so we can carry on our studies and pursuits and enjoy campus life without undue worry.

We believe NUSSU needs major reforms to ensure it works effectively for students. while continuing to deliver welfare events and major campus life events. NUSSU has to be re-organised so it can speak on students’ behalf and work with NUS management to deliver changes based on a data-driven, consultative approach, where NUSSU listens to more students, understands the problems and contexts that different students face, and finds good solutions that students and NUS can accept. NUSSU also has to talk with and question NUS more to draw out important information to understand what will be happening, what is being planned, how these will be carried out, and why.

Above all, some things should not change, especially NUSSU leaders’ motivation to serve students, and the objects of the Union that have been inscribed in its constitution since day one: to promote and safeguard the interests of the members of Union within the University; to uphold and respect the dignity and equality of every member of the Union without regard to religion, race or politics; to promote the welfare of members of the Union within the University.

 

Header image by Jarratt Ong during tFreedom panel discussion last semester

About the Author

Jonathan is a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. He is interested in literature, politics, language, time and memory. Some of his favourite authors include Dickens, Orwell, Ishiguro and Kundera. You probably haven’t seen him before: he’s usually firmly ensconced in his room.