Monday, October 20, 2008

An Overseas Singaporean Student Union

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the UK Singapore Students´ Council (UKSSC) took place last Sunday (19 Oct 2008) at the Singapore High Commission in London. The UKSSC is the highest representative body that represents the interests of Singaporean students studying at universities in the UK.

Although the UKSSC was formed under the auspices of Contact Singapore as an information dissemination mechanism to the Singapore Societies at each UK university, it is also a Singaporean student union. It serves as an umbrella organisation that includes 24 Singaporean Student Associations and 16 special interest and alumni groups such as the Temesak Society, the Hwachong Alumni and the Victorian Alumni.

Having been involved in the Imperial College Union and the United Nations Youth and Student Association for the past 3 years, I realised that my interest in campaigning for general student welfare, the Millenium Development Goals and UN Reform have shifted towards defending the interest of fellow Singaporeans over the years.

This was further reinforced by my experience of defending Singapore and ASEAN at various Model United Nations conferences in Europe and Asia. My accumulated experience led to my decision to run for the Treasurer Position of the UKSSC Secretariat.

Although the UKSSC was formed under the auspices of Contact Singapore as an information dissemination mechanism to the Singapore Societies at each UK university, it is also a Singaporean student union. It serves as an umbrella organisation that includes 24 Singaporean Student Associations and 16 other alumni groups such as the Hwachong Alumni and the Victorian Alumni.

Due to manpower constraint and skewed distribution of Singaporean students all over the UK, the UKSSC faces a geographic divide which segregates the UKSSC into 3 regional directorates: London-Oxbridge, the Midlands and Scotland. Each directorate functions independent of each other, but plays an important role in coordinating the various Singapore Student Associations in each region. This was especially emphasised by Nicholas Foo, the outgoing Regional Director for the Midlands.

Nicholas Foo stressed that the UKSSC plays an important role in supporting new university-based Singapore Student Associations and this should not be overlooked. He further added that the efforts of each directorate to facilitate communication and promote interest of the UKSSC and the individual student groups varied, which fails to present a cohesive picture on the relevance of the UKSSC to the general Singaporean student community in the UK.

The UKSSCś top-down approach in communicating to Singaporean student community in the UK faces a substantial challenge. While there has been no competing interest between the UKSSC and the university-based Singapore Student Associations on assisting fellow Singaporean students in seeking jobs in the UK and Singapore, there are competing interests in the arena of social events. While student gatherings, parties and dinners organised by local Singaporean student groups are generally well-publicised and well-attended, the UKSSC found it difficult to get its own plans off the ground because of a lack of support from the local Singaporean student groups.

The type of social events that the UKSSC can organise and promote falls within a very narrow scope, given the dinner parties, dinner-and-dance (eg. Singapore Night organised by the Hwachong Alumni) , ski trips and sporting events (eg. Nottingham Games organised by the Nottingham University Malaysian & Singaporean Society) have already been taken up by the various student interest groups.

Successful UKSSC events so far include the Confluence 2006, Confluence 2007 and the Student Network Forum. These events were held in Singapore and they serve the career interest of the Singaporean student community in the UK, yet they do not have any impact on the Singaporean students´ day-to-day life in the UK.

Clearly, the long-term relevance of the UKSSC to the general Singaporean student community lies in promoting the strategic interest of the Singaporean student community, and not competing with the university-based Singaporean student associations to organise social events in the UK.

Strategic interest is divided into the following categories:
(1) Immigration;
(2) Employment;
(3) Civil Rights;
(4) Welfare

(1) is provided for through the International Student Office of each UK university. While the International Student Office provides an advisory role in applying for UK Student Visa or a UK Work Permit, it does not provide feedback to the UK Home Office on the ease of application and the applicant´s experience.

From 25 November 2008 onwards, the UK Border Agency will require Singaporean students in the UK to have a biometric ID Card. This adds an additional £100 to the visa cost. The International Student Office does not have any vested interest to lobby the UK government to lower the fees, while this will affect new waves of Singaporean students coming to the UK for further studies every year while existing students have to pay £100 for the biometric ID card. The UKSSC is well-positioned to advocate for lower biometric ID card fees via the National Union of Students and the University of London Union.

(2) is well provided for through the Career Advisory Service and the International Student Office of each university. Yet at the same time, Contact Singapore , the Overseas Singaporean Unit and various corporations would advertise recruitment events and workshops with the UKSSC and the individual Singaporean student groups. However, in lesser well-known and smaller univerisites, the Career Advisory Service would be ill-equipped to advise overseas Singaporean students. This is where UKSSC can fill in the stop gap to assist Singaporean students in their career development.

(3) may seem to be an alien concept to Singaporeans. It is hardly surprising since the Singapore government has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, the Singaporean student community is residing in the UK and therefore is entitled to these rights in the UK.

In 2007, the UK Parliament almost passed a terrorism bill that requires all foreign students studying science and engineering to report their daily movements to their individual universities. This is draconian and adds on hassle to our daily lives as a student. If not for the united student opposition from the National Union of Students (NUS), Labour Students and Tories Students, this bill would have been in effect today and affect many Singaporeans studying science and engineering in the UK.

This example highlights the importance of having a student union that represents foreign students´ interests and the UKSSC is in fact such a student union. It is well-positioned to advocate for civil rights of Singaporean students should the need arises. The UKSSC could potentially work with the UK Singapore Student´s Law Society to monitor the UK Parliament should the violation of Singaporean students´ civil rights take place through discriminatory policy-making.

(4) is typically provided through the university student union or NUS. The University of London Union (ULU) provides free legal aid to all University of London students. This service is especially useful if the student would like to understand rental contracts in greater details and negotiate with the landlord on the various terms and conditions. It is also applicable in situations when students may need to go to Small Claims Court to make a case. However, due to the geographic distribution of the UKSSC constitutents, It is not practical to provide free legal aid to Singaporean student community.

Legal aid has demonstrated that empowerment of students is a very pragmatic form of student welfare. Empowerment can also take place through dissemination of essential information with regards to the cost of living. For example, the liberalised electricity market in the UK may have the potential of providing consumers with cheap electricity through competition, yet the downside lies with information asymmetry at the consumer level. Often, the electricity & gas retail vendor provides a series of rate and payment packages but these prices are useless if you cannot tell which numbers are applicable for the type of electricity usage meter you are using. Also, should the prices of electricity & gas goes up, the UKSSC can join in other student unions in condemning the price hikes.

Opportunities for the traditional form of welfare still exists. Typically, the university has a hardship fund that helps to tide a student through difficult times. Being an overseas student, Singaporeans are not entitled to social security benefits in the UK and the hardship fund should the need arises. The UKSSC could be potentially be acting as trustee and administrator of a hardship fund that targets the Singapore student community. The fund could provide a short-term loan with a one-off bursary to tide over a difficult period should the need arises.

Despite my grand vision, I actually did not the win the election. The Treasurer position is still open. People opposed my vision because they felt that I was not of the same ideology with the President. Some mentioned that because of my idealogical difference with the President, I might make things difficult for him given my lobbyist and activist background. I strive to be a world-class leader, and not being able to put aside idealogical differences in the name of the common good is a sign of an inferior leader and third-class politics.

The whole idea of having a single-ideological UKSSC secretariat is irrational because the secretariat is responsible for policy-making affecting Singaporeans. Different idealogies exihibit different sensitivity to different issues and concerns, thus a multi-idealogical secretariat would be able to capture a wide variety of issues that are relevant to overseas Singaporean students.

Overseas Singaporeans studying abroad tend to shun away from lobbyist and parliamentary politics. Some feared that I would turn the UKSSC into a partisan organisation, when all I really want to do is to promote and defend the interest of fellow Singaporeans in the UK. There is no taboo in being non-partisan and political simultaneously.I cannot be partisan because the political parties in the UK represent British interest. I will run for Treasurer again at the next Ordinary General Meeting (OGM). I don´t think overseas Singaporean students still constitute a lost cause.


Chee Wai Lee said...

Hey Donaldson,

I'm sorry to read about the rejection and I wish you the best when you try again.

I think there are pros and cons to the question of ideology within an organization. The negative examples that come to mind are the early US Presidential elections. In those elections, the Vice-President was elected separately. After George Washington's Presidency, it came to pass that the VP was the opponent of the Prez and apparently actively tried to undermine the latter politically.

At the same time, I agree that the mentality of students to push for a uniform "ideology" for key members of an organization to be rather myopic. We did that once, at NUS, when it became convenient to campaign as an entire "team" instead of individually. Turns out, internal politics was still the order of the day after the elections were over. I had a far better working relationship with the lone "opposition" member who was elected than my own Veep.

It is possible this is the result of the "authority" mindset of Singaporeans: that if you are a treasurer, you have the authority to make decisions in your portfolio without consultation (which is somewhat true, but is "political suicide"). As a result, I can see them being nervous about issuing you with the authority to act publicly in a way that is contrary to the president's ideas.

I think that, in your case, it is important for you to highlight your willingness to work with others that do not necessarily share your "ideology", that you are competent and will be able to discharge your duties well but that you are still going to encourage the students and the committee to accept the ideas you espouse.

Donaldson Tan said...

Seriously, what can I do to undermine my opponent candidate if I were to be Treasurer? It doesn´t make any sense.

While the President stressed that he aims to build the UKSSC as a strong communication platform between various Singaporean student groups, I see a potential problem of the UKSSC organising competing social events against the other Singaporean student groups. Somebody has to keep a check on how to build the communication platform to ensure it is constructive and not become over-meddling with the individual Singaporean student groups´ activities.

Authority as Treasurer does not allow me to impede the progress of any activities. The treasurer is in charge of finances and making sure transactions happen. He also advises on expenditure and raising funds, whether the UKSSC has sufficient funds to support any activity. The Treasurer also assigns the budget to any UKSSC activities. It is not as if the President has no independent access to the balance sheet, but rather the Treasurer plays an active role in monitoring the finances.

If I were to undermine the President´s decision, I would face the vote of no confidence and thus being kicked out from the Secretariat. The ¨authority¨ mindset is a problem. I thought they would have seen past that given I am extremely pro-welfare.

Donaldson Tan said...

I just started campaigning for the Treasurer position again. Even if means visiting every Singapore Society in London, Oxbridge and the Midlands.

This is my new pitch: ¨If I were to get voted as the UKSSC Treasurer, I can arrange for free indefinite web hosting services for the UKSSC. I have already done so for the Imperial College Singapore Society and Imperial College Model United Nations. I may extend this offer to all university-based Singaporean Student Associations.¨

Chee Wai Lee said...

Good luck! Hope your active campaigning bears fruit!

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