A Letter from Equals: Improving Student Government Participation
story | Dave Chappell, Feroz Khan, Seow Yongzhi, and Tee Zhuo
illustration | Justin Ong
We were both heartened and disappointed at the recent opinion article, A Letter to My Constituents, published in The Octant. The article raises an important issue — a lack of participation in the Yale-NUS College Student Government — but completely misses the mark in most other respects. Much can — and should — be written about the piece’s patronising tone, how it mistakes the student body as a means to the student government’s end, and how it drives yet another wedge between the student government and its representatives, ironically under the guise of a democratic tradition that ought to bring the two together.
However, this piece specifically responds to the assertion that the student body is uniformly to blame for the lack of participation in the student government. We believe this characterisation is inaccurate and hides the real causes of these problems — a failure of communication, off-putting levels of jargon and bureaucracy, a heavy workload, and a lack of power and inspiration. In this article, we hope to illuminate some of these issues and suggest how we, the Student Government, students and administration, can address them.
Why aren’t more people involved in the student government?
While no one would dispute that many students are disengaged from the student government, the idea that this is because they are fixated on “absurdities” is ridiculous. Students participate in numerous civic channels, such as activist organizations, political art projects, petitions, awareness campaigns, community service projects, numerous administrative committees, the Residential College Advisory Councils and other less formalized channels for changemaking — Octant opinion articles, for example. This adds up to a lot! It just doesn’t involve the student government.
From conversations with other past representatives and nominees we think the lack of involvement with the student government is not the result of apathy but its inability to compete for students’ time and attention. Our time at college is limited and, in a culture as busy as Yale-NUS’s, that means some activities will not draw the participation they need. If very few students think that involvement in Student Government is worth their time, that’s their choice to make. Instead of berating them for choosing to prioritize their mental health, their major or another cause, we should instead ask why they didn’t choose the student government. Only then can we actually solve the issue.
First, we will highlight the commonly discussed issues, as covered many times in The Octant. A lack of communication between the student government and the student body has lead to a poor understanding of the electoral process and the government structure. Heavy jargon, bureaucracy and focus on prestige make the government an unwelcome place for students that aren’t well versed in student politics, something that might have been exacerbated by the emphasis on official portfolios.The large workload and stress discourages busy students from participating. The small size and tight-knit nature of the college makes it easy to take their concerns directly to the administration without involving the government, individually or through student organizations. These issues are complex and the result of many different factors.
Still, there are two others issues that have yet to be covered — the diminished authority of the government and the lack of inspiration. Currently, the student government is not seen as the first port of call for student concerns that it should be, by both the student body and the administration. Students increasingly raise important issues instead through other channels and the administration often bypasses the student government, as was the case with the controversial events policy, or doesn’t involve students in the process altogether. This attitude reduces its authority and makes it a less attractive commitment for civic minded students.
This trend has been exacerbated by a shift of focus within the government, away from policy initiatives to being a service provider. While initiatives like distributing welfare packs, organizing hangouts or facilitating summer storage are really valuable, they don’t have to be headed by elected officials. More importantly, they can take time away from other more impactful projects, like meaningful policy reform. All of this, combined with the early election dates, can make the student government seem like a service provider or just another student organization, rather than a platform for changemaking — especially to first years.
This problem is not caused by a single group, nor can it be solved by one. As such, we all need to do better — students, government representatives and administrators alike.
What can the student government do?
The government needs to address its structural flaws and more proactively reach out to students. It now has a three and a half year history, as well as numerous peers in different institutions, from which it can draw solutions. In particular, the student government needs to tackle large issues, the election system needs another round of reforms, and outreach needs to increase.
First, and most importantly, the government has to tackle big challenges and not be afraid to confront the administration. There have been plenty of large issues that, if the turn-out of last year’s town hall is anything to go by, greatly inspire students. If the government shifted its focus to these issues, we would likely see more engagement. Other services and projects can still enjoy government support, through promotion, coordination and funding. This shift of focus will not be easy and will likely lead to confrontation at some point, but it is still necessary. When our government led the campaign for opt-in gender neutral housing, we received a fair share of push-back from the administration. However, we kept pressing, gathering more and more evidence in favor of the policy until we were successful.
Second, the election system still isn’t working. While we applaud the most recent government’s attempts to address election reform, they don’t appear to have helped. The government needs to be both large enough to reduce the workload on each representative, while still maintaining competitive elections. This year it has achieved neither. While these issues are too complicated to adequately cover here, both the timing and structure of elections needs to be re-examined. Similarly, campaigning should be improved. Having more competitive elections should address this problem to some extent, but in the meantime there are other changes that can be made. In the future, candidates should be more proactive — even if running unopposed — and the election committee should provide more outlets for campaigning and information, potentially making them mandatory.
Third, communications need to be more proactive. Past governments have made impressive strides in improving communication, from creating the weekly updates to organizing hang outs with senior administrators. However, there is still more that needs to be done. First, the website needs fixing. Currently, the projects page hasn’t been updated in nearly half a year and no longer show up on the homepage, the old centralised location for polling and surveys has been removed in favour of ad-hoc external surveys, the feedback form is currently dysfunctional and students are unable to scroll through past updates on the homepage. Second, feedback gathering should be more proactive. Town halls and general assemblies that focussed more on dialogue and feedback drew more attendance than presenting on government activities.
What can students do?
Still, students also need to make a greater effort to involve themselves and the student government, outside of running for a position. While this could take the form of attending more town halls or reading more student government minutes, these are relatively superficial. Students should instead directly engage with it by raising issues, giving feedback, and collaborating.
First, students should make use of the many government channels for raising issues. If students have a problem they should raise it with them, instead of just posting on Facebook, organizing their own petitions or organizing meetings with the administrators. The government has a variety of channels, including regular office hours, a feedback form (once it is fixed) and weekly meetings. Failing that, students should just get in touch with their representatives in person — Yale-NUS is small and all representatives’ names and contact details are available on their website.
Second, student activists, campaigns and organizations can involve the government when seeking to represent student interests. Our time at college has been littered with instances of students trying to speak for the students. While this is possible in a school as small as ours, it isn’t a sustainable way to deal with issues. This isn’t to say that every initiative should be government led but that they should at least be informed ahead of time. In the past this has lead to more effective processes and outcomes, as well as bolstering the government’s role. For example, in the case of last year’s petition on the Tuition Grant Scheme or the controversy around Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, the government helped bring increased transparency and student representation.
What can the administration do?
The administration has an important role to play, by involving the student government in the decision making process. While the students give the government legitimacy, it is the administration that gives it power, both through funding and access. As such, the administration needs to listen to the concerns raised through the student government and work with them before an external uproar is caused. Many of last semester’s hot topics, from the tuition grant to inadequate wellness provisions, were raised in November in the government’s student life report, yet went seemingly unaddressed until students made themselves heard. Ideally, the administration should consider the student government before any concerns are raised. Over the past year many policies have been proposed, altered or introduced by the administration with little involvement from the student government, contributing to the spread of misinformation. This can be addressed by keeping the government abreast of all initiatives that impact students and involving them in selecting student committee representation — a practice that remains highly opaque, despite some progress.
Doing all of this will not be easy but it is important. We have probably all been guilty of a number of the things described in this article in some way or another. Still, uniformly assigning blame for past actions is a fruitless exercise that will only further drive a wedge between us. If we are to truly improve the Yale-NUS Student Government, and by extension Yale-NUS, it will require us — students, government members and administrators — to act now and act together. By adopting a more proactive outlook and encouraging others to join us we can help improve the student government. Just because this election was a disappointment doesn’t mean the government term has to continue in this vein. But we need to act now! If these areas aren’t addressed soon then the student government risks becoming purely ceremonial or, worse, a layer of bureaucracy between the students and the administration — a fate we will all own.
Dave Chappell ’18, Feroz Khan ’18, Seow Yongzhi ’18 and Tee Zhuo ’18 all served in the inaugural Yale-NUS Student Government.