The NUS Students’ Union invited me to the Union Forum on 17 August 2012 to share my reflections on life as an undergraduate.
This following is an edited transcript of an off-the-cuff speech. Razor TV video available
Mr Ang Yu Qian, President of the National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU)
Mr Soh Yi Da, President of the National University of Singapore Students’ Political Association (NUSPA)
Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to be here. I am now at the age where I can look back on my past and can tell you with all sincerity that my years in university were some of the best days of my life. What this means is that if all of you here are not having the best days of your life, you better start worrying!
2 I hope to share with you some of my recollections of my journey through NUS and the Union, and my reflections on that journey.
3 I entered medical school in 1980. For many of you, this was probably before you were born, so let me give you some background. 1980 was a time when the Government merged Nanyang University with the University of Singapore. Therefore you notice that NUSSU as such, only existed from September 1980, because prior to that there were separate universities.
4 1980 witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was turmoil in Indo-China due to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. 1980 was also a time when Singapore was really in a sense, going at full economic gallop. We had overcome the 1973 oil crisis as well as some labour problems in the mid 1970s, and it was ‘all systems go’. 1980 was a time when 100 per cent of MPs in Parliament were PAP MPs.
5 This was the tone of that time. If you were an undergraduate, your key objective was to graduate quickly, get a good degree, get a good job and take advantage of the economic opportunities that were abounding in Singapore. At the same time, you were aware that things were happening outside Singapore. But that sense of threat and sense of fear was not really there. So in a sense we were a bit cocooned, safe and secure in Singapore and looking for opportunities.
6 I was awarded a scholarship to study medicine in 1980. I must confess, for the first three months of my undergraduate days, I actually studied very hard. I studied very hard because I initially felt a need to prove my worth, and was worried that PSC would strip me of my scholarship if I did not do well enough. So the first three months, I studied very hard. And basically in medical school, studying very hard means you just study and you do not do anything else.
7 After about three months, I decided that there has to be more to life. By that time, I had discovered that in order to get a distinction in Medicine, you have to study exponentially hard. But to get a “Gentleman’s C” does not require that much work. Now once I made that discovery, the next point was to make a decision, where I could either go all out and aim for As and distinctions and therefore work very hard, or I could decide that while I would collect hopefully a couple of ’A’s along the way, I did not have to get distinctions and ’A’s at every subject. Once I made that decision, I suddenly found that I had a lot of time. And because medical school is five years long, a medical student who has decided to get Cs, has a lot of time. A wonderful discovery.
8 The next question was what to do with all that time. In those days, I was staying in KE Hall. One of our favourite activities was Foosball. It is another wonderful way to waste your time and your life away. But one of the persons I met there was a fourth year medical student who was on the executive committee of the first NUSSU council. He said to me: “Look, since you are so idle and you have got time on your hands, and clearly based on your past record you are an activist sort of person, why not come and get involved in the Union?” So for the lack of anything better to do, I said: “Okay, what do I need to do?” He said: “Go get elected.” How do I get elected? He said: “Well there are NUSSU constituent clubs. Each club has one seat on the executive committee. Why don’t you go stand in the sports club?” And guess what? I offered my name up for nomination and there was no contest. So in my second year, in 1981, I was in the NUSSU executive committee.
9 Then, the next problem. The council had to elect office bearers. Everyone looked at each other – no nominations. The outgoing president told me they were going to get someone to nominate me to be the president. I said: “But I have not even been in the executive committee before this.” He said: “Never mind, we cannot get anybody else silly enough to do it so we are going to nominate you.” And guess what? Again, nomination uncontested. Suddenly in August 1981, as a second year medical student, I found myself president of the National University of Singapore Students’ Union. Do you see how bad that was?
10 It was a sign of apathy, a sign that there were many other better things for undergraduates to do at that time than to waste it in Union activities. I did not see my election as president in my second year as an accomplishment or achievement. It simply reflected the context of that time. Anyway, I stood for another two terms in the executive committee member and in my fifth year as a council member, ironically through the Political Association. But what I was most gratified with was that for my second, third and fourth term, each time, I had to contest for the post – there were elections. And to me, that was a healthy sign because now there were people who wanted to get involved, were willing to stand for election and willing to contest. That was a positive change.
11 When I first came in, the problem was inexperience and apathy. I quickly decided we needed to get more people involved and one way to do that was to create as many sub-committees as possible. We made sure there was a strong welfare committee, a publications committee and we had committees to organise the Union Ball. One key highlight of the Union Ball was to choose the freshie queen, the most beautiful girl on campus. And I was not short of male undergraduates volunteering to organise the Union Ball because they hoped to interact with the prettiest undergraduates on campus. We also had other sub-committees including publications to provide a voice for students. Newspapers like ‘The Ridge’ originated from those times.
12 We also had to deal with the issues of the day. Now we were very clear that the Union constitution had been amended in 1976 to a large extent to make sure that the Union did not get involved in politics outside of campus. One key element of that constitutional review was the creation of the Political Association. In fact, only the Political Association had the right to comment on political matters involving the country. The reason for this separation was the Union is supposed to represent all undergraduates. And in those days as well as today, you therefore represent a very diverse body, including non-citizens. However, only Singapore citizens have a right to speak and to participate in political matters. Hence the Political Association was created and given in a sense, a monopoly on political involvement and not the Union. I think that situation still continues today.
13 Another thing I remember in my journey was that in the 1980s, the government came up with a scheme to provide priority for admission into Primary 1 for the children of graduate mothers. At that time it was already clear that women university graduates were less likely to get married and even if they did get married, they were not having enough babies. This was an attempt by the government of the day to incentivise you to get married and have babies. I managed to dig up my first-ever publication in the Straits Times forum page. This was dated 1 February 1984. Back in 1984 there was no internet so you cannot just type in a Google search to find documents, so this required some effort to dig up. I wrote this letter in my personal capacity to explain why I felt this scheme was wrong. As luck would have it, it got published and my views still have not changed. Obviously, this letter did not change government policy but the Union did take it up and in fact, I remember at that time being part of a delegation that went to the Ministry of Education to reflect the views of the undergraduates who felt that this scheme was wrong. In 1984, the government was not going to revise or reverse its position. But subsequently, years later, Dr Tony Tan our current President, who was the Minister for Education then, convinced the Cabinet to reverse it. So I am sharing with you that story because it is relevant to what I will say about politics.
14 The final point is something my wife insisted I tell you. In 1984, I was a member of the management committee of the Political Association and elected NUSSU council chairman. As luck would have it, my wife was in the Political Association at that time and she said: “Therefore the best thing about your involvement in the Union was that you met me.” So I said: “Okay I will tell the students that. And she said: ”Yes, isn’t that the most important thing in your life?“ and I had to agree: ”Yes, it is the most important thing in my life."
15 So that is a short summary of my journey through the Union. What are the lessons from this? The first lesson I want to share with you is this. If all you have done in your undergraduate days is to study, you have deprived yourself of an opportunity for a full student life. In my case, the friends I made, the lessons I learnt in organisation, in making mistakes, having mistakes pointed out to you and correcting those mistakes, the networks I built, the knowledge and experience beyond my narrow field of medicine – all these are lessons of life. And I think I can tell you quite categorically, I will not be where I am today if all I had done was to study in medical school. So the point I want to make to you is that you must go beyond your books to take full advantage of your university life. To me that is the most important lesson and I often reflect on it in my own life.
16 The second lesson is on politics. I said earlier that the Union is constituted in such a way that it will not engage in politics beyond campus. But the Union is responsible for promoting the interests and welfare of students. If you take a broad definition of the interests and welfare of students, I think you cannot avoid having to deal with this difficult issue of political involvement. Let me share with you from my perspective. Do not treat this as a government position, treat this as a personal perspective. I think it is important for young Singaporeans, which you all are, to be aware of what is happening in society. Whether the government of the day has introduced a scheme like the graduate mother scheme which you may disagree with or other schemes which you may agree with, I think it is important that you be aware.
17 I believe as Singapore citizens, and in fact for all of you down here who are over 21 and therefore voters, you have a right to think, to express yourselves and to vote. So no one can say you are here only to study, close your eyes, close your ears, and shut your mouth. That is not possible. You do have to realise however that the Union is not a political tool. If you want to engage in political activity on the ground, there are political parties for you to join. The Union, and the way it is constituted and the way you are elected, does not give an automatic right for the Union to take a political position or worse, a partisan position. And there is actually good reason for that. We want students in the prime of their life, at a time when your ideals are being developed, when you are building networks, when you are making sense of the world, we want you to discover as much as possible. So in other words, we want you to have the freedom to explore politics and its implications with a view to taking on responsibility for the future. But without you having to be burdened with partisan politics. So for instance, it is well and correct for you to invite politicians on campus as part of education, but you do not need to take sides. It is well and correct for you to agree or disagree with them, but again, you do not have to take sides. Leave that to the political parties and if you personally are sufficiently convinced in any of these causes, then by all means, pursue them. But the reason for shielding the Union from direct partisan politics is actually to give you more freedom to explore, to make it safer for you to make comments and to play a part in the national conversation, but to be able to do it from relative safety.
18 The final point I want to leave with you is that you must be prepared for change. Circumstances change and similarly you must be prepared for your own views to evolve as you grow older. Anyone who says: “My views are fixed at the age or 18 or 21 and never ever changes for the next few decades”, I think that is a problem. So my point to you is that you have to keep your eyes and ears open. You have to be prepared to speak with honesty what you feel in your heart and what you think makes sense. But you want to keep your options open. Keep your options open as to which parties you want to support, how you want to vote because that is a personal decision. Keep your options open so that you will be thinking and generating new solutions for the future.
19 Let me conclude with what I see in your future. In the year 2012, we live in a very different world from 1980. Today, Singapore is a developed nation. Today, there is no longer that ideological split between communism on one hand, and the free market economy on the other. That debate was settled when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. But today, we are also in the midst of plenty, which is why you see reports saying Singapore’s per capita income is high, our intakes to university is high and growing, and our healthcare is amongst the top in the world. So you are in a situation where we are already a developed country and the challenges facing you in trying to rise even higher will paradoxically be more difficult, because you are already quite high up the mountain and that final ascent up the summit will be much steeper.
20 Another issue which you will face is that this is a time where we have seen the logic of free market capitalism play all the way to its logical conclusion. This also is a time of greater inequality. Whether that greater inequality is a natural outcome of a free market or whether that greater inequality is going to cause greater unfairness of opportunities is something which your generation will have to resolve. And you will have to decide how do we keep Singapore viable, continually open to new ideas, capable of change, reinventing ourselves and continuing to be a land of opportunity for everyone. Not just the graduates of NUS, NTU or SMU but for every single Singaporean.
21 So the point I am trying to make, is that you live actually in a time of revolutionary change. People of my generation – when we were in university, we viewed life in simpler terms. It just looked like an escalator up, get on the escalator and go up as quickly as possible. You have many choices and for you, expressing your ideals and finding the right outcomes and pathways will not be so straightforward. Unlike my time, we now live in a time of the internet, globalisation and connectivity. This also means you live in a time of intense competition because merely possessing a degree today does not make you so special. There are millions of graduates in Asia – all of them as smart as you, as hardworking as you and as hungry as you. So how will you create a future that is viable, worthwhile, fulfilling; and for you in twenty or thirty years, to come here and speak to the next generation and say this is my journey, this is what I have gained, these are the lessons of life I have learnt and these were the choices I made.
22 So let me stop here and leave you with some food for thought. Thank you all very much for your attention.