Let our students grow

The recent student anger that erupted at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) over censorship of political news brings to focus a long neglected issue in our nation’s universities – the wholesale de-politicisation of our students.

Student life in Singapore has been reduced to organising beauty pageants, jams and hops (student parties).

A check with the NUS Students’ Union website showed little discussion of national affairs. The section on “Events” is blank and “Current Issues” highlights the unhappiness of the fee hike – in 2006! “NUSSU News” carries a news flash that dates back to February this year.

The NTU’s version is a little better, we emphasize “a little”. Its Students Union’s website carries updated news, the biggest of which is the change in operating hours of a bus service. There’s a section dedicated to the food festival and even an iMall when one can buy and sell anything from an MP3 player to raspberry vodka. But there is no section carrying news and discussion on socio-political issues.

Then there is Singapore Management University Students’ Association. Like its two older counterparts, news about politics and current affairs are at a premium.

Now compare this to the top universities that we constantly say we want to become. Harvard’s Student Life section lists more than 250 organisations including groups like the Harvard Burma Action Movement, Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition, and the Harvard Jews, Arabs and Muslims Fellowship – and this is just in the category of Government and Politics.

The Harvard Crimson carries a section on world hunger, debates the Iraqi conflict, and discusses security issues in the Pacific Rim.

MIT students delve into the integrity of the electoral process with the introduction of electronic voting.

The ones at Cambridge University establish an organisation called Cambridge Students Against the Arms Trade and stage a mass demonstration in protest against arms investments.

Not to be outdone, their counterparts at Oxford launch a Living Wage Campaign that “pushes for all university and college employees to be paid a wage which meets the cost of living in Oxford.”

We make the contrast not to belittle our students, they are no less capable than others.

What is holding back their potential is the antiquated attitude of our administrators who still think and behave like functionaries of the ruling regime. The latest episode of banning media reports about Dr Chee’s visit to the NTU campus is but one tragic example.

It is understood that students who want to organise themselves into a club or organisation need to be registered (code for “approval”) with the university administrations.

Do these officials not see that such an autocratic approach in academe only retards the intellectual development of our students? Are they, like everyone else in the establishment, concerned only about making sure they remain in the good books of the butterer of their bread?

What about party politics? Why are our universities so consistent in their aversion to opposition parties visiting their campuses?

Harvard University students protest the Iraq war

Harvard University students protest the Iraq war

The Ivy League schools in America have their own student Republicans and Democrats. They take sides and passionately debate the issues of the day.

The first US presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama was held at the University of Mississippi. The upcoming one this week is at the Belmont University in Nashville.

Obviously a great deal of importance, symbolic or otherwise, is attached to higher education in the US. The nation’s politics is woven and deeply embedded in college life. The result? Students are knowledgeable and care deeply about what happens to the country and its future.

Are these features undesirable in American universities? Obviously not because we are sending our best and brightest to study there. We’re also falling over ourselves to get them to set up programmes in Singapore.

But while we want their knowledge, we don’t want their academic philosophy which includes freedom of speech and expression.

In contrast, our university students are shielded from the SDP like we’re radioactive. Somehow, the Singapore Democrats furthering our political objectives to build a democratic society is a bad thing. NTU officials say they don’t want the school’s media to be used as a “platform for political ideologies” (see also report by Campus-Observer). Championing democracy and raising political awareness among students is an ideology?

Even the students have to keep repeating that their protest yesterday had nothing to do with the SDP (which is a fact).

But why is being supportive of a party and its ideals wrong? Are our students not voters? Do they not have opinions and can they not be passionate about them?

Sadly, not only are our students told what to think but also how to think it. A student present at yesterday’s protest intimated that a professor had told her that she needed to be realistic and be more concerned about finding a job after she graduated.

All this points to one thing and one thing only: Our students pay good money for a university education and they are getting short-changed. They are deprived of the education that will help them compete on the international stage. Survey after survey shows how local graduates compare poorly when it comes to independent thinking and entrepreuneurial skills (read next article).

Universities are the crucible of change, the avant garde of progress. If our students cannot develop their potential as informed and caring leaders, able to chart out a vision for our nation, we achieve little except to groom yes-people to serve the PAP machinery.

But there is hope yet. The groundbreaking protest organised by the NTU students at Hong Lim Park yesterday was a most heartening start. It demonstrates that our youths, despite the years of censorship and repression, still have the wherewithal to breathe life back into a campus in comatose.

Society must back them up.

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