I had joined the Kent Ridge Common in October 2010 while on exchange in Tucson, Arizona, as editor. Since then, I have worked hard with Lester, KRC’s founder, to promote the spirit of campus journalism in NUS, and to make KRC a space for students to showcase their writings on any subject, as long as it displayed sensitivity to members of minority ethnicities, religions, sexualities and so on.
Here, I would like to share two reasons why campus journalism is important.
Firstly, the Singapore Story, as written by Lee Kuan Yew, is over. I am not sure if the lessons of GE 2011 have been truly appreciated by this country’s leaders, or if, amidst the unthinking sloganeering, the potency of the phrase –“new normal” – has really sunk in. The Singapore Story that had bound our parents’ and grandparents’ generations and given them a mission is over—the country has been built, the country is built.
So what is our generation going to do? What is going to provide my generation with that much-needed unifying balm, with a sense of purpose to stay on and build a home in this built-up country? What is the challenge for this generation?
The PAP may try, in the next 4 years, to reinvent and craft a new narrative for us to buy into, to envision a new Singapore for us to subscribe to. Yet, I don’t think they will succeed, because I don’t think the narrative (or balm, or vision, or ideal) that Singapore needs at this juncture is one that a ruling party can author.
As clichéd as it may sound, it is we who have to write this narrative – we have to realize that our stake in this society is very real, and we have to realize our power to sincerely, effect change.
And this is also because our institutions are supremely fallible, as glossy and shiny their exteriors may seem. This is the second reason.
For all the hype and heaps of praise Singapore receives on the international scene, our institutions, (beginning with NUS, which I am most familiar with) are fallible and flawed. This is not abnormal – all large organizations inevitably house systemic pockets of inefficiencies and have misaligned incentive structures.
Rather, the problem is that this country does not have a strong culture of critique, and further, this country does not have strong platforms of critique that have the power and sway to make sure they will be taken seriously. So even if pertinent critiques are made, there is no incentive for existing public institutions to take them into account. One election every five years is not consistent enough a feedback portal.
We cannot depend on the Straits Times to do what independent media do in other societies. It is the quintessential national newspaper after all, and as much as it may have evolved over the years, it will ultimately have to cater to the middle-mass. More active and critical media with a certain level of power (ie, readership) are needed to provide the dialectic that Singapore’s public life could greatly benefit from, and we who engage in online media have to work hard to build up this medium’s credentials and relevance. This political leadership also needs the gumption to distinguish between Singapore’s interests and its party’s interests, and stop clamping down (ie, gazetting) critical media which are actually beneficial to the maturation of Singapore’s political landscape, which ultimately assists the political leadership in ensuring responsive and responsible governance in the country.
Hence, a spirit of independent journalism amongst this generation and after needs to be inculcated, and the years of tertiary schooling are an ideal time to start (I am most familiar with NUS, but I am certain that other feasible models may be found for other types of tertiary institutions like polytechnics etc.). Because the stakes are lower, because being a “tertiary student” holds a certain immunity, because the university leadership has to take you seriously, and because you can actually witness the fruits of your efforts, you can effect real change.
Because a university is supposed to promote ‘creative and critical thinking’, and judging by the recent Yale-NUS College controversy, this university recognizes that it is in its own interest to have a vibrant and critical student journalistic culture — this is, crucially, where the university’s interests and the ruling political party’s interests (in a national context) differ. There is no obvious incentive for a ruling political party to have a vibrant, critical journalistic culture whereas there is one for our universities, at least within the boundaries of the campus.
In NUS, KRC has been trying to play that role by pushing for change within the labyrinthine bureaucracy. In some cases, as in the case of USP financial aid, we have managed to initiate reform. In others, as in the film screening regulations on campus, we have not – till this day, the NUS Office of Student Affairs has not updated its film screening guidelines, and students who do not know any better may be misled into forking out hundreds of dollars just to organize a film screening.
Yet, an interesting incident happened this semester: an NUS staff emailed me, in my capacity as a KRC student journalist, to ask me about the procedures to hold a film screening, because some students in her department wanted to hold a film screening too. Think about it – a full-time NUS employee on the NUS payroll is asking an unpaid NUS student what the rules regarding film screenings are, instead of asking her colleagues in other departments, or the NUS Office of Student Affairs directly. I referred her to the KRC article on the subject, and she thanked me. Thus, even if the relevant NUS department does not reform or change erroneous rules, the behaviour of other members of NUS will change and render ‘official regulations’ obsolete. It is baby steps like these that give us student journalists the gratification for our work, which we do out of passion and for which we receive no monetary reward.
Lastly, a word on the independence of KRC. KRC is funded by Lester Lim, the founder of KRC and an NUS alumnus, who pays about SGD 250 a year for KRC’s web provider and domain name. While KRC is financially independent, it certainly has interests – whether in the championing of financial aid, of transparency in guidelines, or so on. These are defined by the editorial team in charge at any one time. Independence does not mean blanket antagonism or aggression towards institutions; as long as we deem institional partners as having shared interests, we can work together to push for reform. If not, KRC will not and has not hesitated to criticise.
I sincerely hope that more students will engage in campus journalism, whether at any of the existing platforms (Campus Observer, etc) or better yet, that they will create a new platform and form a new team. The more the better, and as students nurture an independent journalistic spirit, they will eventually emerge into society more empowered, experienced, ready to make change on a grander scale.
This is my last article for KRC; it has been a good ride.