Autonomy, Not Transparency, The Issue

By Kwan Jin Yao

It is easy to get angry with, to be disappointed by, or to be pissed at the National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU). Is our student governance framework still relevant? Blame NUSSU. Why are the internal shuttle buses in NUS hopelessly infrequent and packed? Blame NUSSU. Should we persist with the present, expensive format of “Rag and Flag”? Blame NUSSU. Heck, what has NUSSU actually done through these years?

And last week, undergraduate Teo Yu Sheng took the student organisation to task for the lack of transparency. Having looked through the finances in NUSSU’s Council Annual General Meeting report, while preparing for an interview with the Ministry of Education’s Quality Assurance Framework for Universities, he argued that NUSSU “[cannot] claim to be transparent in its finances if 87 [per cent] of all income and expenditure are left unexplained. For instance with the operating expenditure of $1.28 million, $26,000 went to manpower, $10,000 to depreciation, $30,000 to rental, and $78,000 to printing and publicity. The remaining $1.14 million was classified as “other operating expenditure”.

The Yusof Ishak House in NUS, which houses the NUSSU and a few of its constituent bodies.

NUSSU of course did itself no favours when it retorted that transparency “primarily entails a state of mind”, and that it is “a matter of that person’s subjective intentions”. In Mr. Teo’s correspondence with Mr. Shermon Ong, former vice-president of NUSSU, NUS’s Office of Financial Services (OFS) then came into the picture.

Much Ado About Transparency

For the uninitiated the arrangement might appear weird. Why should the finances of NUSSU be handled by the university administration? In 1975 the Singapore Parliament passed the University of Singapore (Amendment). Consequently NUSSU’s predecessor, the University of Singapore Students’ Union (USSU), was no longer an autonomous entity, and USSU’s finances were to be managed by the administration of the University of Singapore.

Financial independence can be useful for a student union. It might be the reason why student groups in NUS are not allowed to have private accounts. When I interviewed representatives from the student unions in Helsinki, Finland, the Aalto University Student Union – financed by membership fees, sponsorships, hostel rent – owns half of the apartments in the district of Otaniemi. With 15 to 20 full-time employees the Association of Economics Students in Helsinki not only has thousands of square metres of space in the Helsinki city centre, but can also afford to offer $1.32 million of support to the university’s economics students every year.

“Rag and Flag” in NUS.

This is not a call for NUSSU to necessarily model its operations after its Finnish contemporaries, lest I be labelled a hypocrite. Historical processes and governmental perceptions have shaped the student unions differently, and change will not come easily here.

Do I think that NUSSU and the OFS, following the alleged lack of transparency, are hiding financial information? We could quibble about the specifics – whether volunteers of NUSSU might be extravagant with welfare benefits or expenditures on student camps, for example – yet I have little doubt over their accountability. Accounts prepared by the OFS are checked and audited externally. Last year NUSSU also published two infographics on its financial procedures and the process to obtain quotations (which I have appended at the end), which shed some light on the management of finances.

The Value of Autonomy

Then the obvious question is, if there is nothing to hide, why not provide a detailed breakdown? Through the exchange between Mr. Teo and Mr. Ong NUSSU obtained detailed statements for “Rag and Flag”. Would NUSSU – on behalf of its members – be able to do the same for other components or events? Has it done so in the past, and has it ever been rebuffed? If so, for which requests, and what were the reasons given by the OFS?

This is not an exercise to apportion blame, or to pinpoint the rights and wrongs. Rather, if this discourse and NUSSU are to be more productive, we should be questioning the structures which shape our space for student activism and engagement. For these are the same structures, under Regulation Nine of the NUS Statutes and Regulations, which determined that the “entrance fee and [NUSSU] subscriptions shall be collected and retained by the University’s [OFS] or its equivalent in the respective accounts of [NUSSU] and its constituent bodies”.

After all the NUS Board of Trustees makes “regulations, rules, policies, and procedures to govern [NUSSU] and any of its constituent bodies”. The NUSSU Council itself is a complex body of constituent clubs, associate bodies, as well as the hall committees and the residential college student committees. Governance is unsurprisingly tough.

In our anxiety to criticise, even with the best of intentions, we forget some who toil amidst such dissatisfaction. From student governance to shuttle buses to “Rag and Flag”, I too have been guilty of hopping onto the “Blame NUSSU” bandwagon. I can point sceptically to the woeful few who participated in the recent NUSSU Executive Committee External Elections, and chorus “see, nobody gives a shit about what goes on in that self-serving organisation”, but our own disengagement could very well make us complicit in this state of affairs.


Breakdown for NUSSU EXCO financial procedures / Image Credit: NUSSU (View full image HERE)

Financial procedures of obtaining quotations / Image Credit: NUSSU (View full image HERE)

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 1 October 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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