Some time ago now, I had the pleasure of reading Isaac’s article on Rice Media about student activism in Singapore’s universities. I know Isaac as a friendly Residential Assistant (RA), a pretty good source of memes on my Facebook feed, and an excellent writer – which is why I made it a point to read the article all the way through. I was not disappointed. It’s a thoroughly researched piece that details numerous examples of student organisations across Singapore enjoying success in their activist pursuits. Isaac writes that student activism is on the rise again; far from dead, as it was widely believed to be after students of the past were arrested for organising protests and causing riots. Student activism works today because students are taking a much less confrontational approach, simply “creating space[s] for discussion and trying to ensure that [students’] views are heard by the authorities”, in the words of one of the founders of Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE).
It’s very encouraging to hear this, and I agree with Isaac’s article. (Indeed, I lack the knowledge or argumentative skill to refute any of it.) But it makes me ask myself: If Singaporean apathy may soon no longer exist, what about me? What’s going on here? Because it certainly looks like I’m pretty apathetic.
I experience an interesting cross section of university life. On the one hand, I’m part of the self-sufficient, almost insular world of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. We have plenty of our own clubs and interest groups to keep ourselves entertained. From Year 3 onwards, we spend very little time in school, and most of our time in hospital wards and clinics (the straw ban barely affected us). Some postings are really tough, during which I eat, breathe, dream medicine. There is barely room for sleeping, socialising or exercising, let alone student activism.
On the other hand, thanks to Tembusu College, I have at least felt like I am part of NUS. I have friends from other faculties, and I know a little about modules and CAP and the bell curve – all foreign concepts to us medical students. More importantly, I have acquaintances and friends of friends who are involved in student activism, who are in groups such as CAPE and STAND. I have a window into these circles and their activities, but somehow I’ve never stopped to inquire further. Until Isaac’s article, I didn’t even know that STAND is about climate change or that CAPE has a fortnightly newsletter.
Maybe getting involved in activism is too much to ask, so what about simply staying informed? As we all know, Tembusu provides myriads of opportunities for learning beyond the faculty and beyond the classroom – for example, there are Student’s/Fellow’s/Master’s Teas that I could easily put my name down for. I could, but I don’t.
In sum, I have the means to be more engaged, but I’m not. How did this happen? Am I apathetic? I thought I cared, but I would do something if I really did, right? Well, I just finished a super chill posting and yet it’s taken me ages to finish this short article. This week, I’m starting another hospital posting that’ll be quite intense. After eight weeks of that, it’ll be a mad sprint for finals. Local politics? Climate change? Important, but I just don’t think I’ll have the bandwidth.
I look around me in medical school and wonder how much my peers think about any of these issues. If they do, we certainly don’t talk about it – until recently when I brought it up for the purposes of this article. It’s just as I had suspected. We read a bit of the news now and then, but it doesn’t go much further than that. I’m sure there are many others like us, not just in medicine but in other pockets of the university. Faculties like dentistry and nursing are quite isolated as well, and as my dentistry friend pointed out, we’re science kids; much less likely to care about social and political issues as compared to arts students, who are exposed to such issues every day in their academic work.
Of course, across faculties, there is the ever-present devil of busyness. Even in Tembusu, where we are more exposed to activism, I don’t have friends amongst whom we speak about such things. Those who stay in Halls seem to have a mountain of CCA commitments, and I would say that for any student it is easy – and common – to prioritise a hobby over something like activism. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who come to NUS for lessons and go home immediately after, with minimal links to any student life.
So yes, as Isaac writes, activism is alive and kicking amongst many students – but not all. I am wary that when we say, “activism is on the rise”, it is limited to certain academic and social circles, and there still is plenty of apathy around. I imagine student activists are surrounded by like-minded friends who share the same passions and commitments. Perhaps they debate social issues in everyday conversation and banter with political jokes I would never understand. That is all well and good, but amidst that excitement and familiarity, I would urge them to stay sharp, to guard against complacency. Don’t forget about the rest of us.
 From CAPE’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/cape.sg/), they “are a community that examines local affairs relating to civil society, and provides avenues for Singaporeans to contribute constructively”. They are about “increasing political literacy and making civil participation accessible”.
 From October 2018, NUS launched the iReject campaign to discourage the use of environmentally unfriendly, single-use disposable products such as plastic straws. NUS canteens and food courts no longer give out plastic straws, though they do give paper straws if students request for them.
 In Year 1 and 2 we are given a timetable that everyone follows. In Year 3 to 5 it’s a lot of “self-directed learning” in the hospitals and clinics. We have no CAP nor bell curve – just a pass/fail mark, and occasionally, unadjusted letter grades.
 STAND stands for “Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest” (pun intended). From their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/divestnus/), their mission is “for students and educational institutions to be the leaders in our push towards an ecologically responsible, fossil-free Singapore”.
Header image: UTown website
Featured image: CAPE Facebook page
About the author
Sarah-Kei is a third-year medical student who has evolved into a true phantom this academic year. She is often found singing and sleeping, and sometimes studying.