USP Lives: A Senior Laments

“This is déjà vu” Joey whispered exasperatedly to me.

I was at what this year’s USP Question-and-Answer session for the upcoming Management Committee elections. Candidates who were foolish or ambitious enough to run would be quizzed and questioned by the USP community directly in this session. That was one idea, anyway. As someone else remarked gleefully, they had come specially to watch a show tonight. The Q&A had, over the years, acquired a reputation for being virtually the only event where ornery seniors would come out of the woodwork to ask killer questions. I had attended last year’s iteration, and had quite enjoyed watching candidates either screw themselves up, or else show their composure on this proving ground.

Sure, you could say the so-called servant leader should not be just talk, he should be about action too, and it is only in the course of his term that we will see if there is substance over style. But the Q&A functions as more or less as the only time where the entire USP community gets a chance to see and listen to the candidates. And being able to field questions, being able to react and think on one’s feet, being able to project a particular persona and elaborate a consistent policy and narrative should also be things an MC member should be able to do reasonably well. These are the rational, politically correct answers, anyway. I guess you could also make a case for how an “entire” USP community across all four years truly cared for the future, culture and identities of this Programme. So they showed up to hear what our potential representatives were like. Mostly, however, I think people were just here to watch a show (myself included).

I make no pretences at anything more: USC Constitutions and Charters have never been my kind of thing. I don’t doubt their necessities and significances, but every time someone gets into a huff about how This Is Not Constitutional my eyes glaze over and I nod, patiently waiting for the outrage to blow itself out. Doing things by the book is certainly important. We need electorates who can read the fine print and argue against loopholes or sleights of hand. But to be perfectly frank I had come this evening for a show. I care little for Byzantine, petty machinations and manoeuverings of some small committee. Like NUSSU, the MC doesn’t really come into my daily everyday life, except when it’s time to vote or when it’s time to get welfare packs full of stationery I have yet to finish using. In this regard I think I am quite your apolitical, apathetic Everyman. If you want to sneak some little clause into the MC Constitution and rub your hands in the dark congratulating yourself at how Political you are, knock yourself out. I am your bread-and-butter guy. Ke yi chi de ma. I’m quite of the opinion that talking about free speech, liberty and egalitarianism and Making USP Great Again in such an enclosed bubble community is a bit like children playing masak masak with their plastic dinosaurs. I had only come for some evening entertainment.  I wanted to see how persons audacious enough to say they were capable of “caring for the community” would actually acquit themselves in front of a purportedly curious, critical and engaged audience.

In all honesty, I was rather disappointed and melancholy at the kind of show I watched.

This isn’t a political commentary, in part because to call the MC ‘political’ in the way you would call the Singaporean state ‘political’ would be to overestimate the MC by several magnitudes. This is simply a reflection cum commentary because USP Life isn’t functioning as it used to anymore. Moreover, I thought giving a Useless Opinion would give you something to do while you’re pretending to listen in lecture. In other words, this is a bittersweet (perhaps more bitter than sweet) entry on the cultural habitus (hey, clumsily-employed jargon) of the USP in a particular historical moment. Oh, and this isn’t an Open Letter.

First though, an appeal to ethos. At the end of it all, you may think: “you bitch so much, go and run for MC la I don’t see you doing anything”. Well, that is true, but every community needs its critics and commentators too. I speak also from a position of relative experience, having been the Ursaia House Captain in AY2013/4, then subsequently a Writing Assistant, a Faculty Coordinator in the UMP, and a USS mentor at various times in the three+ years I have been here. I have seen the community shift and change in a small snapshot of a few semesters; I have done a bit.

And so as a senior with a rudimentary institutional memory I do feel entitled to give a Useless Opinion. While Useless Vocal Opinions are no longer in vogue now in the USP, i do feel that it’s never good to be too fashionable. I won’t make pretences at being objective, however. As I just learnt in my inaugural Historiography and Historical Method class a few hours ago virtually all interpretations of history are inevitably suffused with subjectivity from the start. So there…

“The More things Change, the More they Stay the Same”

In Year 3, I attended the Q&A with a heady cynicism. I was there to give the candidates a hard time, because I thought this was necessary to anyone running for any political office. Inconsistencies need to be checked, you don’t want your supposed student representative to just be a CV-whore; you want him to be an articulate, coherent and dependable CV-whore.[1] In Year 3 I came to the Q&A disbelieving everything the candidates had written. I remember being rather put off by some smoky replies, and some well-intentioned but ultimately clumsy rhetorical ethos appeals by several hopeful freshmen running for Vice-President and FOP director positions (“i won this leadership thing and attended that leadership cum workshop cum seminar cum conference cum”). This amounted to more or less my only contribution to the “political” life of the MC – I came, l listened, I watched, I had a moderately good laugh, and then I voted.

This year was different, ironically because it was so similar. I have been through at least three MC elections now, if I count rightly. Every year you see the same circus – candidates who put up some very verbose and meandering idea of what they want to do with MC. (Often, this tells you more that they don’t actually know what they want to do then what they actually want to do…) Follow up with some awkward attempt at campaign slogans which everyone will have snicker about. And then the climax is the Q&A, where seniors rub their hands with glee, ready to ask some difficult questions, and then go away feeling/sounding weary and resigned. This year it was my turn to finally understand why all my forebears had appeared that way – because the more things change, the more things stay the same.

“Deja Vu”

“This feels like déjà vu” Joey whispered to me loudly. And so it was.

You have your base ingredient, called the I Want To Build a More Inclusive USP. The starter pack additionally includes helping words like Opportunity, Integrated, Institutional Changes, Spaces. Also the perennial non-promise of Senior Integration (Vertical Integration also can la, if you have a jargon fetish), although this year there was a mild mutation, described as Alumni Integration by “empower(ing) Houses”, giving them a “formal” (another helping word) role to help them in engaging seniors. How slipping a sentence or two into the House Charter is going to make me want to come back and join juniors I barely know nor care for is at this point still beyond me, however. Institutional changes in frameworks look good on paper, but convincing people to come for your events is quite a different can of worms.

And as usual, a Rag question will make an appearance too, usually by seniors who have been there and done that. Almost like clockwork, the FOP Director-hopeful(s) will pretend like they heard something, before launching into how fantastic experiences at Rag justify the event. Thus, Because I Enjoyed Myself in Rag, We Shall Have Rag Again. I have ultimately concluded that every FOP Director is by universal default a Rag loyalist – no one else is otherwise crazy enough to sign up to run the whole project. It perhaps takes a personality who can willingly burn their whole summer learning dances and building displays from “recycled” materials to commit to an endeavour of such mind-boggling scale and ambition.

You also have the mad freshman running for a president role, or the HonGenSec role, or the HonFinSec role, with their lofty ideas and their desperate justifications for why you should vote for them. This, despite them being effectively three-week old babes into the USP Community. There will be an impressive list of credentials dragged out, sometimes going all the way back to the time they were class monitors in Primary Three. I marvel at these foolish, brave freshmen who would dare to put themselves out like that, and jump into such a deep puddle without having any idea what is in store. Wi-fi in every room is cool; I just wonder why people couldn’t simply get their own routers. There are many other things you could problematise. But it’s always amusing watching what the freshmen will dream up, and then watching seniors gently (or not so gently) pointing out a simple solution to their ideas.

History doesn’t repeat itself. But patterns emerge after a while. People promising the same things. Candidates calling for continuity but being astonishingly vague about what they actually want to continue. Candidates calling for change while displaying a lack of awareness of particular initiatives which already exist. The shocking lack of eclairs at such well-attended events. People calling for eclairs…

As someone who has witnessed three cycles of MC elections, I think I am just weary of hearing the same rhetoric pretending that it is fresh, ground-breaking or community-bettering. The USP community is always changing, and as a freshman-nominee astutely observed yesterday, it is a place of multiple identities. Everything keeps changing. But I cannot help but wish that there was a sense of heritage and memory in all these elevator pitches. It would certainly help candidates and the community gain a clearer sense of what has come before, and where we can embark from here. Perhaps it was a particular mental mood I was in, but last night’s Q&A struck me as a messy clutter of ideas which could have been better tempered if the candidates had spoken to more seniors, and leveraged on their perspectives and experiences a little more. I speak as a biased, lonely senior, of course.

USP Life?

The USP Community is changing (when has it not been?).

But we are entering a period of more measured, well-balanced responses (if you are charitable) and/or more corporate, pragmatic, clinical agendas (if you’re cynical). “USP Life!” has grown to become more like “USPLife.” or “USPLife…”

We all happily admit that a good show is what we want to watch; sadly there are fewer and fewer who would venture an opinion in the open space of the Facebook group. No actors for the Popcorn Show. Everyone complains about the preposterous essay-length, ad hominem replies that was once used to prowl the USP Life! page, but it was an excellent opportunity to hone one’s critical thinking faculties. And contrary to appearances, it was a rather safe space to practice articulating an opinion. These days, and last night, we have started to measure our intellectual culture by the Conferences we organise (shiny slick posters! Big names! Very corporate!) rather than the views we dare to share.

Well and good that we have tangible KPIs to measure our growth now. I certainly welcome the ferment of initiatives and movements which have sprung up. But it still strikes me as disquieting how quiet our public, community platforms have become (puzzlingly, we are still told we have insufficient online platforms) in contrast.

Trivial, online spats: from the very lint in washing machines, the Silencing of the Female Voice through the taking of an unclaimed girl’s shirt at the drying yard, Red Lights, Pan-opticons via security cameras – all these things once made USP Life! the hot core of college gossip and bitching. Today, USP Life is more a place/space to announce your Initiatives (preferably Ground-up, you don’t want no filthy Formalised Structures), a Lost and Found page, and a Free Food page. I am rather melancholy about this. As I’ve mentioned, I love watching good shows.

All this is not to say change is bad, so much as it is uncertain. All this is not to shit on the courageous nominees who dare to give of themselves and their time. They risk public scrutiny and ridicule, spurred by personal notions of service, glory, leadership, pride and maybe eclairs. It’s not easy to have one’s views and opinions dissected like that. It can be extremely unnerving. And we haven’t even gotten beyond to the real work of serving in the MC.

But courage is not substance. And I loathe how we have sometimes become a Carebear community, overflowing in gratitude but silent on problematic representations and issues within our own USP community.  From an overwhelmingly vocal and insulting intellectual milieu (…for a given value of “intellectual”), I wonder if the pendulum has swung to the other end: to a community too afraid, too defensive, too apathetic to speak up.

USP Lives

I came into USP at a time when the House system, along with Cinnamon College, was only in its third/fourth year. Hailing from the freshie OG of Lindon, I was the third House captain of Ursaia. Last night one of the nominees remarked that it was high time that the Houses shifted their focus and priorities. These systems are established enough to stand on their own now, was his perspective. And to think that there was a time when the House System came under existential threat, prompting a flurry of open letters.

The Lumineers sing in Stubborn Love that:

“The opposite of love is indifference”

I am your average bitter, jaded, cynical senior. I sourly look on at happy, idealistic freshmen still in their Let’s Watch Movies and Eat Suppers phase. But for all my acidity, this melancholy at the changes I have witnessed make me realise this is still my community. I’m not indifferent yet. It is a place and a people that has watched me grow and change meteorically, in the short space of a few (seven now) semesters.

It depresses me how certain things are gone, or are going.  But last night I had a quick, unexpected chat in the corridor with my juniors. Later a random comment from a graduated USP senior on Facebook mushroomed into an enthusiastic two-hour long nerd-chat.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And maybe the USP identity, community and culture will always be a subjective one – one which comes down to the connections and choices we choose to make, unmake, and maintain here. All things will change.  But maybe it’s the USP life I have crafted for myself that will ultimately matter in the end.

Dedicated to all annoying seniors, peers and weirdoes that have made my USP Story so messed up, weird, satisfying, and difficult. And everyone who liked the cynical shit i keep posting on my Wall; you all are the reason I thought of posting this inane surprise reflection that doesn’t say anything.

[1] And I do make a point to use the ‘him’ pronoun also because the lamentable fact of the matter is that very few ladies in the USC actually sign up for a position in the MC – this played out last night as well, with only the FOP Director-nominees being the only female faces (oh gosh, did I just assume their genders) in the whole slate of MC hopefuls.



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