UPDATE: Apropos of nothing, this article by the current president of BLYC was recently published in the PAP's magazine.
I've been on leave the past few weeks, and TODAY happened to ask if I wanted to start writing for them again. Seemed like a good idea to me. This was my bugbear at the time, so here it is.
When school and grassroots work do not mix
by Siew Kum Hong
05:55 AM Jan 04, 2011
Those familiar with Singapore's political history will remember the role played by student activists in the '50s and early '60s. But that ended when schools were depoliticised after independence.
For better or worse, schools have been neutral and independent institutions of learning for the past few decades. So I was surprised to read a Dec 24 story in The Straits Times, about a co-curricular activity (CCA) in Raffles Institution (Junior College) called the Boon Lay Youth Club (BLYC).
BLYC was set up by five students, including the son of Madam Ho Geok Choo, who is the Member of Parliament in the Boon Lay ward of West Coast GRC.
The BLYC describes itself as the "first youth club in a grassroots setting", and its activities have included volunteering at meet-the-people-sessions, among other things..
I actually see student activism, in and of itself, as a good thing, and a necessary foundation for an active and concerned citizenry.
But partisan activities that favour a specific political party or politician should not be officially sanctioned and endorsed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) or schools.
And that is where I think MOE and RI(JC) got it wrong with BLYC.
I believe most Singaporeans would agree with me that it is inappropriate and undesirable, if not harmful, for schools to be used as vehicles for partisan political activities.
Campaigning for political parties and politicians is clearly improper in schools and workplaces. By extension, it is inappropriate for MOE and schools to officially sanction and endorse activities that directly or indirectly support any specific political party or politician.
After all, we expect our schools to be impartial and independent. Mixing politics and education like this is dangerous.
It risks compromising the professionalism of our schools and devaluing what is taught.
The crux here is that MOE and schools must remain impartial and clearly stand above the political fray.
Lawyers always say that the law not only has to be fair, it also has to be seen as being fair. Similarly, the educational system must stay scrupulously clear of politics and avoid favouring any political party. And it must be seen to be doing so.
The existence of BLYC and its official recognition as a CCA, may arguably be acceptable, if it is a purely student-driven initiative and if it does not even engage in political activities in the first place. But is this the case?
Firstly, BLYC was initially not officially recognised. As a result, the founders had difficulty recruiting volunteers.
According to The Straits Times' report, it was only after Madam Ho raised the matter with then-Senior Minister of State for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam that the club was made an official CCA.
This might suggest that, BLYC may not have survived without MOE's and RI(JC)'s official support and sanction.
Secondly, some may have asserted that BLYC engages only in grassroots activities and not politics. But in Singapore, that is an illusory distinction.
The People's Association is widely seen as being aligned and intertwined with the People's Action Party (PAP).
Tellingly also, The Straits Times decided to run the story on BLYC as a sidebar to an article on the electoral situation in West Coast GRC.
A past president of BLYC was quoted as saying: "Our intentions are not to get involved in politics, our intentions are to serve". But the students' intentions are beside the point.
After all, if the students truly only want to serve, they are always free to volunteer directly, without needing an official CCA. The point is that MOE's and RI(JC)'s official sanctioning and support of this sort of activity undermines the impartiality of our education system.
The only way in which grassroots activism can legitimately be an official CCA, is if it is irreproachably non-partisan.
Otherwise, having an official CCA like BLYC will only raise doubts about the integrity and impartiality of our schools.
The writer is a corporate counsel and a former Nominated Member of Parliament.