Tuesday, 4 January 2011

When school and grassroots work do not mix

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.

1 comment:

fuzzoo said...

And now they are offering scholarships to lure students into grassroots work. This is just so wrong.

Jan 26, 2011
Scholarship to draw youth to grassroots work
By Cai Haoxiang

A SCHOLARSHIP for post-secondary students living in Tampines West was launched on Tuesday to encourage them to take part in grassroots activities.

They will be given between $700 and $2,000 a year, with those doing degree courses receiving up to $2,000, those in junior colleges and polytechnics up to $1,000, and Institute of Technical Education students up to $700.

Even those attending private schools registered with the Council for Private Education are eligible.

But the award is open only to full-time students who are Singaporeans, said Mr Masagos Zulkifli, the ward's MP.

Mr Masagos, who is Minister of State for Education and Home Affairs, made the announcement when briefing reporters on Tuesday on the work done by his grassroots organisations ahead of a visit to his ward next month by Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew.

Explaining its aim, Mr Masagos said: 'We want to extend financial help to those who are beyond the $2,000 household income limit for bursaries, inculcate an awareness of community work and, hopefully, create a chance to rejuvenate our grassroots membership.'