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Vivian Balakrishnan reminisces about his "Presidential" days

22 August 2012

(From left) Assoc Prof Tan Teck Koon (Dean, Office of Students Affairs), Yu Qian, Dr Balakrishnan and NUSPA President Soh Yi Da engaging the audience during the dialogue session

Amid the election season's hype of student societies and clubs at the university, the Union Forum 2012 on 17 August generated substantial buzz and interest. Organised by the NUS Students' Union (NUSSU) and NUS Students' Political Association (NUSPA), the talk by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and Water Resources focused on "The role of the students' union today".

Close to 100 past and present student leaders from NUS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design convened at NUS to attend the event.

The forum kicked off with NUSSU President Ang Yu Qian delivering the State of the Students' Union Address where he presented a brief history of NUSSU and some of the highlights during his term of office.

In his keynote address, Dr Balakrishnan, who served as the President of the 2nd and 3rd NUSSU Council as well as Chairman of the 4th NUSSU Council, reminisced fondly about the good old days when he was an undergraduate. He encouraged student leaders to play a part in larger societal issues and engage in the national conversation; at the same time, he cautioned against the Union partaking in partisan political involvement.

Beyond politics, Dr Balakrishnan also shared a personal anecdote. He declared that the best thing about his involvement in NUSSU was meeting his wife when they were both members of the Political Association.

A lively dialogue session ensued as participants sought the Minister's advice on different issues and challenges.

"Most of the challenging decisions I have made involved people. Sometimes you have to make tough choices ... There are times where you have to make painful decisions involving people in order to do the right thing," said Dr Balakrishnan as he recalled the difficulties faced as a student leader.

In response to NUSSU Deputy Welfare Secretary Mabel Koh's question on distinguishing and striking a balance between students' needs and wants, he said: "As a leader, your key duty, apart from doing the right thing, is to address people's needs, and to understand what those needs are in the long term and to generate long-term solutions. In a democracy, there is always a tendency to pander to the short-term to get votes. ... A leader must address the long-term needs and convince people that it is the correct policy."

When asked about the benefits of being a student leader, Dr Balakrishnan had this simple message: "Joining the union is not a free pass to get a job. Quite honestly, there are no tangible benefits of being a student leader. However, the intangible areas of experience, friendships, opportunities and personal fulfilment are much more rewarding. Do it, enjoy it, learn and make friends."

By Soh Yi Da, NUS Students' Political Association President (Year 3, Department of Political Science)