Opinion: Despite their problems, student unions are necessary

Eliz Wang
  • A viral video of a hazing ritual in Singapore and criticism from Chinese University have some questioning the importance of student unions
  • The organisation is important for creating a sense of community
Eliz Wang |

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The Chinese University of Hong Kong recently withdrew recognition of its student union, accusing it of exploiting the campus during the 2019 protests.

In Singapore, a viral video of a hazing ritual sparked outrage as it showed two male students standing naked in a shower cubicle as other male students urinated on them. Netizens quickly pointed out the grossly immature and abusive nature of this practice.

All of the men in the video are current students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP), a post-secondary institution in Singapore, and a majority of the video’s participants hailed from the NP Students’ Union (NPSU).

In addition to criticising the hazing, many have also questioned the existence of the student union that enabled this behaviour. In response, NP has suspended all student union activities, and a public petition to disband NPSU has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

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However, this debate over the role of student unions isn’t limited to Singapore, as Hong Kong student unions have also faced recent criticism, albeit for different reasons.

In February, Chinese University (CUHK) withdrew recognition of its student union, accusing them of having “exploited the campus” for “political propaganda” during the 2019 protests.

Although the situations facing the schools in Singapore and Hong Kong are quite different, both confront the same question of whether student unions are necessary parts of academic institutions.

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A student union is meant to be a voice for the current student body. Most universities have them, and some secondary schools also have equivalent organisations, sometimes called student councils or associations.

I was part of a student union at my secondary school, and know what it’s like to play a role in something bigger than myself. As part of my school’s Humanities Council, my friends and I mentored a group of Year One students in producing a series of short documentaries about Southeast Asian culture for our 2020 Humanities Week.

The positive response was overwhelming, but I felt even greater joy from working with my fellow students to create art that mattered to our community.

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Student unions are crucial in elevating student voices in the affairs of their institutions, and even in the affairs of the city.

For this key reason, student unions should not be abolished. Even in Singapore’s case at NPSU, there should be checks and balances to ensure that the power of student unions are not abused through activities such as dangerous hazing rituals.

But ultimately, the benefits of granting student voices a platform can be balanced with making sure that student unions everywhere are safe for all.

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