By Faith Ho (22A01A), Mei Feifei (22A13A), and Sophie Goh (22S07B)
Dear RI Students’ Council,
To be honest, your elections are a little strange.
Every April, Rafflesians’ Instagram feeds are suddenly flooded with red/green/blue/yellow/purple-themed accounts masquerading under tags—some combination of letters and numbers indecipherable to any non-Rafflesian. We start getting bombarded with buzzwords like “servant leadership”, “voice” and “change”, colourful canteen boards (which really deserve more attention), and the unspoken cry of VOTE ME. Online challenges and speeches blow past like a whirlwind, and before we know it, we’re about to witness the investiture of RI’s 41st Students’ Council.
So we come to the question: how effective exactly is Council campaigning?
From a survey we conducted, it seems like the campaign did not have a strong impact on students’ voting decision as a whole, and most students felt that it was rather ineffective.
This is something Councillors themselves are all too aware of. A Y6 Councillor remarked that “Council campaigns are effective only to the extent it sways the uncertain JAE voters”. These students may not know a lot of their fellow batchmates, so the campaigns would be more useful in deciding who to vote for.
Popularity contest or perfect competition?
A common criticism of Students’ Council elections is that it’s “just a popularity contest”. To gauge how true this is, we surveyed the student population, finding that indeed, most students voted for their friends and acquaintances.
On the other hand, a significant number of students (62.5%) mentioned that they take into account factors such as the candidates’ charisma or that undefinable “vibe” when deciding on their vote.
And are popularity contests necessarily bad? Another Y6 Councillor disagrees: “Popularity is an integral part of the [democratic process]. If you want the trust of your peers, it is your duty to put yourself out there, sell your ideas (or personality), and gain said trust, through which popularity and support are gained.”
However, he also admitted that “not all forms of popularity make someone a suitable candidate for Council” and ultimately, it really depends on the electorate to select and elect the right people to the right position.
Certainly, many students do not share this confidence in the voting process: one student commented that “many good candidates were knocked out for no reason, and […] popular but incompetent people were elected”.
Another lamented that “Campaigning wasn’t helpful in the sense that a candidate’s audience is really limited to their connections. If they don’t have many connections, even if their ideas are stellar, nobody really notices them that much.”
One of the biggest drawbacks of such a situation is that it is unfair to JAE students who have less “clout” or connections compared to RP students. A recently elected JAE Students’ Council candidate acknowledged that it was hard for her to join in conversations between RP students about Secondary life without “killing the vibe” with her persistent questions—“Trying to convince the students to vote for us was not even the issue, alerting them of our presence was challenging enough”.
Putting the ‘see’ in ‘Candidate’
Perhaps the bigger issue, then, is the visibility (or lack thereof) of the Students’ Council nominees—all 90 of them.
Before masks and safe distancing measures were a thing, campaigning was a much more exciting process. Candidates could choose to conduct rallies or speeches to publicise their campaigns, or make rounds in the canteen in the morning to canvass votes. Some of the teams even produced their own merchandise, which they distributed to their peers to make themselves more memorable.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, this year’s elections were a much more subdued affair compared to pre-pandemic years. The nominees could only rely on Instagram, their canteen displays and the in-real-life (IRL) challenge to make an impression on voters.
However, as our survey results show, the speech and canteen displays were not the most effective in drawing attention to the candidates’ campaigns. In the words of a survey respondent, “everyone only notic[ed] their own friend groups.”
This sentiment was echoed by a Y5 Councillor, who agreed that “there wasn’t a lot of information… about [the candidates’] initiatives, so it was very difficult to catch students’ attention.” She suggested that this may be improved upon by doing more outreach and publicising in terms of the initiatives that the candidates do.
Some other solutions that our respondents proposed were to upload campaign content onto IVY “instead of leaving it to Instagram and serendipity” (stop the othering of non-Instagram users!), increase physical interaction between candidates and students where possible, and to place the IRL challenges in more obvious locations.
Another concern was that the short elections timeframe may have compromised on the effectiveness of the elections in introducing the candidates. One student voter commented “[The campaign] ended just when I thought it was really starting.” Many students also concurred that the elections were simply too short for them to get to know the candidates better—which goes against the very purpose of the elections.
A Y6 Councillor remarked that the short election process is unavoidable given the many phases of elections. Yet when the students are faced with 90-odd candidates to pick from (many of whom are new and unfamiliar faces), and lack sufficient time to develop a better understanding of their leadership capabilities, how can the elections process possibly be effective in allowing the electoral body to choose the right candidates in the first place?
Challenges that challenge
On the topic of IRL challenges, we know you’re probably thinking “Wait… this was a thing?” (We only realised this existed when researching for this article). Getting a bunch of students to design a distancing regime for other students in places students don’t usually go to (e.g. Innovation Centre) is rather bizarre, but perhaps it was truly effective in measuring the calibre of the candidates whilst also promoting a five-feet-apart lifestyle.
As for the online challenges, although several students surveyed found that they “reflect[ed] some of the values the Councillors uphold” and helped them to “discern who put in effort”, some of us found the candidates’ campaigns as homogenous as a sodium chloride solution. Other challenges like “what piece of furniture would you be?” also seemed to have little relation to a candidate’s competence and commitment to Council—survey respondents reflected an appetite for challenges that would truly test the candidates’ leadership abilities.
“The election process should have more activities testing the skill set and mentality of these candidates in order for them to prove to us that they are worth getting elected.”
One student highlighted the need for an explanation of Council’s role in school: “It would’ve been great if someone explained to us exactly how council affects our lives in the future before campaigning even started—you can even have the candidates themselves answer for why council is important to school life in one of the daily IG challenges.” Indeed, how could we vote for someone to be our voice when we’ve barely heard that voice speak?
Alexa, play Panic! At 1 Raffles Institution Lane
When casually asked what a ‘major bruh moment’ she faced during the elections process was, one candidate quipped, “Impossible deadlines we have to magically meet.”
What were these magical deadlines that separated an ordinary muggle from a True Councillor, then? For one, the candidates had to finish their proposals on a Monday, and wait for them to be vetted that night. Once the required amendments had been made and their ideas given the green light, the campaign teams had just a 24-hour-period to prepare all their deliverables—from finalizing their scripts and writing the storyboard to filming their team videos—to be presented to the school on Wednesday morning.
Indeed, many agreed that the impossibly tight deadlines were a major factor that contributed to the high levels of stress and anxiety during campaigning season. However, as a Y6 Councillor puts it, “If you cannot put out quality material in a short time duration, then I think you may not be the type of Councillor the school requires.”
Yet, how much of this was worth having to survive with four miserable hours of sleep each day (or even over two days, for some)?
A good number of candidates we interviewed agreed it had a large impact on their mental health: “On a good day 2 out of 4, but when proposals are being vetted it’s a solid 1”.
Tough regulations, lack of standardization in assessing ideas, and strict proposal vetting were also some aspects of the horror stories candidates told us of the election process.
One candidate shared that a campaign team had forgotten to include an innocuous “marker” on their materials list, and had to take down their canteen boards and re-type, print and paste the new content over, which cost them a grand total of four hours.
Another lamented that an idea generated by her group was rejected in their proposal, yet the exact same idea was given the green-light for two other campaign teams.
The imposition of stringent requirements during campaigning may be a reflection of the high standards they will be held to as a Councillor, serving as a preliminary taster of the kind of work ethic expected in Students’ Council. But at the same time, many requirements seem unnecessary, creating even more stress on top of the already-hectic campaigning process. Perhaps, then, there should be a reconsideration of these stringent requirements.
Not all doom and gloom
Notwithstanding its flaws, the election process still had its positive aspects for both the candidates and students alike. Many appreciated the rigour of the campaign in representing the future workload and council experience.
Candidates also enjoyed the process of campaigning in teams. One candidate expressed that it allowed them to leverage on each other’s strengths, and also made the preparation much more manageable.
This helped to create treasured memories and forge friendships between team members (once again, Friendship is Magic!). Tham Yun Xin (22S06D) from MR03 commented, “My team worked together very well and eventually became very close friends! Campaigning did leave me with many new friendships and memories.”
Additionally, some students expressed their appreciation for the hard work and effort put in by the candidates and found some initiatives proposed “fresh and innovative.” One student commented, “I think it was a rather interesting experience to find out what [the candidates] are thinking about [for the school], and it was also really nice to see so many students willing to serve the school.”
“A democratic process, if properly exercised, confers legitimacy to a group of people [..] being granted the power to do things like directly shape school discourse, spend taxpayer dollars for initiatives, and are also expected to lead the student body forward. In effect, the student body is choosing its stewards.”
We cannot deny that past and current batches of Student Councillors have played a significant role in keeping school events going and shaping our school culture.
As such, we sincerely believe in the power of everyone’s vote in electing a capable Students’ Council of the highest calibre. In order to strengthen the elections, we need to fill in the gaps to ensure both candidates and voters have greater trust in the process.
3/2400 of The Student Population™