“I heard X’s policies are really good, but I have to vote for Y because she’s my friend!” That transpired from a conversation I had this time last year. Was I surprised? Only initially.
“MUSA, it’s just a popularity contest!” is not an uncommon sentiment echoed amongst the student population. It shouldn’t be, but when it comes to driving votes and securing a seat in council, popularity contest seems a notorious pathway. But I don’t know, man. Being popular can equate to having more gas in your engine, but does that give you the ability to drive?
So why is it a popularity contest? How did it come to be?
The first challenge any aspiring candidate would face is the blasé attitude of the general student body. While there’s no denial that goals and objectives are well-intentioned, policies drafted out become like new arrivals in the library—fresh content, but no one’s really too bothered to make sense of them.
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology/marketing unit knows that appealing to an demographic is through peripheral route processing. So instead of having the need to hardsell plans and goals, it’s easy for participants to turn to more light-hearted, surface-level approaches to appeal to peers alike. Rather than going out of one’s way to introduce and explain to strangers whose interests aren’t in line, the alternative approach could very well be letting your friends who are familiar with your work ethics and overall attitude become your advocates instead. This is when the ‘popularity contest’ perception comes in.
So like, MUSA ironically rhymes with DRAMA. Not without good reason, too.
Minus the tabloids, the debates become a little bit of a fanfare for various stakeholders. There’s the MUSA members who are there to witness their potential successors hash it out diplomatically, supporters who help gas up their friends on stage, a sprinkle of interested students, and then those who are lining up for their food truck orders.
As the debate sets itself as a stage, certain candidates stand at a disadvantage from an execution point of perspective. Again, peripheral route processing—there lacks serious, instant gratification from paying full attention to the substance of the speeches. “Oh, I don’t like her voice. She sounds too pointed” or “He’s got an accent” become easy justifications to dismiss, regardless of the content being delivered. Drawing tangents from ‘real world’ politics, the unfortunate reality for most of us is that we could very well pick flair over substance—not that those two can’t coexist, of course.
Where substance is concerned, policy speeches and plans are laid out like landmines for the audience. Regardless of positions, some are quick to point out discrepancies and inaccuracies in ways that are potentially counterproductive: the I-know-more-so-I-will-let-you-know-how-little-you-know-mindset. Defensiveness mixed with nervousness become a really nasty concoction for those who are put on the spot, even if they know the answers. I think it’s easy for us to disregard the fact that we’re all stakeholders in student welfare who will benefit if candidates do better, when we get caught up with focusing on what candidates don’t know, rather than telling them the know-hows.
The expectation vs the reality
Expecting MUSA members to learn on the job quickly and efficiently is fair, expecting them to be fully-realized experts from the get go is not.
Then there’s the perception of council people having all bark, no bite. From an anecdotal perspective, many fall prey into not understanding their portfolios well enough. I say this loosely, as this goes beyond written constitutions. Resources, albeit generous, have limitations. Time, talent, inter- and intradepartmental chemistry will come in play and can only be foreseen once they are elected.
Well-curated policies don’t stem from how idealistic they resemble, but how well they work around the limitations. Sprinkling buzzwords like TRANSPARENCY and STUDENT-FOCUSED do not automatically make them any better. (I can say this because my department is part of this self-induced narrative).
Well-meaning policymakers focus on long-term benefits. A MUSA term consists of 24 academic weeks, and then some. If you ever have the time to browse through old MSC minutes, you’d realize the eerily uncanny resemblance between old and current councils. The Wi-Fi was never good enough, parking spaces incessantly insufficient, campus food memorably appalling. Only to realize the limitations present once they were elected, it’s easy to develop a sense of dissonance between “Oh wait, I promised that in my policies” and “Oh wait, that’s really out of my capabilities.” Out of naivety, new council members can easily come into office only to realize local jurisdictions, the grey area of Monash/Jeffrey Cheah owned properties, and everyone’s occasional punching bag—senior management.
Context, value, and priorities
Honestly, RM90k for an event sounded like an astronomical figure given there was no context. 90k can be someone’s entire tuition fee, or a Birkin bag. 1.35 million is a ridiculously large sum of money until you look at the microscopic aspects of how it’s spent. It could still be large, but now there’s context and value. Placing and perceived value comes next: some people find value in an elaborate catering, as long as students get to enjoy, while some find more fulfilment through updated facilities. This is then dependent on personal priorities.
Which comes down to the real question: Should you care about MUSA?
If you’re able to get yourself through university interacting minimally with gains/pains from student-influenced welfare decisions, then no.
But then again we’ve also been forced to pay the amenities fee of RM100 which then becomes a part of MUSA’s RM1.35 million. So that makes you an equal stakeholder, just like the rest of us. So kind of, maybe, yes?
YB Lim Yi Wei recommends treating politics like a common good. It’s not just the people executing the policies in their commonly-criticized, air conditioned cubbies, and beanbags. If you care enough, you should too!
While abstinence should not only be praised for its efficacy in birth control, the lack of action when you choose to abstain is a potentially powerful form of action, too. Other than the 50% voting requirement, your idleness could potentially lead towards electing someone who’s relatively less capable into council.
I know this piece is a little late, and the vicious cycle itself is a little f—ked, but you and I just have to do better. If you were as equally excited about the government swap, what’s the worst that could happen if you got yourself involved in a varsity level?
Text by LingJie Tuang
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