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Musings

Putting The Flag Back In Rag And Flag? A Conversation With Nussu

“[National University of Singapore Students’ Union (Nussu)] Rag and Flag is an annual charity project that is part of the university’s Orientation Programme. The first part of the project – Flag, will see undergraduates from the university asking for donations all around the island for various beneficiaries. In return, the school puts up a spectacular show – Rag [Receiving and Giving], to thank the kind generosity exemplified by the donors.”

Two primary propositions are putatively posited for Rag: first, that the competitive float-building and the associated performances provide a unique platform for freshmen and students to bond, socialise; second, that there are historical elements of tradition which – I presume – are worth preserving. The intent of Flag is more straightforward, in terms of raising money for charities as a way of giving back to the community. Criticisms have been articulated against this component of the freshmen orientation programme; nevertheless, given its track record, the significant amount of money raised and support from the administration, Rag and Flag will continue to feature prominently in the coming years.

I had initially penned a commentary, which I forwarded to Nussu along with a set of questions. However, I felt the email correspondence yielded some interesting food for thought, and hence am reproducing the conversations I had with Nussu’s President, Mr. Ang Yu Qian (at this point, I would like to express my appreciation to Mr. Ang for taking the time and effort to respond). This is rather lengthy, but I am hoping this would answer queries individuals might have, as well as throw up further feedback, proposals or recommendations. My questions and follow-ups are in bold.

* * *

Engagement with Flag Beneficiaries | Partnerships with VWOs / NGOs | Rag Financial Transparency | Curbing Rag Transgressions | University Feedback on Rag and Flag

* * *

How are the beneficiaries for Flag decided? Would it be constructive for the participating bodies to be informed by Nussu about these selected VWOs beforehand, so that relevant pre-Flag activities can be organised for the respective Flag participants?

The beneficiaries are not decided directly by Nussu. This year, we are partnering the Community Chest and the list of beneficiaries is provided by them (we partnered the President’s Challenge last year) according to their statuses / needs and after strict audits. The participating bodies (faculties and halls) are provided with the list of beneficiaries by Nussu since February / March (if I remember correctly) for relevant pre-flag activities.

While the list of beneficiaries has been provided to the participating bodies, how is this information communicated to the general populace (in NUS and beyond)? The official website makes no mention of it, even though it features as one-half of Rag and Flag.

The list of beneficiaries will be printed on every tin can, in our media releases et cetera as well as some other collaterals. The information on the website is meant to be concise (the page is meant for freshmen to find information concerning them, not meant for the public in that sense actually) and not many, apart from yourself, has mentioned that the beneficiary list should be on that page. I’ll inform the publicity team to take note, especially if more students come forward with similar feedback. It should not be a major issue to include this.

“Nussu encourages the PBs to engage the beneficiaries and to possibly (and appropriately) involve them in Rag and Flag as well.”

Has Nussu considered the plausibility of having participating bodies adopt particular VWOs or NGOs, to take them on as partners through the Rag and Flag phase? The floats could then serve as vehicles for the generation of awareness, and interactions between bodies and the VWOs or NGOs can be enhanced.

This has already been in place since last year, with each participating body (PB) “adopting” a particular beneficiary. Nussu encourages the PBs to engage the beneficiaries and to possibly (and appropriately) involve them in Rag and Flag as well. This will enable participants to better understand the meaning behind the event. The PBs can either “adopt” a beneficiary from the list provided by Community Chest or if they already have VWOs / NGOs that they have been constantly working with for Community Involvement Projects (that may not be in the list), they can submit to Nussu for approval. We provide bonus points for beneficiary engagement as well. However, we are mindful in managing such interactions because not all beneficiaries are suitable to be “engaged” and should be handled sensitively. A couple of beneficiaries will be joining us / performing at Rag Day this year as well.

I think it’s a good point – which you have established – that not all beneficiaries would be comfortable with a deeper level of involvement in the float-making process; however, have there been instances when floats were constructed for the purpose of raising awareness for a particular VWO or NGO? Furthermore, if such a recommendation has been in place since last year, what are the faculties or halls which have chosen to do so, and how have these pre-Flag activities been subsequently carried out?

I hope you understand that your suggestion of floats being constructed for the sole purpose of raising awareness for a particular VWO / NGO is purely an idea by you (and a somewhat subjective one). Please do not get me wrong, I think it’s not a bad idea, but in actual fact it is not entirely feasible. Not all VWOs / NGOs want to be featured and like I’ve mentioned, we should approach the beneficiaries with sensitivity, catering to their needs. The beneficiaries are rather diverse, ranging from children’s / old folks’ home to the disabled – some really just need the monetary support.

Personally (my own sentiments, not representing Nussu), I am not comfortable with making Rag and Flag into an event like charity shows, where beneficiaries are showcased in a certain manner. I do not think it’s a very nice way to do it / portray them. Of course, like I mentioned, Rag and Flag has other objectives as well. Having a few PBs with floats raising awareness for a particular VWO / NGO while the others representing their faculty spirit isn’t cohesive as well. I will need some time to check, but more than 50% of the PBs have engaged their beneficiaries in one way or another.

Is there a rationale for the secrecy over individual float expenditure? Could greater levels of financial transparency assuage public doubt and scepticism when it comes to cost-benefit analyses?

“Having a few PBs with floats raising awareness for a particular VWO / NGO while the others representing their faculty spirit isn’t cohesive as well.”

The shroud of secrecy is somewhat of a myth, in my personal opinion. Nussu’s finances are transparent as we need to be accountable to our stakeholders and electorates (all undergraduates of NUS). Our income / expenditure can be found at the annual AGM reports, with copies available to all NUS students. Our Council meetings are always open to all students as well. Of course, it does not include the individual float expenditures. However, with regard to that, we have cost caps in place to ensure that the PBs spend reasonable amount on their floats. Some PBs are more forthcoming with the amount they spent but some are less willing to share it with the public. Nevertheless, we are monitoring and the cost of each float have to fall under the cap stipulated by NUSSU.

Your idea of a “cost-benefit analysis” seems to suggest that you perceive Rag and Flag as a zero-sum game (i.e. the donations for Flag must be worth the effort / more than the total expenditure for Rag et cetera). In actual fact, that is not the case because while Rag and Flag are intrinsically linked, Rag Day serves many objectives and it is not a pure charity event. The objectives include: a. thanking the public for their donations; b. a rite of passage for all freshmen; c. a uniquely NUS event, for students to express their creativity through a unique platform that cannot be found elsewhere; and d. an occasion that unites the NUS student community in the spirit of giving back to society. These are not mutually exclusive and it is tough, but nonetheless necessary to balance between these objectives / meanings.

This is the part that got me a little befuddled: Nussu is financially transparent, but chooses not to release the figures for float construction. If Rag is intended to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly, rendering the figures public could serve as a deterrent to encourage bodies to stick to the caps. The proposition you are positing is that students and Singaporeans should have faith in Nussu’s ability to enforce the spending caps; yet, later on, you concede that transgressions are inevitable because bodies would always seek loopholes to exploit. How do you reconcile these notions? Moreover, what actually happens if a participating body does make gross over-expendiures (have there been precedents)?

In actual fact, not all information belongs to Nussu. For example, the halls are participating bodies, but they are not under the jurisdiction of the Union. Like I’ve mentioned, it is inevitable that there will be 1 or 2 “black sheeps” in any organisation. In such cases, the particular PB will be penalised. Penalties are generally classified under minor (for instance, the float size exceeds stipulated requirements by a few centimetres), intermediate and major. Your example of a gross over-expenditure constitutes a major infringement.

On the cost-benefit analysis: if we can minimise the financial expenditure without compromising the objectives you articulated, why not (spending S$1,000 less on each float would hardly bond the participants less, wouldn’t it)? I think we should be cognisant of the many incidental costs involved, in the form of utilities, waste production and processing.

You are assuming that we are not heading in that direction. In actual fact, we don’t disagree with you and like I’ve mentioned in my previous reply, we hope to make Rag and Flag a sustainable event, with increasing vibrancy but less costs and wastages. This year, the overall expenditure for the construction of the floats will definitely be much lower than last year. However, one has to understand that there is a limit we can reach and certain fixed costs we have to bear (for example, we cannot possibly expect a PB to construct a float with $100).

“We received feedback for Rag and Flag on an ad-hoc basis and did conduct several polls (small scale). It may be useful to have a university-wide feedback exercise.”

Why does Nussu struggle to enforce spending caps, and to curb flagrant transgressions by faculties or halls?

We did not really “struggle” to enforce spending caps (cost caps) to be very honest. Nussu and NUS provided monetary support for PBs to engage contractors to assist with the frames due to the collaboration with YOG and NDP for the past two years (with the need to increase structural stability to move on the roads outside NUS). This year, “outsourcing” was banned by Nussu and we linked up with BCA and other relevant agencies to conduct workshops for the PBs to impact basis construction skills to them. I do not agree with the term “flagrant transgressions” as well, and I think you are generalising to a very large extent (of course, to be frank, it is inevitable that 1 or 2 may attempt to find loopholes in the rules, but I know of some floats which easily cost less than S$3,000 or S$4,000, excluding lorry rental.

Have there been university-wide feedback exercises conducted to gauge the sentiments or collate the perspectives of students towards Rag and Flag? If so, how can one access the information; if not, would such an endeavour be useful for Nussu to consider criticisms and corresponding recommendations or proposals?

This is a good idea. We received feedback for Rag and Flag on an ad-hoc basis and did conduct several polls (small scale). It may be useful to have a university-wide feedback exercise.

You have my assurance that Nussu hears the feedback of the students and acknowledges the criticisms. Some of the implementations (like the beneficiary engagement) are results of iterative learning and development processes to improve the event. Nussu plans for this annual flagship project to be increasingly sustainable – we aim to enhance the vibrancy and creativity of the event but with lesser costs and wastages. We are also aiming for diverse pathways of excellence as well, so as to reduce the competitiveness and allow each faculty / hall to excel in different areas of their strenghts. This year, Rag will no longer be a direct compeition, but will adopt the SYF style of Gold, Silver, Bronze for each faculty / hall. Of course, the tabulation mechanism is a complex framework encompassing elements of sustainability, environmental conservation, vibrancy, effort, teamwork, aesthetics, structural integrity et cetera.

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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  1. Pingback: Running Ragged: A Commentary On Rag And Flag | guanyinmiao's musings - March 25, 2013

  2. Pingback: NUSSU Concerns | guanyinmiao's musings - April 10, 2013

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