There I was, seated at the back row of the Singapore Polytechnic auditorium. It was the closing ceremony for the Youth Model ASEAN Conference (YMAC), and the committee chairs were huddled together with the organising team at the front, performing the YMAC theme song. Halfway through the song student-delegates in the audience rose from their seats, and with their hands raised the performance turned into a sing-along. There were also affectionate shouts of “thank you”, “I love YMAC”, and names of their committee chairs.
Conferences are emotional affairs for the young. Simulation conferences in Singapore like Model United Nations (UN) and Model ASEAN, in particular, bring students of different schools, nationalities, and backgrounds together. Through days of participation the student-delegates make new friends, and through months of preparation those in the organising team grow closer. Moreover the forging of these friendships are now strengthened – in the short-run, at least – by social media: adding people on Facebook and WhatsApp, connecting through hashtags on Twitter, and sharing photographs or video clips on Instagram.
Such engagements were always done through MSN Messenger in the past. Once someone collated a list of emails after the event you had to add them, put your contacts into groups, update your status to reflect solidarity with your newfound friends, share photographs or songs through file transfer, and arrange gatherings through messy group conversations.
Yet it’s a shame that I’ve been terrible at keeping in touch. Perhaps it’s the number of conferences I’ve been a part of, though at the same time I’ve hardly made the effort to reach out to. Earlier this month there was a poignant article on Raptitude about losing friends, where it was said that “[w]hatever our reasons, I suspect most of us don’t pull our weight socially, and we depend, possibly without realising, on that wonderful minority of people who are tirelessly connecting us freeloaders and cowards”. And it gets harder with time.
People move on. Memories and friendships fade. New bonds are forged.
So when I sat at the back row of the auditorium I was reminded of my first conferences back in high school. Before my first Model UN at THIMUN-Singapore in November 2006 I had a very small, logistical role in the Student Leaders Convention earlier in the year. I had to step out of my comfort zone, did enjoy the experience, but always dreaded the interactions with our seniors. You do appreciate the need for rigour – which has shaped how we plan and manage our own events now – yet oftentimes I thought they took it too far.
Because beyond the friendships and feel-good moments, conferences – through organising, chairing, participating – mould individuals. It is easy to break someone down by expecting more from them, but the process of building up is time-consuming and can be frustrating. And there is no guarantee of success. I described the recent months of YMAC preparation as a “journey from reticence and apprehension to eloquence and professionalism”. It was the same with UNASMUN too. The greatest satisfaction is derived when you are out of the spotlight, and the individuals you have trained or worked with take in the applause and expressions of gratitude.
For these reasons I go back to conferences. I struggled to be positive in the beginning, and am making up for it now. I was clueless and abrasive, and still am learning to lead graciously, to be more empathetic. I took friendships for granted in the past, and am holding onto my new relationships more dearly now (I hope). To an extent it is ironic for me to claim that conferences are not about an individual – since it feels like I still benefit disproportionately no matter how hard I shy away from awkward networking sessions and closing speeches or notes – yet I will continue to grow with the teams, doing my part from my seat at the back row.
This has been an incredible year. It was filled with news and social media moments in Singapore with the Breakfast Network last year. This year, I spent five months in Helsinki, Finland, wrote for NVPC, decided that I did not have a future in a bank, did my fourth UNASMUN (and a few other conferences, as shared), as well as trained for and completed my first and last marathon. I’ve learnt a little about my persistent insecurities and arrogance, and will continue to learn more in the year ahead.