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Lessons from a University Society’s Constitution

A recent incident made me think about how being a founder and writing a constitution for a society which I built many years back.

During my third year as an undergraduate in the National University of Singapore, I co-founded the National University of Singapore Astronomical Society (otherwise, in short, NUSAS). Despite that I have been acknowledged as “the founder”, I held the perspective that everyone on the founding team (or we called the zeroth committee) and the few hundred signatories to petition the creation of NUSAS are all founders. It was something that I have built sixteen years ago and I moved on after leaving for Cambridge University to pursue one of my dreams in life: a PhD in cosmology and astrophysics.

Upon leaving NUSAS in the good hands of a very competent team after me, I thought I have left it behind and came to understand a very important lesson in life: you can build something and whether the organisation survives after you, it is not up to you to decide. All you can do is to build a strong foundation and hope that future generations will figure out the challenges that might come later. Through very painful personal experiences before NUSAS, I learned to be detached from my own creations so that I do not feel disappointed if things do not work out for them in the future. It did not limit to the astronomical society I have built with many others but later to movements and startups as well. That was what I thought until a week ago.

A week ago, I received a note via Facebook from one of the founding team members from NUSAS. It came about because the present executive committee has decided to push ahead changes that do not respect the principles on how the past executive committees have believed in. As a result, the alumni and the current batch of seniors have organised themselves to have a meeting with the present executive committee. With the gathering of many people from the past and present, I have shared some thoughts on how NUSAS came about and part of the design that I have placed into its constitution. At the same time, I have also debated on parts of the constitution with the current generation of students, not to push them towards any position but facilitate an understanding on the context in how the document came about. As for the outcome, we are all hopeful that we can all work together for the better and help the present team to navigate through the changes which they want to make.

As a result, I have learned a few lessons from the whole incident and I will share it here:

1. A founder’s passion never dies: When we built the society, we were faced with many challenges and most of them was against authority and bureaucracy. We managed to solve them and put together a constitution by design so that each generation has the choice in making decisions with some form of checks and balances in place, for example, in order to change the constitution requires a quorum for two thirds of the majority. I still remembered that I spent 24 hours without sleep writing the document, putting only the best intentions against my own selfish desires to ensure that it can passed with the office of student affairs in the university and the registrar of societies of Singapore. One can never be detached from what they have spent a lifetime building. Yet, despite all the idealism we have in creating the initial spark, there has to be an acknowledged pragmatism that it may not turn out the way you wanted.

2. We should make changes to outdated documents with patience rather with haste: Every constitution including the famous United States Constitution is written to address the problems and challenges of that time. Some clauses, thought to be helpful at that point in time, may not be useful for a present day world. Yet, it is interpreted to the future generations that the best way to change things is to have more discretionary powers. The future generation might want it for the best of intentions, but as Lord Acton put it succinctly, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Changing discretionary powers for the executive committee may lead to unintended consequences for the future.

3. Think of the foundation of everything you build and design it such that it can withstand problems in the future: The interesting thing to me is that I have designed the constitution in a way such that it can withstand but not solve problems in the future. During the debates with the juniors, I am able to explain how different clauses are meant to withhold the principles that the society are found in good faith and also able to agree that certain outdated clauses should be scrapped but with due processes. I find it ironic that I have not taken this design thinking into my recent failed company. Of course, I am grateful that this incident has reminded me that when I build the now or next company or movement, I will put more effort into its design and foundation.

To conclude, I often find it surprising how small a part of life is taken up by meaningful moments. Most often they have finished their course quickly before they start although they cast a light on the future and make the people who have originated them unforgettable. Everyone must have dreams and ideals that they believe in, because that’s what our lives worth living.