Written by: Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Timothy Yap, Singapore Police Force (Hwa Chong Institution 2007-2012)
A good student does not necessarily make a good leader. That may sound controversial, especially considering the occasion today, so (before I get disinvited) let me explain what I mean. Leadership is quite unlike academic knowledge; it cannot be imparted through any lecture, seminar, training course or programme. It must be learnt by doing and experienced for oneself. I like to think of it as essentially one’s character and values in action. It begins with understanding and being deliberate about the day-to-day choices and convictions that shape who you are. I can put it no better than the Singaporean public intellectual Mr Ho. Kwon Ping:
“Leadership is not just a management technique but is a natural consequence of one’s integrity or character, which is itself the sum total of one’s experiences and values.”
Beyond that broad understanding, I do not presume to give you prescriptions for how to be a leader. What I would instead like to do with the time I have is to offer you some reflections from my own journey, as a former Student Councillor who is now a police officer. Through these reflections, I hope to encourage you to ask some questions about yourself and the leadership responsibilities that you will undertake.
The Peelian Principles: An Analogy
When he established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, the British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel articulated a set of principles to guide the establishment of the country’s first professional and publicly-funded police force. In early 19th-century Britain, the idea of a sizeable, organised and possibly armed police force was regarded with some suspicion, as people were concerned that the police would be used to suppress dissent or political opposition.
As an answer to this, the Peelian principles, as they came to be known, expressed the approach of ‘policing by consent’. The key to the approach is that police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform, exercising their powers with the implicit consent of their fellow citizens. Policing by consent also means that the legitimacy of the police is based upon a general consensus of support from the public. This support is in turn founded on the police’s transparency, integrity and accountability in the exercise of their powers. Consider one of the often-cited principles:
“Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
The Peelian principles have stood the test of time, and continue to be widely influential on modern policing today. You may be wondering: what relevance do the words of a 19th century British civil servant hold for me? I would suggest that there are surprising commonalities between the ethic of policing expressed in the Peelian principles, and your role as Student Councillors. Firstly, the legitimacy of your work as Students’ Councils, much like that of a police force, is based upon a general consensus of support from the student community. Secondly, just as police officers are citizens in uniform, you are students with a Councillor badge. I will elaborate on the significance of these commonalities in turn.
Legitimacy: A General Consensus of Support
Firstly, the legitimacy of your work as Students’ Councils is based upon a general consensus of support from the student community. All of you are here today because of the confidence of your peers, seniors and teachers who have seen potential in you. Looking beyond your individual qualities, however, the legitimacy of the office that you hold ultimately depends on how you use the position that you have been entrusted with. If none of your fellow students believed that Student Councillors genuinely represented and served their interests, the Students’ Councils would cease to have meaning or value. It is only because your peers continue to put their faith in you and what you represent, that the Councils continue to be a credible and respected institution.
Looking back at my time as a Councillor, I find that the most meaningful and memorable accomplishments were not the large-scale or high-profile events, but those which built a sense of community and belonging among us students. For example, when I was with the 7th Ortus Council, we transformed the formal Ortus Room into a cosy lounge that students enjoyed visiting, with new sofas, stencil works on the walls, a mini-fridge, a drinks corner and even a pool table. We also held study sessions in the lounge, inviting teachers and more academically-inclined peers to provide tutoring to those who were looking for some help.
A year later, in 2010, I was leading the 37th High School Council. The FIFA World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands was held in July that year. The Council knew that an overwhelming majority of students had expressed interest in watching the match, notwithstanding that it would be aired in the wee hours of the morning. With that in mind, we worked with the school administration (led by then principal Dr Hon Chiew Weng) to start school later the next day, ensuring that our fellow students got sufficient rest and could focus on their lessons. (Of course, the soccer fans among us were also thrilled at the result) It was a simple gesture, but I thought it went a long way to assure our peers that the Council and the school cared about their well-being. We understood the realities of how they thought and felt, worked together and went out of our way to find a solution that accommodated those realities.
Students with a Councillor Badge
Secondly, just as police officers are citizens in uniform, you are students with a Councillor badge. I am told that the theme for this Investiture, “Transcendent”, originates from a Latin word which means to “go beyond” or “to climb”. I prefer the former meaning. As Councillors, you are called to go above and beyond, to go the extra mile in serving your peers. But it is important that you do not see yourselves as being above those around you. You do not transcend being a student; no matter what additional responsibilities you take on, you do not stop being an ordinary Hwa Chongian at heart.
On the contrary, it is only through shared experiences with your fellow students, doing life together, that you know who you are serving and how to serve them. Every single one of you – regardless of what appointment you hold – is a touchpoint in the student community, a listening ear to understand the real needs and concerns of your peers. Collectively, you form a powerful network through which student voices can be amplified and heard.
Being a student with a badge also entails exercising leadership in everyday settings, and not just when you are on Councillor duty. To adapt the Peelian principle I cited earlier, there are “duties which are incumbent on every student in the interests of community welfare and existence”. In these troubled times, day-to-day leadership for the common good is all the more important.
The theme for this investiture, to my understanding, was chosen as it “impeccably encapsulates the dauntless spirit the 49th High School Council strives to embody in the post-pandemic world”. It is not yet clear that we are in a post-pandemic world, but what is undeniable is that COVID-19 has profoundly shaped the world that we find ourselves in today. The pandemic has been especially revealing of our interdependence as a society. COVID has found easy targets among the unvaccinated, the elderly, those with compromised immunities, and those who live in crowded conditions, just to name a few. If we fail to protect the vulnerable among us, we allow the virus to spread and mutate. The pandemic worsens and all of us are worse off. In short, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.
The kind of dauntless spirit that we need in such a world is not mere individual bravado, but a collective spirit of unity which maintains solidarity in the midst of such challenging circumstances. Allow me to offer two practical examples. Firstly, one of the things I cherished as a student was the willingness of my peers to share our subject notes with one another. The natural instinct might be to adopt a zero-sum game mentality and keep one’s precious hard work to oneself, in order to discourage freeloaders or maintain an edge over others. Yet we shared what we had freely without such inhibitions. It turned out that all of us ended up being better off, because our combined strengths made up for our individual weaknesses – a History buff who was weaker in Physics, for instance, would benefit from the understanding of others with a better grasp of science subjects, and in turn help those who were struggling with the humanities.
Secondly, the importance of mental health and well-being has come to the fore in recent times. In addition to the challenges and pressures of a rigorous academic curriculum, the stresses on students have been aggravated by the disruptions wrought by the pandemic and the impact it has had on social interactions. In Hwa Chong, we have a proud tradition of forging a strong ‘school spirit’, and this should not just be seen in the size of the banners that we paint, or the volume of our cheers and songs. It should also be seen in the way that we care for and support one another. As a student with a badge, you can exercise everyday leadership by helping to create this culture of care. Ask people how they are doing emotionally, not just academically. Look out for those who are struggling and lend a hand to those in need. Lead by example, and encourage others to do the same.
My Policing Journey
I have spoken at length about the surprising commonalities between the Peelian principles and your role as Student Councillors. Personally, I have also found resonance between the work that I do now, and my experience in the Students’ Council. Among other things, being a Student Councillor taught me to strive to make life better for the people around me, with the conviction that my humble efforts can make a difference. I also learnt the importance of empathy and rapport with those whom I serve. These lessons remain a valuable part of who I am today.
When I graduated from my legal studies, my tutor had expressed surprise that I was returning home to a policing career. But for me, upholding the law on the streets and in our neighbourhoods is just as, if not more satisfying and important, than doing so in the courtroom. The police are often the gateway to the criminal justice system, and our practices and policies have a direct and tangible impact on people’s lives. One might even say that police officers are the human face of the law; through our everyday interactions with the public, we are in a powerful position to shape people’s lived experiences and perceptions of the authorities. Policing has also offered me a glimpse of how people in various segments of society live, as well as the ups and downs that they go through in life.
There is a deep interdependence in the relationship between the police and the community. People in the community naturally look to police officers to take charge and make sound decisions in the face of difficult and unpredictable situations. On the other hand, police officers know how important it is to listen and to work closely with the public. Many crimes have been solved with the assistance of everyday heroes and public-spirited witnesses who came forward to provide crucial evidence. Ultimately, I believe that police work is not only about fighting crime to protect people but also safeguarding our way of life as a community – so that all of us can go about our daily pursuits and social interactions freely and with peace of mind, assured that our safety is in good hands.
Let me end by reframing the points I have made as questions for you to ponder, as you step forward to assume your leadership responsibilities:
· As Students’ Councils, how can you use your position to build community and a sense of belonging, winning the support of your peers and strengthening the legitimacy of the office that you hold?
· As individual Student Councillors, how can you cherish your shared experiences with your fellow students, seeking to genuinely understand their real needs and concerns?
· As a student, how can you exercise leadership in everyday settings to make life better for your peers? What can you do to uphold a dauntless, collective spirit of unity, which maintains solidarity in the midst of challenging circumstances?
With that, I wish you all the very best on the journey ahead. May you discover enduring lessons, friends and mentors that will remain with you for years to come, just as I have.