Youths volunteering as panelists and speaking up in forums organised by an opposition party?
That’s unthinkable, some may say, but that is exactly what the Workers’ Party’s Youth Wing (WPYW) is doing with its series of forums called YouthQuake. Targeted at young Singaporeans, the forums have so far seen a 17-year-old junior college student, a 20-year-old National Serviceman and a 23-year-old law undergraduate, among others, take the stage making impassioned speeches on youth-centric issues.
Are youths today less inhibited or fearful about participating in such alternative platforms, away from the usual government or PAP-sponsored dialogue and feedback channels? And aren’t youths supposed to be "bo-chap" (apathetic) about social and political issues anyway?
TOC speaks to the WP Youth Wing and three previous young panelists at YouthQuake.
Perry Tong, president of the Youth Wing, explained that the forums, though organised by the WPYW, is not intended to politicise the issues which are brought up for debate and discussion. “[It] is meant more for Singaporean youths, and those who are concerned in certain topic areas, to have a free and frank discussion without fear of reprisals in any way, form or method,” he said.
Bernard Chen, Executive Committee member of the Youth Wing and the key person behind the first two forums, agreed. “YouthQuake holds true to the belief that basically anyone with an opinion [or] perspective should be given the opportunity to air their views, regardless of their backgrounds or qualifications,” he said.
Countering apathy, kick-starting the process
But what about the apathetic attitude which Singapore’s youths are said to have toward social and political issues? Is that a myth? According to Chen, it is still a challenge to get the youths to be interested in such issues. “Fortunately, many of the young Singaporeans that I have spoken to are quite responsive and enthusiastic about speaking at YouthQuake. But I suppose these youths that I keep in touch with are mostly politically or socially aware of issues affecting them. The challenge that I foresee is in attracting apathetic young Singaporeans to sit up and take a look at YouthQuake,” he said.
It is a sentiment shared by 24-year-old Kelvin Quee, a final year accountancy student at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He was a YouthQuake speaker on the issue of public transport. "Activities like these will only reach out to people who are already politically-aware", he says.
However, Koh Choong Yong (right), vice-president of the WPYW and newly-elected to the party’s Central Executive Council (CEC), feels that there is a growing awareness about social and political issues among Singapore’s youths.
“I feel there is a growing awareness of political and social issues amongst the young,” he said. “The sad fact is that when students grow [up] to be young working adults, there is a large number that [get] too caught up with their careers to be able to spare time to think about such issues. The good news is that the rare few that are willing to slow down to think about the issues [are] now also gradually growing, slowly but steadily.”
Chen added that this process of engaging youths to be actively involved in public discourse will take a long time and may seem to be an uphill challenge. But he is hopeful that YouthQuake can kickstart that process.
He will be happy to know that the parents of the speakers are supportive of their children’s participation in these forums. “My 59-year-old mother is very supportive of this”, said 24-year-old Nathaniel Koh, a third-year student at the Singapore Management University. He will be speaking at the third YouthQuake forum on the environment this Sunday.
“My family knew about it and was fine with it,” said 17-year-old Anne Tan, who was a speaker for YouthQuake’s first forum on the issue of reducing the voting age to 18. “I must admit most of my classmates did not really have an opinion on it. They were [like], 'Ok. That’s kind of cool'," she said.
Were they not afraid of being involved in an event organised by an opposition party and held within its premises, given that even some adult Singaporeans are afraid of this?
“Events should not be labelled as PAP- or opposition-organised; instead, we should recognise such events as pro-Singapore,” said Nathaniel. “Some may disagree on the conduct of an event, but they should agree on its overriding purpose to make Singapore a better home for its citizens,” he said.
As for Anne, she said she would encourage her peers to do what they felt was right.
"I view the Workers' Party as the party with the most traction. My view has not changed after the forum", says Kelvin. "I still want to learn more about the opposition parties in Singapore".
Koh was encouraged with the response he received when he approached youths to speak at this Sunday’s forum. “I was mentally prepared for a few rejections, since YouthQuake is organised by the Workers' Party Youth Wing, but the results [show] that there are also young adults who are not so touchy about having something to do with WP”, he said.
Tong explained that the forums allow for both partisan and non-partisan airing of views. “As the recent speaker line-ups have been for both YouthQuakes 1 and 2, I do believe it is more non-partisan. Nevertheless the WP Youth Wing is glad to play a role in allowing for differing points of view to be taken up at a somewhat public level. This is an important step for the practice of democracy,” he said.
A rallying point
“Members in the Workers' Party Youth Wing are participating in the planning and execution of YouthQuake and many are energised and have indicated their interest to speak at future forums”, said Chen. “It has become a rallying point for many in the Workers' Party Youth Wing,” he added.
Perhaps this “rallying point” will become one for youths as well, especially if they are “brushed aside” for giving their views elsewhere.
According to Nathaniel, “Some of my friends can express the strongest opinions about student governance in SMU, but they will only do so in private. They do this not out of fear of reprisals, but out of a sense that no matter what they say or how persuasive their arguments may be, the "leaders" will simply defend their policies, and brush aside other views,” he said.
“I think its important that youths take part in political activities as they are part of society and some of the things we do as a society are political in nature”, said Anne. “This is actually what my speech was about, keeping youths involved in the political process.”
The environment – Has Singapore done enough?
The third YouthQuake forum takes place this Sunday at the party’s headquarters in Syed Alwi Road. The topic up for debate and discussion is “The Environment – Has Singapore Done Enough?”
If you think the topic of the environment will be a dry and uninteresting one, think again. The speakers will be presenting various issues and proposals for discussions. These include how certain policies can help shape new “green” habits, energy in the Singapore context and how it relates to rising crude oil prices and escalating petrol and electricity bills, and the issue of responsible consumption in creating a better planet for human survivability.
The Youth Wing has invited a line-up of three speakers with quite impressive backgrounds for Sunday’s forum. The following information on the speakers was on the Youth Wing’s website:
Nathaniel Koh is currently a third-year student in the Singapore Management University (SMU) pursuing a Bachelor of Science (Information Systems Management) with a second major in Political Science. He is also the Honorary Finance Secretary of the SMU Students’ Association. In January 2007, he attained the title of “Distinguished Toastmaster”, which is the highest recognition awarded by Toastmasters International.
Low Ee Mien is an R&D software engineer with Savi Technology, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. In his spare time, he is also a fund manager for a private investment fund, blogger, peak-oiler, and climate change activist. His blog, which is syndicated by various blogging networks and receives thousands of hits per day, is at http://www.post1.net/lowem
Wilson Ang is the founder and President of the Environment Challenge Organisation (Singapore), also known as ECO Singapore. He is a recipient of the NEA Ecofriend award 2007 in the NGO and Grassroots Volunteers category.
“The battle cry of Singaporean youths” – that’s the tagline of the YouthQuake forums. Will Singapore’s youths heed the call and get involved?
Koh is not looking for numbers, but a solid discussion. “What matters most to me would be the quality of the discussion. We have a student, a young working adult and a leader of a NGO as speakers, so I believe the views presented would be quite diverse,” he said.
Despite the topic, Chen is confident that the event will be a success.
“I am confident of a good turnout and I look forward to a thought-provoking and engaging discussion. I believe that those who make an effort to attend will go home with a whole new perspective on environmental issues in Singapore. Environmental issues will take on increasing importance in the public discourse and YouthQuake 3 will provide the audience with a sneak preview of things to come,” he said.
Indeed, if our youths are as passionate as the nine young panelists at YouthQuake thus far, apathy could well be a thing of the past.
For details of the forum, visit the WPYW’s website here.