by Khairulanwar Zaini
‘There is a widespread perception – or at least until recently – that politics is not where things are happening. Whereas for many the political kingdom once held prospects for change, it has come to be associated with closure.’ – Phillip Darby, Rethinking the Political
What is the ‘political’? The Boon Lay Youth Club (BLYC), a co-curricular society with links to the grassroots network in the ward, is in the centre of this storm, after former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Siew Kum Hong pointed to the impropriety of its partisan links. The Ministry of Education has however defended the club’s status, since its activities ‘instill a sense of civic duty and community bonding’.
But one would be hard-pressed to accuse the MOE (or the BLYC, for the matter) of abetting a partisan conspiracy. Despite its origins, the BLYC is not a party proxy. Neither would any overt recruitment for the incumbent party prove tolerable for the students. It would be a discredit to these students to suggest that they have been reduced into unwitting partisan pawns. That the club is oriented towards community engagement is clear. However, there is a nagging sense that the BLYC remains a political appendage of the government, even if not in the traditional sense of being a youth affiliate of the ruling party.
As Siew Kum Hong pointed out, Singapore had a rich history of student activism during the pre-independence years, foremost amongst them the Chinese middle school students and the Fajar Generation of the then-University of Malaya Socialist Club. The potency of such activism was not lost on the PAP government, leading to schools (and arguably, even politics in general) being evacuated of its political potential. The dearth of political consciousness however rebounded against the state, as generations of students consequently grew up detached from their immediate community. We could marvel about the irony of the government bemoaning against youth apathy since their indifference is nothing but the product of the government’s systematic depoliticization of society. But in truth, we should worry – because the government has astutely manipulated this particular problem of its own creation to entrench itself further.
So, here’s the crux of the matter: it is not about the BLYC being a covert party apparatus, but that the government has contrived a new understanding of community service and civic participation: one that is intricately interwoven with statist interests. The problem is really how civic initiatives inevitably gravitate towards partnership with – or even under the complete guidance of – the government. This is not surprising, because the political vacuum of society has found itself occupied by the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. With such a monopoly, it is merely a matter of semantics to collapse all civic efforts into endeavours that maintain the government’s perpetuity: witness how the National Youth Council enables youth participation in public life, but in a particular direction that refines and ultimately affirms the status quo. We can discern this distinct state-approved ethic of civic participation in the Youth Olympic Games and the annual National Day Parades: ritualistic mobilization of the youth population in ‘safe’ and politically-legitimizing pursuits in the name of service to the community and nation.
Hence, the fundamental problem is that we have no sense of the ‘political’ to speak of. MOE could blithely assert that the BLYC is not ‘political’ because civic participation in Singapore functions merely as initiatives of improvement, not of change. To put it simply, community engagement, shorn of its radical potential, will never be political.
Hence, the idea then is to counter the diminution of such ‘prospects for change’: instead of trying to expunge all hints of the political from schools, we should valorise and nurture it – but in a manner that is fair and accessible to other political orientations other than the ruling party’s. It is the parity of political opportunity that should inform our concern, not the eradication of politics. The move by MOE to approve the BLYC is laudable, but this is merely a baby step that holds the promise for other cause-based societies that are affiliated to organizations beyond the party or state.
Read also "The real lessons of BLYC"