Govt “should re-evaluate” viewpoint on dissent and activism, youths must be given greater room to participate: Anthea Ong

The Government “should re-evaluate” its viewpoint on “advocacy, activism and dissent”, particularly concerning discourse among Singapore’s youths and their involvement in activism and advocacy, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in Parliament on Mon (7 Oct).

Following up on fellow NMP Walter Theseira’s comments during an adjournment motion titled “A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth of Singapore” at the end of Mon’s session, Ong also stressed that it is important to “not confuse those who insult with those who critique, even if what they say does not appear to be “constructive” at first glance”.

Ong suggested instead that the Government “should re-evaluate their attitudes towards advocacy, activism and dissent”, and “learn to embrace these actions as long as they come from a place of good faith”.

“The narrative must move beyond “activists as troublemakers”—one must not arbitrarily draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ activists based solely on the topics they speak up on.

“To that end, all Singaporeans, from advocates, critics, dissenters, artists, intellectuals, writers, community organisers to ‘ordinary’ citizens have their own experiences to contribute, and form an important and untapped resource in Singapore’s style of governance,” she said.

While a mindset change towards dissent and a review of our engagement strategy is important, Ong added that a mere shift in perspective is insufficient.

“If we want to empower our citizens to participate in policy consultations, and to offer their unique perspectives on the future of Singapore—then we need to ensure that they have access to information and data that will allow them to make objective and informed decisions.

“To that end, a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act should be considered so that citizens can fact-check effectively, and the Government can strengthen public trust in our institutions,” she proposed.

Ong added that public education on “national issues”, helping citizens to “break down complex information and ensure they are well-explained” is crucial in ensuring that more citizens are able to effectively participate in public discourse.

“Political literacy should be a goal the 4G leadership strives towards,” she said.

Quoting veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who said that “Singapore will languish if its lovers are uncritical and its critics are unloving”, Ong said that critics must be given the appropriate space “to grow and thrive, and be recognised for their value and importance to our society”.

S’pore’s current political landscape not very conducive in fostering public discourse including among youths; Govt must address “asymmetry” between youths’ fervent engagement and its “lukewarm response”: NMP Anthea Ong

Quoting Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Summit 2019, who said that the key to growing a “sense of ownership and commitment to Singapore” among youths is giving them room to “actively shape the future” of the nation, Ong questioned if Singapore’s current political landscape allows youths “to realise this vision”.

Ong pointed out that many Singaporean youths she had spoken to “collectively shared concerns on the limited public space for citizens to participate in discussion, debate and dissent without the constant presence of fear, surveillance and coercion”, whether “real” or “imagined”.

“These feelings of paranoia and suspicion must not be simply dismissed. When citizens become too afraid of the repercussions to speak up and when critics become too cynical to engage — Singapore would suffer a great loss.

“When that day comes, only a narrow range of ideas will dominate, groupthink will prevail, and we will lose the dream of a diverse, inclusive and democratic Singapore,” Ong warned.

She narrated the experience of one of the SG Climate Rally organisers, a university student who said that she found it difficult to speak at the Speakers’ Corner out of fear of being placed on a “blacklist”.

“Another young advocate doing work in the social sector also shared about fears that the Government would choose to penalise their organisation if they spoke up about issues they see on the ground,” Ong added.

Highlighting that Singapore’s youths are “concerned about the asymmetry between youths who work tediously to engage the Government, and the Government’s lukewarm response”, Ong said that the voice of the youth must be taken seriously through tangible, concrete means by the Government.

“While the organisers had painstakingly put together a ‘Call to Action’ in the hope for concrete policy follow-up, the Government’s only response was to commend the organisers.

“Our young citizens are concerned about the asymmetry between youths who work tediously to engage the Government, and the Government’s lukewarm response.

“To address this asymmetry, our youth must know they are genuinely heard. This includes re-inventing the Youth Action Plan to go beyond providing grants and remodelling Somerset, to involving youth in the mechanism of policy-making – from feedback to testing and fine-tuning policies,” she said.

Many young Singaporean activists and advocates “passionate”, “committed” to making Singapore “more democratic and inclusive”: NMP Anthea Ong

Many of these young activists and advocates, she said, are “passionate and committed to a more democratic, more politically engaged and more inclusive way of moving Singapore forward”.

“Let us not underestimate the value of our youth speaking up and taking action to make change. For example, during the NUS’ controversy on sexual harassment, it was the courage and advocacy of youth that resulted in real policy reforms.

“If not for Monica Baey’s courage to call out injustice, if not for the many students who pushed for a town hall, if not
for the 400 students who turned up to confront their university administrators, it is unlikely that we would have seen change,” Ong said.

Citing the efforts of youth-run groups such as CAPE, Cassia Resettlement Team, The Inter-University LGBT Network, Advocates for Refugees and Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity, Ong said that youths, through such groups, “engage in exemplary forms of advocacy in our society to champion neglected causes”.

CAPE, she illustrated, is a Yale-NUS student group that aims to foster “political literacy for effective and constructive active citizenry”, and has produced infographics on POFMA and the “brownface” issue, in addition to organising “political education workshops with schools and MPs”.

Cassia Resettlement Team merges community and advocacy work to “support residents through a range of interconnected issues such as: poverty, public housing relocation, ageing, mental health and end-of-life issues”, said Ong, while the Inter-University LGBT Network is a collaboration among universities in Singapore aimed at “fostering safer and more inclusive school communities for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression”.

Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity, said Ong, initiates discussions on topics such as habitat preservation and development among the youth, and subsequently “channels input to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s international conferences and stakeholder processes”.

Noting that her speech was “drafted collectively by a group of young activists and advocates”, Ong said that Singapore’s youths are “invested in the principle of deliberative and shared democracy in order to co-create a shared and inclusive society they want to be part of”.

“To turn many of these critical young lovers away and deny them their say would be a great loss for our country. Let’s give our young ones space to challenge, roots to lead and reasons to stay,” she concluded.

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