Youth Activism: What Loving Singapore Looks Like

Anthea Indira Ong
Oct 7 · 6 min read

Adjournment Motion Speech, 7 Oct 2019

Mr Speaker, I stand here as a voice for the many young activists and advocates whom I have had the privilege to learn from and work with in different capacities, a voice for their collective concerns and aspirations. They are passionate and committed to a more democratic, more politically engaged and more inclusive way of moving Singapore forward.

DPM Heng’s words at Singapore Summit 2019 acknowledged the need to include our youth. He said, “For young people especially, being able to actively shape the future of our nation and playing a part to build this future is key to growing their sense of ownership and commitment to Singapore.”

However, does our political landscape gives them the space to realise this vision?

Fear and Silence: Does the Political Landscape Create A Psychological Safe Climate?

At the recent SG Climate Rally organised by university students, Singaporeans spoke up to urge the Government to adopt more structural solutions to the climate crisis. One of the Rally organisers, however, admitted the difficulty in speaking up. She said that when asked to speak at Speakers’ Corner, she feared being put 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. Many young Singaporeans I spoke 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 — real and 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. We must not confuse those who insult with those who critique, even if what they say does not appear to be “constructive” at first glance.

Youth Activism: Where Are Our Youth Speaking Up and Making Change?

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.

Then there’s CAPE, a student group based at Yale-NUS that builds capacity and political literacy for effective and constructive active citizenry, with a range of important civic projects and initiatives including producing infographics on POFMA and the “brownface” issue, as well as including organising political education workshops with schools and MPs. Cassia Resettlement Team, a ground-up non-profit powered mostly by youth, blending 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. The Inter-University LGBT Network, a collection of student groups in Singapore universities to collaborate in fostering safer and more inclusive school communities for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Advocates for Refugees, a ground-up movement consisting of mainly youth advocating and raising consciousness for the cause of refugees. Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity facilitates youth discussions on topics such as habitat preservation and development, and then channels input to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s international conferences and stakeholder processes.

All these groups, almost completely youth-led are invested in the principle of deliberative and shared democracy in order to co-create a shared and inclusive Singapore they want to be part of.

From Singapore to Singaporean: What the Government and Society Can Do For Youth?

What, then, is the Government’s role? First, a mindset change. The Government should re-evaluate their attitudes towards advocacy, activism and dissent. They should 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.

Mr Speaker, my young friends also urge the Government to review their method of engagement with youth, activists, or those who dissent. Take, for instance, the Government’s response to the Singapore Climate Rally. 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 perfunctory 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. Youths should also be able to choose their representation on the Youth Action Panel.

Mr Speaker, a mindset change towards dissent and a review of our engagement strategy is important but not enough. 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.

We should also work to educate the public on national issues, help break down complex information and ensure they are well-explained to citizens so that as many people may contribute as possible. Political literacy should be a goal the 4G leadership strives towards.

Conclusion: #SGTogether, with Loving Critics and Critical Lovers

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”, said German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Last week, our very own Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh made a similar call for change to our 4th Prime Minister. He said, “We should welcome criticism as long as the critic loves Singapore and is not out to destroy Singapore. Singapore will languish if its lovers are uncritical and its critics are unloving. What Singapore needs is not sycophants but loving critics and critical lovers.”

Loving critics and critical lovers must be given space to grow and thrive, and be recognised for their value and importance to our society.

Mr. Speaker, before I conclude, let me reveal that this speech was drafted collectively by a group of young activists and advocates with me. I am impressed by their brilliance and moved by their commitment and love for Singapore. 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. Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

I Am Here. Grateful. Human. Always.

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