Commentary: Make Youth Conversations compulsory to build active citizenry

Commentary: Make Youth Conversations compulsory to build active citizenry

The enthusiasm and energy of youths can be better harnessed to build a thinking, resilient society that actively shapes its future, says one observer.

sg50 youth conversations
SG50 dialogue session involving youths. (File photo)

SINGAPORE: Young people are ambitious, enthusiastic and thirsty to show how they can make a difference as active citizens.

A National Youth Council survey released last year showed almost seven in ten youths were involved in community groups such as those for the arts, sports or social welfare.

Where they are generally seen as revisionist, with high expectations of their peers, of authorities and their educational experiences despite their inexperience, growing up in a world vastly different from their parents, young people are full of ideas about how things can be done differently. 

This is not a new phenomenon. Like those who came before, many youths in Singapore sometimes feel like society doesn’t take them seriously enough even though they want to make their voices heard.

An age-old question for most advanced, developed countries, perhaps the challenge is not just how society can better listen and meaningfully engage their youths but how to harness their energies and enthusiasm to productive ends. After all, it is this generation that will eventually lead society and shape Singapore’s future.

As a young person, it was thus encouraging to read about the new initiatives that the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth will be rolling out to better engage youths on key policy issues. 

For me and my peers, the highlight of the initiatives is the Youth Conversations. 

WHAT DIFFERENCE?

At first glance, these conversations seem like a repetition of previous exercises. So it was heartening to hear Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu outline last week how they would be different. She said:

We will be sharing more policy thoughts and considerations with our youths. We will listen more to understand our youth’s views, concerns and aspirations. We will provide more support for our youths in generating and implementing their ideas.

Some wonder whether this will be enough. After all, if these engagement sessions are voluntary, won’t there be some self-selection for those who sign up? What about those who have doubts about the effectiveness of such face-to-face engagements or those who remain detached and disinterested in public policy?

If we think that youth engagement is an enabler to building a stronger and more active citizenry, and we are serious about leveraging their insights as important stakeholders to Singapore’s future, then shouldn’t we be more aggressive?

NUS graduation 2
National University of Singapore graduates at a commencement ceremony. (Photo: Lionel Lin)

And if we want to reach the disinterested or the shy, and involve them in building Singapore’s future, then a possible solution is to make some of these engagement sessions compulsory, to be held in junior colleges and Institutes of Higher Learning. Sessions of an hour-long nature should take place over a sustained pace throughout the year.

Educators should also be present and join in the discussions, acting as familiar facilitators for a more conducive environment.

In the style of a Citizens’ Jury, all engagements could be conducted in a series, where recommendations to tackle some of Singapore’s pressing challenges could be discussed. 

To foster camaraderie and build comfort, the same group of students could meet with the same Member of Parliament and educators for three weeks in a row, with feedback from the past session brought up and examined further in depth, to germinate and concretise ideas.

Finally, to incentivise further voluntary engagement, all participants should receive regular group updates via email of whether and how their suggestions are being considered, so that they can see how their opinions are factored into policy.

Where some might say national resources need to be committed to this cause, I would argue that such efforts are critical as Singapore strives to build a thinking society.

It may be that a mindset shift is needed – for such engagements not to be seen as a communications exercise, but one that has productive outcomes and engagement value. 

In my opinion, the success of any youth engagements efforts by the Government will be maximised if society begins to take the viewpoints of its young people more seriously and see that such activities builds our confidence about the future.

ENGAGEMENT IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Ultimately, the Government can do all it can to engage us. But for such efforts to be successful, we youths too must exercise responsibility and consideration.

We must realise if we want to be taken more seriously, we must earn that right.

This is not engagement for engagement’s sake. So we must be selective about the issues we want to discuss. 

We can still give our opinions on all aspects of national life, but there are areas in which we have fresh, lived experiences where we can value-add. We should drill deeper in these specific areas, using our youth to our advantage.

NUS students
Students sitting around campus. (File photo)

Second, we are often told to be aware of the larger context against which we base our new ideas. This is fair criticism. 

We need to enhance the depth of our ideas – going beyond pitching new ideas to showing how exactly they differ from past policies and being more up-front about the trade-offs we are making. 

This means that we need to more broadly inform ourselves and make the effort to get acquainted with the specifics of past policies and debates.

Thus, we must keep up to date with the news and be savvy with the Hansard available on parliament.gov.sg. Immersing ourselves in new experiences such as volunteering will also give us perspective on issues.

In doing so, perhaps we could then better understand why the status quo is the way it is as a starting point to find new ways to improve upon it and build common ground, which will give us a better chance of success with our ideas.

EVERYONE HAS A ROLE TO PLAY

A cliché that bears repeating, it is true that, in further engaging the next generation, everyone has a role to play.

The Government has begun this process, but they must be able to reach those who most need to be engaged. Society too needs to have a mindset shift in not being too quick to dismiss the views of Singapore’s youths.

Young people themselves should earn their right to be listened to. If the next generation can be more effectively engaged, we will be in a much stronger stead to shape our collective future.

Ng Chia Wee will begin his undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences this August and has signed up to be a REACH Youth Ambassador.

Source: CNA/sl

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