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Do youths care about politics? Should they?

Do youths care about politics? Should they?

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Judging by the 70-odd youthful folks who showed up at a policy forum, youths do care. But maybe they’re just shy.

By Visakan Veerasamy

Fun fact: Indranee picked up Salsa in 2000, but gave it up because of work commitments. Photo: CYBERPIONEER

THE cosy policy forum, attended by 70-odd non-old people was set at Sinema, a decidedly ‘youthful’ venue atop Mount Sophia. The session, titled “Do youths care” featured Member-of-Parliament Indranee Rajah, NTU don Dr Cherian George and Vice-President of NUS’s Political Association, Jason Su.

All young or young at heart. So far so good.

The opening statements essentially schmoozed about how the youth of Singapore are active, involved and interested in politics – interested enough at least, to send some questions via SMS.

One can only presume that if thumb power was required, even in a venue that was supposed to encourage intimate conversation, it only shows that we haven’t transcended the elemental fear many Singaporeans have, of being persecuted for their views.

I popped the first question- while it’s great to see people involved, how can we take the response of a specific group of University students and extend that to represent all of Singaporean youth? What about Poly and ITE students?

The response was bland neutral: Cherian acknowledged that it’s easy for University students to forget that they are actually a minority and not representative of all of Singapore. Indranee and Jason focused on talking about how the people organising the forum were doing a good job. No, actually their response merely stated the obvious. I was disappointed with the response to say the least.

Abdillah Zamzuri, a fellow blogger, observed before that Malay youths were underrepresented at the forum, which is consistent with my intuitive assessment that most Malay youth could be described as politically apathetic. In response, Indranee described why apathy was more prevalent in good times. However, the public does respond (un-apathetically) on occasion. During the NKF saga for instance, Singaporeans were riled up because almost everybody would have donated some money before, and thus, they feel that they have a stake in it. Furthermore, nobody likes the idea of being cheated.

My response to that would be: How do we get more Singaporeans to feel like they have a stake in public affairs at large? How do we get them to be less complacent and ignorant, to feel a sense of ownership (essentially, to be less apathetic) with regards to all of Singapore, not just the NKF, and to be wary in case they get accidentally “cheated” out of a desirable outcome for themselves and each other?

But I wasn’t allowed to grab the mike stand again. And so I was to accept her response and move on.

Apathetic is probably too strong a term for an audience that’s probably just shy. Part of the ‘apathy’ stems from the PAP’s proven dis-ability to engage the youth, even in a cosy forum in a happening venue on top of Sophia hill.

When I did get to the mike again however, I asked in response to her claim that she signed up to be an MP not knowing about the whopping allowance of $14,000 a month:

“Why not have more transparency? Why not share with Singaporeans where every one of their tax money is going? Surely that would boost the image of MPs as trustworthy and honest, and it would improve their standing with the Singaporean public?”

I found her response to that lacking, something along the lines of how it’s entirely up to each individual MP how they’d like to spend their allowance. This, is why youth are apathetic. Because we never get proper’s answers to our questions and soon, most realize that participation was merely a futile process and a waste of time.

Considering that she’s a member of Senior Counsel, a Director at Drew & Napier, and president of Sinda amongst other things, I’d expected Indranee to be far more sophisticated. Drew & Napier describes her as being able to “unravel the complexities of intractable legal problems, distill the essence of the disputes and find a resolution”.

I found none of that in her. Not especially when she side-stepped a complaint about new PAP candidate and new Singapore citizen Janil Puthucheary, by asking why we didn’t’ complain about Worker’s Party’s Chen Show Mao as well. On hindsight, it sounded more like a group of children fighting in a playground – “Why you scold me, why you never scold him also?” rather than an MP answer a question.

That said, I must confess that I developed a liking for Indranee, despite finding it hard to see eye to eye with her. She comes across as a sincere, genuine and empathetic person- outside of her arguments, at least. After the forum was over, she approached me, asked me how I was doing and what I was up to, and patiently listened to me blurt out all my iconoclastic fantasies.

Quite a feat considering the disparity in our statuses – I, a young hotheaded ‘youth’ and she, a seasoned MP. I appreciated the time she took to understand the issues that I was facing.

The takeaway message? Apathetic is probably too strong a term for an audience that’s probably just shy. Part of the ‘apathy’ stems from the PAP’s proven dis-ability to engage the youth, even in a cosy forum in a happening venue on top of Sophia hill. Yet things are changing. Thumbing an SMS to communicate with your MP is a start, but as I’ve found out, speaking face to face to engage politicians is the best way to understand them, and to have them understand you.

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