From Student Politics to Real Politics: Youth, Politics and Civil Society

Posted by Leslie Wee under Public Forums on 1 October 1999

The Politics 21 Series kicked off on the night of 1st October at the RELC International Hotel. It is an initiative launched by the Think Centre - an independent political research body, after discussions with a political discussion group, the Socratic Circle. The Politics 21 series is committed to raising political awareness, cultivating a deeper appreciation of the underlying socio-economic-politico forces in Singapore, and fostering a habit of active citizenry.

Introduction of Forum

The maiden forum, titled "From Student Politics to Real Politics: Youth, Politics and Civil Society", was attended by an audience numbering about 70, composed largely of youths and working professionals, a few of whom, were expatriates. The speakers, four in all, came from an array of background where political experience and involvement was concerned.

The panel comprised of James Gomez (Chairperson, the Director of the Think Centre and author of, "Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame" and former President of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Student Union; Daniel Chew, Chairman of the Socratic Circle, an active participant in voluntary associations and former President of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Student's Union; Yaw Shin Leong, a third year student at the NUS and former President of the Democratic Socialist Club (NUS) and Steve Chia, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the National Solidarity Party and a former President of the National University of Singapore Students' Union (NUSSU).

A very important and common thread among the panel of speakers was that they all had at one time or another, served in various capacities as student leaders, holding positions in the Students' Union, and various clubs and societies.

Speech by James Gomez
Director, Think Centre

Once the formalities were attended to, James Gomez, the Chairperson, delivered his address that was essentially formulated around the question "Where are the youths at present?" It dealt with the perceived apathy of Singaporean youths regarding political awareness and participation.

Mr. Gomez juxtaposed the current state of affairs against that of an earlier era where political mobilisation and participation among youths, most pertinently those of the Chinese high schools and Nantah University, were marked. These days, Mr. Gomez observed that there was limited participation for youths. Bodies such as the Singapore International Foundation offer a limited scope where political issues are concerned, while other bodies are located under the auspices of the ruling party, direct or indirect, such as the PAP Youth Wing and political associations in NUS were not very dissimilar. Hence, political apathy and the lack of channels for participation function as cause and consequence with regards to the problem at hand.

It is in this light that Mr. Gomez questioned the role and efficacy of the new National Education Programme, and more importantly, the notion of active citizenship as espoused in the S21 Report. More could be done to generate interest among students in political matters and a healthy dose of activism, he added, makes a well rounded student.

Speech by Mr. Daniel Chew
Chairman, Socratic Circle

The next speaker, Daniel Chew, broached the subject "Youth and Politics 21: Looking Ahead". Mr. Chew begun by assessing the political landscape of Singapore, quoting a published work recently highlighted by the New York Review of Books. The author Ian Buruma, politically diagnosed Singapore as one being excessively regimented to the effect that its people are "too frightened to think". Taking his point up, Mr. Chew posed his own questions over the issue, and posited the view that more than just fear, the political apathy among Singapore youths could be brought about by the demands of our lifestyle, or even a matter of contentment with regards to the popular issues of the day.

Mr. Chew went on to identify certain factors which contributed or entrenched the political atrophy among our youths. Firstly, there is the existence of mechanisms which limit the scope of political awareness and mobilisation by depoliticising the population at large. This was put in place in lieu of concerns revolving national security in the nation's formative years. Mr. Chew went on to relate the experience of the founding of the Socratic Circle (, in which it took two years before the authorities allowed the Circle to be registered, and that only after the imposition of various demands which in effect, curtailed the Circle's scope of influence."

In addition to the hectic and time-consuming lifestyles that Singaporeans lead, Mr. Chew felt that the habit of self-censorship was detrimental in promoting political awareness in Singapore.

To correct this imbalance, Mr. Chew proposed the following solutions: to review the relevance of existing mechanisms that restrict political discourse and awareness; to dispel mental models which are unhelpful to this cause (Mr. Chew raised three --- "It does not affect me"; "It does not work"; "There are others that can do the job better"); and by creating an awareness of the issues that matter to the everyday life of the man-on-the-street, issues such as the CPF and HDB rulings.

Mr. Chew concluded by urging the floor to start by inculcating a thinking habit and to nudge others along the same path

Speech by Mr. Yaw Shin Leong
Former Preseident,Democratic Socialist Club, National University of Singapore

In his address, the third speaker, Mr. Yaw Shin Leong, attempted to unshackle the lethargy among youths with regards to political involvement. In his speech, Mr. Yaw pointed out the fallacy of the notion that youths have little or no political influence, and how this belief spirals into complacency and apathy. The outgoing President of the Democratic Socialist Club in NUS noted that "apathy & fear are the unsuspecting cancerous cells of the Singaporean youth."

Elucidating his point, Mr. Yaw spoke at length about the climate of fear that resonated in the political landscape. In tandem with the previous speakers' observation, Mr. Yaw pointed out that fact that this situation was brought upon not only by excessive regulation of the political arena by the ruling party, but it was also the result of the perceived notions of the body politic that political participation and discourse would meet with Government sanctions. Mr. Yaw then left the audience with a challenge," Fight them (apathy and fear) before they consume you!"

Speech by Mr. Steve Chia
Former President, National University of Singapore Students' Union
Assistant Secretary-general, Central Executive Committe, National Solidarity Party

The last speaker to take to the floor, Mr. Steve Chia, a member of the Opposition and former student leader, shared with the audience his political experience. Mr. Chia's speech was listen with much interest as his was an example that epitomizes the transition from student politics to real politics - the theme of the forum. As a student leader, Mr. Chia recounted the various positions of leadership he assumed, culminating in his tenure as President of NUSSU. In this capacity, Mr. Chia related when leading the student's union, he with other students jointly lobbied several Ministers of State, such as BG Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Mah Bow Tan, and Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean among others, regarding issues such as the NUS Students' Fund. Various proposals were also sent to the administration of the University concerning infrastructural improvements.

Mr. Chia's transition to real politics was actualized after being convinced that the intrusion of the Government in the private sphere was excessive. He gave examples of how PAP is in the kindergarten, in the constituency Residence Committee, in the neighborhood supermarket, in the daily newspaper, in all the GLCs and in the TV news. In short, he expounded that PAP permeates all aspect of our lives and attempts in many way to control our life. This he felt had to change and he was prepared to politically stand behind his conviction. On a lighter note, he said that a string of victories in the student elections added to the air of inevitability that he could contribute to the opposition's cause.

Having run in the General Election in 1997 as a candidate of the National Solidarity Party (NSP) contesting in Hong Kah GRC, Mr. Chia shared the benefit of experience in political campaigns and dogfights. He recounted his decision to pin his political fortunes with the NSP, convinced that the party had the platform to challenge that of the Government's, and possessed a good mix of personnel who had the drive and commitment to contest the Government. Mr. Chia also spoke of the sacrifices that he had to make in running for political office. These included the necessity of quitting his first job after joining the NSP in 1994, as the board of his company had Government Ministers among its directors, and therefore his boss was not willing to keep him on. This he reminded the audience is the reality of opposition politics and stressed how the minute one joins ranks of the opposition, everything around the person closes in. This he felt was something that needs to change.

Contesting the elections was a gargantuan effort, he added. Having to spend days on end to visit the constituents, and to make him known among the masses. Having said that, Mr. Chia remains committed and dedicated to his cause and advised those who wished to do so that a strong belief in the cause, commitment and an unswerving dedication was necessary.

Question and Answer Session

After a brief intermission, the audience went into a Question-And-Answer session. Among the questions fielded, members of the floor asked whether there was an alternative space and scope for political literature, especially in political science. Mr. Gomez pointed that although there were alternative publications available, they were often not readily available in Singapore bookshops as they were subject to limitations pertaining to distribution arising from self-censorship. However, alternative information is still available in special collections at libraries and on the Internet.

Political Discourse in National University of Singapore

Micheal Roston, an exchange student currently pursuing a course in Political Science in NUS, questioned the value of positioning political matters in a manner that would limit political discourse. He pointed out that much of the political was in fact in cultural and social issues. He said that an exploration of these avenues is often overlooked. Yaw Shin Leong from the panel agreed but akined the use of cultural avenues as 'Trojan horse' stratagems. Its better to be straight forward, he suggested.

Impact of information technology on Singapore's political landscape

A participant who works in information technology raised the next issue. He pointed to the inevitability and the impact of the Internet on the political landscape in Singapore and solicited reactions. The panelists felt that the imprint of the Internet would be politically significant, especially during General Elections. Having the hindsight of experience, Mr. Chia said that the Opposition has always failed to secure sufficient media coverage, and the Internet had been beneficial in serving the purpose of campaigning during elections. In addition, with a growing Internet subscriber base in Singapore, this source would enable the Opposition to expand the base of its contact.

On the other hand, while Mr. Chia acknowledged that the Internet would be a source to harness political awareness in Singapore, Internet regulations would be another area of concern. In addition, a member of the floor, a second-year undergraduate, noted that information technology was a double-edged sword. Information overload would be a natural consequence, and what Singaporeans make out of the information that they receive would be more important than the amount that they garner.

Overall it was felt that the Internet was opening a small space for political expression and information dissemination, but it is limited only to a small group. Nonetheless its potential was acknowledged by all.

Impact of co-option on Singapore's political landscape

The present regime's practice of co-opting individuals from the civil service and those who were political vocal was also raised during the session. Responding, the panelists noted that the process of co-option is very much a natural practice of any regime in power. Regarding political space in lieu of the practice of co-option, Mr. Chew voiced his opinions concerning the functions and scope of political discussion groups. The concern revolved mainly around how these groups might be positioned, namely, those in support of the ruling party or otherwise, or politically neutral.

This would also be contingent upon the current political landscape. Mr. Chew also felt that it is fundamental that these groups should make clear their stand and position on these matters. However, the proliferation of such groups on the average would only be for the benefit with regards to the flowering of civil society in Singapore as a combat against political apathy, he added.

Conclusion of the Forum

The session closed after three-and-a-half hours. In the final analysis, the first session of the Politics 21 Series bodes well for the future. During the forum, there were more questions raised than answered, but only because there was not sufficient time to deal with the expanse of issues that were covered. Moreover, this is only indicative that the forum was thought provoking. Discussions could have been facilitated between the speakers and the audience if only the initial plan of having the floor to break up into groups had been seen to, if not for the lack of time. To sum up, the forum was a success in that it illustrated that Singaporeans do care about the political fate of their nation, and perhaps this would lay the foundations towards more meetings of this kind. The session ended on a call for more people to come forward to help and contribute to the Politics 21 process. Anyone interested can contact or visit the website at A vote of thanks was offered for all those who helped to organise the forum in one way or another.

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