Youth in Politics: Southeast Asia and Singapore

Posted by James Gomez under Public Forums on 1 October 1999

The first speaker, James Gomez, spoke on Youth in Politics: Southeast Asia and Singapore.

The role of youth in the region has taken a high profile following the Asian economic crisis. In Indonesia, they were instrumental in calling for the resignation of former president Suharto. Housed in universities and well organised, they were the core of the Reformasi movement in the archipelago. Similarly, in Malaysia, much of Anwar's supporters are youth. They are the ones behind Reformasi and show up in large numbers at talks and demonstrations. This is not surprising, since Anwar was previously a youth leader himself. It establishes clearly the connection between youth and politics and the attraction youths have for others in the past who have been student leaders.

In the not too distant periphery, there are the Burmese university students in exile in Thailand. They have been championing the cause of Burma for quite a while now and are well known for their activism. Youths in the Philippines have been traditionally active domsetically, regionally and internationally. Theirs is a comparatively well developed youth political structure vis--vis rest of Southeast Asia. Thai youths are also active in political NGOs and as members of political parties. Following democratisation in Thailand their participation has increased.

Most often, these youth are prominent only within their respective countries. Networking among youths of different Asian nations is minimal. There has been an attempt through the Asian Youth Council ( a grouping of progressive youths) to bring regional youth together. This group exists through the loose participation of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia Malaysia and Taiwan. Another recent example would be a Youth Camp on human rights in Thailand taking place in October, where Korean and Thai youth are working together to establish regional co-operation.

In most regional meetings such as the ones above, you will find that Singaporean youths are often under-represented. Most often they are unaware of such meeting and collaborative opportunities, or there is not an alternative/independent youth organisation through which to connect Singapore to these events and activitiess.

Singaporean youth participation at present is only limited participation in some Japanese-sponsored exchange programs or at government-to-government contacts, facilitated through the Singapore International Foundation, the National Youth Council and youth representation from the People's Association. There is also some contact through the youth arms of the Rotary and Lion Clubs. However, most contacts of this nature are not political but educational and cultural.

The absence of youth in regional and Singapore politics is of historical nature, stemming from the participation in the Hock Lee bus riots, where the Chinese middle schools were very active, as were the highly-political Nanyang University students. There were also the very politically aware students of the University of Malaya. Students took political sides with political parties and issues. Political awareness was so great that it resulted in the government issuing suitability certificates in order to screen and prevent political types from studying at the University. Further, the University statutes were linked to enactments in Parliament in order to hinder chances for University and student union constitutions to be amended and to structurally divide students at the Universities. Even the physical landscape of tertiary institutions were designed in a manner as to prevent quick large scale mobilisations. Thus, crippled domestically, they were also crippled regionally.

As a result, youth in politics in present-day Singapore is limited. The most developed of participation can be mainly found in the Young PAP. Again, this can be divided into two broad categories: At one level, some youths join the Young PAP because they share the party's policies and aspire for a career within it. On the other level, it is made up of youth who have no other outlet for political expression, who join the Young PAP for purposes of exploration, and when they find that it is not in sync with their own political philosophy, they leave. In opposition parties, the youth wings are hardly developed. In fact, there are very few youth that it does not make opposition parties a significant conduit for youth political expression.

At the National University of Singapore (NUS), there is the Political Association and the Democratic Socialist Club. There is also a current affairs club at NTU, although the polytechnics do not have any explicitly political clubs. Most of these youth organisations at the universities are all currently dormant as much of the sting has been taken out of them during the 1988 alleged Marxist conspiracy, where some students were found to be politically active on and off campus. It followed a spate of more careful attention and scrutiny over students' political explorations. At the junior college level, again, there is no form of political education, only perhaps in discussions within the context of the General Paper, and now recently some talks on national education, which is primarily the passing of information on Singapore's history, rather than a critical political education. Other conduits such as the SIF, NYC and PA Youth do not have explicit political programmes but are active on the educational and cultural fronts. On the average political awareness, actions and education is very much on the low side for most young people. This explains while youth are not active politically in regional and international meetings, as the culture at the domestic level is weak.

In my personal experience at NUS from 1988-1992, the general impression I gathered was that no relationship was encouraged or tolerated by either, university administrative staff, lecturers or even the students themselves when it came to students and politics. This made commentators reduce NUS students to nothing more than distributors of condoms, quibblers over the cost of building floats during the Rag-n-Flag week or just a pathetic lot. To add to this discourse, PAP politicians, like clock-work, would issue their timely warnings that students should not involve themselves in politics or they would risk having their student grants cut off. Student liaison officers at the University would vet all magazines or plans to organise even vaguely political activities. The principle reason they would offer is that they were doing it for the student's own good. More telling was the political culture: lecturers and fellow students did not approve of alternative political expressions. Any attempt to do so would be seen as suspect, and even illegal. This resulted in its own in-built checking where EOGMs were often used by themselves to remove other politically progressive students from occupying positions of leadership in student organisations.

I suppose with launching of the Singapore 21 university students as citizens can take up the S21 banner for active citizenship. It is desirable that youths should take the opportunity to be more politically active. However it is interesting to note that, even when PM Goh Chok Tong asked students to affiliate themselves to political parties, there were no takers, most preferring to take up the usual card of non-partisanship. But nevertheless there is room for students and youth to contribute to politics. And the students need to decide for themselves how they would like to purpose these ideas.

This forum "From Student Politics to Real Politics" offers in a small way an opportunity for more young people to be politically aware. Hopefully as more people take part in future forums and join in the endeavour to be more politically aware, it will contribute to the country's overall development. I personally feel that a good dose of activism can only lead to a more well rounded education.

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