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The Big Read: Despite busy lives and personal pursuits, youths can help shape Singapore in ways big and small

SINGAPORE — Between juggling her hectic work schedule as a florist and taking care of her two-year-old daughter, Ms Melissa Goh, 35, often finds herself strapped for time. So, participating in any kind of civic discourse is the last thing on her mind. 

She now serves in a volunteer role as a vice-president of Mendaki Club where she leads efforts in supervising data/impact evaluation operations and social programmes.

While Ms Attiya found her way to civic engagement through volunteering, Ms Pamela Low, 28, founder of Tingkats, got her start with a student exchange trip to Germany. 

Tingkats is an initiative to work with communities, schools and businesses here to go disposables-free. 

During her semester abroad in 2017, Ms Low was inspired by the measures Germany had to curb single-use plastic, from stringent rules of sorting recyclables to charging for plastic bags. 

“That whole experience helped me see the future,” she said, referring to how Southeast Asian countries could perhaps “do it differently and better”. 

“It gave a glimpse of what was possible and what was actually important,” added Ms Low, who set up Tingkats in 2018. 

Inspired by the strides taken by Germany and, by extension, the European Union to meet their targets for renewable energy, she started small with initiatives around her university campus at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to reduce the use of single-use plastic disposables. 

She worked with the fruit juice stall in one of the canteens in NUS to implement a disposable charge on disposable cups and encourage the use of reusable glass cups. 

For Mr Nor Syazwan Abdul Majid, 27, his venture into advocacy work was inspired by his mother, who grew up in Pulau Ubin. In 2018, he founded an online social platform, Wan’s Ubin Journal, to preserve and celebrate the culture and heritage of the Orang Pulau (islanders) community of Pulau Ubin. 

Mr Syazwan is a full-time student at the Singapore University of Social Sciences pursuing a degree in social work with a minor in sociology.

He lives in mainland Singapore, but regularly conducts hikes around Pulau Ubin to share more about the island’s cultural heritage. 

“I will say that grief is what drew me to do the work that I do…because my mum is grieving over the loss of her kampung, and that somehow got enmeshed with my grief of not being able to experience the heritage that my mum got to experience,” he said.

“My way of trying to resolve my grief is by taking up advocacy.” 

THE INSPIRATION FOR YOUTH PANELS

In April, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong announced that youths will sit on two to three panels set up this year to offer their views on government policies.

He first announced the youth-led panels in Parliament on April 21, inspired by a TODAY news report published on April 11 about the desire of Singaporean youths to be engaged in in-depth discourse with policymakers.

This will allow the youth to play a more significant role in policy formulation beyond just dialogues and consultations.

Topics from the panel that merit further discussion may be presented in Parliament, and the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth may sponsor a White Paper or Green Paper on the proposal for consideration in Parliament, said Mr Tong in April. 

These youth panels will look into financial security, careers and lifelong learning, digital well-being, and environment and sustainability.

Ms Kong Man Jing, 29, is looking forward to the youth panels and for more youths to have a chance at “co-creating policies” with the Government.

Ms Kong creates bite-sized educational videos on science and the environment on TikTok and Instagram using the handle of JustKeepThinkingSg. 

“I think we should leverage this opportunity that the Government has given. They are already extending their hand out; it’s time to extend our hand out and build something together,” said the sustainability and environment influencer. 

Even if the result of the youth panels is a small policy with seemingly no significant impact, Ms Kong still sees it as a win. 

These panels also offer a chance for personal growth and learning more about how policy is made. “The more experienced you are, the more you can offer valuable feedback,” she said. 

Product manager Dev Bahl, 26, agreed with Ms Kong. His company, Mages Studios, uses augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to build life-affirming solutions. 

Currently, his company uses AR and VR to develop training tools for hospitals and healthcare professionals. One of them includes creating a mobile game that mimics the co-op video game Overcooked to train Intensive Care Unit nurses for hospitals in Singapore. 

Mr Bahl said: “The Government has set up an infrastructure that is safe, educational, and genuinely allows us to work our energies as a collective towards positive change.”

The youth panels will also further develop and expose young Singaporeans “to the requirements and needs of nation-building, as opposed to just throwing someone into the deep end”, he added. 

Ms Attiya said: “I do think that the approach that these new panels are taking is quite exciting.”

She sees them as a way for policymakers and youths to better understand both sides. 

For one thing, policymakers can be aware of the various issues that youths face. At the same time, youths appreciate the nuances that policymakers have to grapple with as they develop policies and initiatives that have to align with the needs of society, she added.

“It’s not a common opportunity to have a channel to interface directly with policymakers as a civilian, and I think that bridge is important,” Ms Attiya said.

HATERS, TROLLS, AND KEYBOARD WARRIORS

While the activists and advocates interviewed see the internet as a good platform to raise awareness for important issues, they also recognise that it can be a breeding ground for negative and hateful comments.  

They told TODAY that they have dealt with their fair share of internet trolls and keyboard warriors who hold diametrically opposite views. 

Mental health and environmental advocate Dorcas Tang, 23, remembers her first brush with such negative comments when she was writing about the clearing of Dover Forest to make way for housing in 2021. 

She shared on her Instagram platform, @earthtodorcas, that while land is scarce in Singapore, it shouldn’t be at the expense of destroying the habitat of animals. 

“In the comment section, people did not hold back,” recalled Ms Tang.

“I thought I was ready for a bit of tension since it was quite a heated topic, but I was still quite taken aback when people started with the negative comments.”

Some called her views “privileged” while others chastised her perceived ignorance of the urgent need for public housing to meet demand amid rising prices. 

“It’s not something that I deal with most of the time. When it does happen, I try to take a step back to give myself space between me and social media,” said Ms Tang. 

After taking a breather, she would return to the comment section and read those who provided constructive views. 

“I engage with those who are offering an alternative perspective and see how I can learn from them,” she said. Through some of the comments, she understood that the Government had to consider the wider needs of Singaporeans. 

Like Ms Tang, Mr Syazwan has also met with resistance in his conservation efforts for Pulau Ubin.

“Some will say there’s no point in preserving the kampung houses, just to let them die out.” 

Recently, Mr Syazwawn saw a comment that said his work is a “lost cause”. It also said that preserving Ubin is a waste of money, and turning it into another Sentosa with a casino would be a better choice. 

To that, Mr Syazwan said: “Usually, people would comment whatever they want because they are protected behind a mask online. With this kind of people, we just ignore them because they don’t understand.” 

While he is aware that not everyone will agree with his methods of preserving kampung life, there are also many who agree that his work is important. 

Mr Syazwan said he has since developed a thick skin — his way of protecting himself “from all this form of rejection and naysayers”. 

STAYING THE COURSE DESPITE CHALLENGES

While the work of an activist is often as rewarding as it is relentless, getting traction for one’s cause can, at times, feel like a Herculean or Sisyphean task when it is a one-person enterprise. 

While advocacy groups can delegate tasks and turn to each other for support, “solo” activists have to do it all by themselves.

Ms Natalie Song, a 35-year-old counsellor, is the co-founder of a nonprofit called Song and Pashley that provides low-cost counselling services. 

The survivor of domestic violence started the outfit in 2020 when she saw how counselling helped her and her co-founder process and reconcile trauma so that they can function again.

“When I first started out, I was very eager to just get the message out there that counselling can really help people who have been through abusive relationships and come to terms with what has happened to them,” said Ms Song, who is also a director at KeyNote – Women Speakers Directory, a nonprofit organisation that connects women speakers in various fields to events.

“But I soon realised that I’m not able to just because of the limited emotional capacity that I have, that’s why I was close to fully burning out back in 2021,” she said. “I think pacing yourself and taking care of your emotional well-being is very important.”

Ms Song said she was fortunate that her three children were older (between the ages of four and seven) and more independent when she decided to set up Song and Pashley.

She even completed her postgraduate diploma in psychology counselling by taking evening classes. She shares child custody with her ex-husband.

Mr Syazwan calls himself a “wan-man show” since he is not only a one-man act but also, to his knowledge, the only one fighting to preserve Pulau Ubin. 

Of the challenges he faces, Mr Syazawan recalled the time when he was invited for consultations on the protection of intertidal zones in Changi Beach. 

While nature conservationists wanted to protect marine life, a blanket ban would have left islander and coastal dweller communities, who engage in foraging for molluscs and shellfish on these beaches, feeling concerned and vulnerable. 

During the engagement session, Mr Syazwan noted that there were very few representatives from the islander and coastal dweller groups, or seafaring indigenous people also known as Orang Laut. 

“It was very intimidating because I would feel like, well, would my sharing make any difference because all these people (nature conservationists) seemed very fixed on making sure that a blanket ban would be the best option,” said Mr Syazwan.

In the end, the participants during the consultation understood his perspective and acknowledged the needs of the Orang Pulau community. The idea of a blanket ban on foraging was also shelved for the time being. 

While he admitted to feeling burnt out at times, Mr Syazwan credited his fellow classmates in his course for keeping him going — by providing him with moral support, and even showing up for his monthly clean-ups, named Project Gotong Royong, at Pulau Ubin. 

Just like Ms Song, he has learnt to take it one step at a time and celebrate the small wins.

“If I were to give my younger self some advice, it would be ‘do not be hard on yourself’. If you always have such high expectations, how on earth are you going to reach it?” 

In his experience working with the National Parks Board and other government agencies, he has learnt to set “low expectations” and to take incremental steps for the long journey ahead. 

While some youths might hold back from actively participating in civic discourse for fear of blowback on their jobs, Mr Kenji Naito, the chief executive officer of recruitment agency Reeracoen Singapore, said: “Employers need to strike a balance between respecting employees’ rights and protecting the company’s brand.”

It is crucial for companies to have clear human resource policies in place that address the potential impact of employees’ social media activities on the organisation, said Mr Naito. This includes providing guidelines on appropriate online behaviour, avoiding discriminatory language, and ensuring that personal views are distinguished from official company positions.

“Proactive measures, such as periodic policy revisions and employee training, can help create a supportive work environment while safeguarding the company’s interests,” he added.

FROM FEEDBACK TO POLICY 

When it comes to translating feedback into actionable plans, some activist groups have commented that it often feels like submitting their ideas to a “black box”, where it is difficult to ascertain how the Government deals with feedback. 

While there may be some truth to it, Ms Tang from @earthtodorcas noted that the “black box” has become “smaller and smaller over the years”.

“The transparency within the Government has been getting better and better throughout the last few years,” she said. 

“If I meet up with ministers directly and I talk to them, actually, they’re very open to sharing their opinions. I feel I can share my opinions very freely with them too.” 

Ms Kong from JustKeepThinkingSg recalled how in 2022, some members of the public were seen removing marine creatures from the intertidal zones of Changi Beach. She then posted a video on TikTok explaining why it was so damaging to the environment and how it hurt the animals. 

When Minister for National Development Desmond Lee thanked her for her efforts in a Facebook post, Ms Kang felt heartened that her opinion was taken into consideration. 

NYC’s Mr Chua pointed out that the youth panels announced by Mr Tong in April serve as a good example of how open and transparent two-way communication can take place between youths and the Government.

In NYC’s previous engagements with youths, it would bring in experienced facilitators, including NYC senior staff, and also prepare civic conversation toolkits such as one on race and religion called “Beneath the Surface”, to promote healthy conversations.

This ensures that these engagements remain a safe environment where open and constructive discussion and feedback can take place and where everyone feels heard. 

Mr Chua added: “Workshops will also be conducted to better equip youths with skills, and facilitate the sharing of information to help all parties understand the different trade-offs between the different stakeholders in our society,”

Furthermore, the feedback and insights gathered from both NYC’s formal and informal platforms are properly documented and shared with involved partners. 

“In the case of youth panels, selected recommendations may also surface in Parliament for debate where appropriate,” said Mr Chua.

PROGRAMMES TO ENGAGE YOUTHS  

Apart from the youth panels, NYC has a variety of programmes for youths to participate in and commit to in a way that complements their lives. 

Youths can explore a range of programmes that range from self-discovery, such as On My Way, where youths can learn about different jobs and industries. 

There, they can connect with schooling seniors and industry professionals and get a taste of various job roles. 

For youths who want to learn from industry professionals during school-to-work transitions or embark on a deeper journey of self-discovery, they can tap into Mentoring SG. The national movement aims to build a culture of mentoring in Singapore and make mentoring more accessible for youth. 

Mentors across various industries would help youths broaden their perspectives on their definition of success and provide guidance, support and practical advice to the youth as they navigate key transitions.

If youths can commit for longer periods of time, they can opt for the Youth Corps or participate in community projects through the Youth Action Challenge.

Youths can also start small by accessing more information through NYC’s resources, such as its Youthopia website.

Mr Chua added: “Everyone has a part to play, and we encourage youths to take any small step to be more informed or get more involved, as it will enhance our shared understanding of a collective reality and help us build towards a better future for everyone.”  

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