SINGAPORE — When the policy was revised such that Muslim public healthcare nurses were allowed to wear their tudung, it was a win for Lepak Conversations (LP). The advocacy group for Malay/Muslim issues said that while their campaigning was successful, the group also came to realise timeliness was everything when it came to effecting change in Singapore.
Similarly, SG Climate Rally, a youth-led climate advocacy group, told TODAY that even though the Government has been receptive to their views, the outcomes of their engagement sessions with government representatives are inconsistent.
“I think it’s sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what the Government will listen to versus what they won’t,” said Mr Kristian-Marc James Paul, 29, a member of SG Climate Rally.
By and large, it seems, youths share these sentiments. Of the 1,000 respondents to the TODAY Youth Survey 2023, 75 per cent agreed that it is important for young people to participate actively in civic discourse.
The survey, which was conducted in August, polled those aged between 18 and 35.
Among the respondents, 58 per cent said they believed that the Government is actively engaging and listening to young people on important issues. The same proportion said they believed that youth views are taken into consideration by the Government during policymaking.
Just over half (54 per cent) said they agreed that the Government is receptive to differing or opposing views about its policies.
The TODAY Youth Survey is an annual survey that seeks to give a voice to Singapore’s millennials and Gen Zers on societal issues and everyday topics close to their hearts.
This is the third edition of the survey, and it looked at youths’ views on housing, the importance of a university degree, career development, the gap between blue-collar and white-collar wages and civic participation.
The Government has made efforts to reach out to citizens and youths in particular, to garner their views and create a more collaborative policymaking culture.
In April, Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, announced that youths will sit on two to three panels that will be set up this year to offer their views on government policies.
Over the past year and a half, the fourth generation of Singapore’s political leaders have been engaged in the Forward Singapore exercise, which has sought to canvas public opinions on policies that should be implemented to renew the Republic’s social compact.
There are also Government-run online feedback portals, including Reach and the youth-focused Youth.SG.
But it seems that such efforts have not fully won over Singapore’s youths. Even those who regularly engage with government representatives on the issues they most care about told TODAY that they feel the Government can and should do more.
SG Climate Rally has been involved in consultations and discussions with Government officials over various climate-related issues, such as policies relating to Singapore’s goal for net zero emissions and the eligibility criteria for carbon credits for companies.
In a statement issued by the Government after one such consultation, the team from SG Climate Rally could identify several points that they had contributed.
“That was the most tangible sign to us that (the Government) took on some of that feedback,” said Mr Kristian.
Volunteer-run and youth-led group, Community for Advocacy and Political Education (Cape), has also had a fruitful experience working with the Government.
Cape aims to build an empowered and active citizenry through civic literacy, and holds workshops and events to create spaces for youths to discuss civic and political topics in Singapore.
It also has regular discussions with government officials. For example, the group worked with the Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Bill before it was passed into law, said Cape coordinator Jiang Haolie.
“We provided youth civil society and academic perspectives in multiple closed-door sessions and helped in drafting a series of illustrations where Pofma won’t be used, as a safeguard for academic freedoms,” said the 27-year-old.
“These were energising and fruitful at times, especially as we were trusted as credible and constructive voices.”
Through his experiences in such engagement sessions, he believes there is a strong desire among civil servants and policymakers to listen to youth voices and create a more open and collaborative style of policymaking.
… AND THE MISSES
Even though these youth groups have had some productive sessions with the Government, they agree that feedback after the sessions are inconsistent, making it hard for them to assess the value or impact of their contributions.
“It’s very hard to tell if any feedback that you give will be listened to,” said Mr Kristian of SG Climate Rally.
He added that submitting views and feedback to the Government can feel like a “black box”, as the group might not get any reply or indication that their contribution was received and read.
When the group questions certain policies and recommends alternatives, there may not be a response from the Government, but then later on, they might see the policy be tweaked in line with their suggestions, he said.
The group does not expect a detailed reply to every single submission they make, but a simple acknowledgement would suffice, Mr Kristian said.“I think it’s not that they’re not receptive. Sometimes they are receptive, but it’s not consistent,” he added.
Mr Jiang from Cape agreed, saying that consultations remain a “non-transparent process”.
“There is still a strong DNA within the Government towards an outdated, top-down style of state-society relations that is difficult to shake off,” he said.
“It can feel like an assembly line, where individual views become transformed into amorphous feedback, which then disappears into the black box of the Government.”
This can feel disempowering and patronising, he added.
These youth groups are also aware that they are more likely to be heard if the issue they are campaigning for happens to align with a government priority of the moment.
For example, Ms Yulianna attributes the success of Lepak Conversation’s campaign to allow public healthcare nurses to don the tudung to the coincidental launch of the White Paper on Women’s Development.
Meanwhile, it is “extra challenging” to advocate for issues that may not be a government priority at that moment, she said. For example, one of the issues that the group is championing and that has not gained as much traction with the authorities is more comprehensive sex education for asatizah.
WHY YOUTHS SHOULD CARE
Unlike most of his peers who are more interested in pop culture and other conventionally youthful pursuits, 17-year-old Putra Aqid Roslan is a regular participant in dialogues with the Government.
Most recently, he attended a dialogue conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Youth Council with Mr Shanmugam about Singapore’s stance on drugs and the death penalty.
The Republic Polytechnic student, who has always been interested in the law, said the session was particularly meaningful as he felt like the opinions put forth by the participants were thoughtfully considered by Mr Shanmugam.
Mr Putra recounted: “During the talk, many opinions were raised and many questions were asked. I could see Minister Shanmugam genuinely trying to understand our views and opinions, answering all of our questions as best as possible and making sure all of us were heard.”
This is not always the case at these government dialogues, he said.
But even if they are inconsistent, Mr Putra wishes more of his peers would get involved. Civic participation helps youths get a glimpse of the “real world” and better grasp today’s most pressing issues, he said.
He cited how some segments of society tend to have a blanket negative opinion of one party or another, and said he wants that to change.
“A better understanding among youths will allow us to instead look at individual policies put out by the People’s Action Party (Government) and figure out how to improve them, how to adapt them to the times, and so on,” said Mr Putra.
MORE TRUST AND CONFIDENCE NEEDED — FROM BOTH SIDES
To eradicate this idea of a “black box” in Government, government officials must have trust and confidence that youths can contribute to policymaking, said political analyst and Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan.
One challenge is that the different parties are coming to the table with misaligned expectations — the youths, fired by idealism and passion, may be expecting their views to have quick and tangible outcomes, such as rapid policy change. But the government representatives have to answer to many other segments of society.
“Youths need to recognise that there are other stakeholders and other perspectives on issues, and so being able to accommodate them can help lead the way to a holistic approach in dealing with the challenges of our time,” said Assoc Prof Tan.
Mr Putra, meanwhile, feels that there should be a more concerted push to encourage youths to learn about current affairs so that they may feel more motivated and confident to attend engagement sessions with the Government.
He noted how even though he attends many dialogue sessions with the Government, he still feels intimidated by the much older participants. If more youths were well-informed, they may overcome this sense of inferiority and be braver about speaking up, he said.
“I think, currently, my opinion as an individual does not matter,” said Mr Putra. “The reality of it is that the Government would not go through the effort to listen to one 17-year-old student, and understandably so, unless I go to extreme lengths to garner attention.
“But I think that’s why youths need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves and be able to collectively have a voice.”
TODAY will be going live on Oct 19 and 20 to discuss the findings of the Youth Survey. Tune in to the webinars at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/today-goes-live-2023-2259246