Youth civic and political engagement in a post-pandemic, post-GE2020 Singapore
BY KWAN JIN YAO
The Singapore government loves its task forces.
In the past year alone, it has set up a number of task forces to tackle the most pressing issues of the day. The Emerging Stronger Taskforce will guide the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery, despite criticisms of its non-diverse representation. The COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce was only assembled recently to coordinate a national response to mental health needs, even though Singapore’s mental health problem is well-established (we’ve known since 2016 that at least one in seven adult Singaporeans have experienced a mental health condition). It also followed the #pushupchallenge, widely criticised for its perceived performativity. Most recently, following the discourse on minimum wage and low-wage labour, a new task force will study how to increase the wages and productivity of low-income workers.
Task forces may well serve their purpose, yet they appear emblematic of technocratic policymaking, with little room for contrarian views. Through ground initiatives oftentimes run independently of the government, the civic engagement and political participation of youths during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 general election (GE2020) have, on the other hand, led to more active interrogation of structural or systemic socio-economic issues.
Moreover, for youths not included in these task forces and other consultative processes, issues of representation, scope, and performance also surface: Who has a seat at the table, and are these spaces conducive for non-government views? To what extent are issues seen as interconnected or having structural causes? And how do we ascertain if the task forces and their recommendations have been effective?
Take mental health as an example. Before the new mental health task force was announced, the national conversations and government discourse around mental health felt stuck in the “awareness” phase: public education, peer and family support, and even more conversations. Ground frustration was intensifying because the government could legislate more impactful solutions, for instance, to improve the accessibility and affordability of professional services. In addition, mental health issues cannot be examined in isolation from structural factors—from academic stress to climate change anxiety—which also adversely affect youth well-being. Just as former nominated MP Anthea Ong has called for the need to move from awareness to acceptance and action so as to avert a mental health crisis, the structural conditions contributing to the problem demand more than just awareness.
Youth Civic Engagement and Political Participation on the Ground
In response to these perceived gaps, some youths no longer see the government as the only channel through which change can happen. Rather than wait passively to be consulted or heard, youths have actively organised—as individuals or as collectives, in the form of ground-up initiatives and movements—to elevate their own concerns on their own terms. And even if they do engage the government, those who are not convinced that it holds all the answers are also likely to be less deferential.
Findings from the 2016 National Youth Survey show that not only are youths more informed, they are also more engaged on the ground, in their communities. About 86% and 78% of youths use the Internet and social media respectively to get daily news information on current affairs. And around 65% of youths are involved in at least one civic activity.
Beyond awareness, youths on the ground clamour for more progressive acceptance and action. The government sees some efforts as too radical and too eager to upset the status quo, and in turn seem to co-opt those who complement (and compliment) rather than challenge its agenda. Conversely, others are critical of a government perceived to be too slow, too conservative, and perhaps too immutable.
Some progressive youths might also argue that programmes and services, which do not address problems in a systemic or interconnected fashion, remain inadequate. Short-term financial assistance or food deliveries do not resolve fundamental inequalities in relation to low-wage labour or food insecurity. Increased security or surveillance to prevent sexual violence in the universities is stop-gap, if its structural and cultural causes are not addressed.
These forms of youth civic and political engagement may have been facilitated by three ongoing trends, which emerged well before 2020. First, the growth of communication channels through social media and the Internet have enabled youths’ voices to be expressed. Creative memes are especially popular, along with image decks that combine important socio-political content with aesthetically pleasing designs, in digestible and shareable formats. Groups like the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE) produce Facebook and Instagram posts which encourage greater socio-political literacy.
Second, the rise in issue-based advocacy and subsequent moves towards community-building have ensured that different causes remain in public consciousness for longer. Groups such as the SG Climate Rally (a collective for climate policy) and Students for a Safer NUS (a community to improve institutional response to sexual assault or misconduct) not only respond quickly through public statements and petitions whenever relevant news stories break, but also work to sustainably build momentum for long-term engagement.
Third, and relatedly, forms of activism have also emerged as cognisance of socio-economic and racial inequalities have grown. Ministerial and parliamentary speeches are now more keenly scrutinised, with an even greater appetite from the ground for public policy details, data, and proposals.
These three trends have only accelerated throughout the pandemic and GE2020. Since March this year, youths have seen and experienced problems with COVID-19. The “circuit breaker” experience created perceptions that the government was too reactive and inadequately proactive, providing opportunities to critique government response. In addition to the spotlight on existing problems and inequalities, youths did not need direction from the government to be motivated to mobilise and to act. Some groups—drawn to principles of mutual aid, community-building, and solidarity—were even more adept at moving online and extending help to those in need.
As youth civic engagement grew, political participation intensified during GE2020. Youths consumed and produced information, helping peers make sense of the issues. They emphasised the importance of political participation beyond the elections, signalling a continued mix of online/offline and conventional/non-conventional engagement in the future. In the end, the historic results further challenged the infallibility of the ruling party and underscored the desire among young Singaporeans for political pluralism.
Underlying a Growing Government-Ground Youth Divide
In the fallout of the circuit breaker and GE2020, the ideological, political, substantive, and representation signs which characterise the government-ground divide should be evaluated.
Ideologically (and fundamentally), the government’s increasingly outmoded insistence that change can only happen within and through the “system” shuts out meaningful engagement from the ground. For example, across multiple discursive initiatives—Our Singapore Conversation, SGfuture, the Youth Conversations, and now the Emerging Stronger Conversations—conversation fatigue and scepticism begin to set in when the outcomes are poorly defined, when it is not clear how perspectives are aggregated and communicated, and when the discussions skirt around demands for structural or systemic changes. An additional challenge is the perception that the government sets the agenda at these conversations and remains less amenable to alternative voices.
As a consequence, youths turn away from these conversations. Instead, some of them choose to work with or through nominated MPs (who are more visible), MPs of the ruling party who are sympathetic to particular causes (who may have touted backgrounds in activism and advocacy), or opposition MPs (who have increased in numbers since GE2020). Youths are also turning towards alternative media and personal social media platforms where posts, statements, and petitions can circulate virally with the right strategy. Those on the ground can skip these conversations to elevate their perspectives. Interactions on these social media platforms may well be more effective than current, top-down national conversations.
Political participation during GE2020 has also empowered more youths to realise that they can reach their ministers and parliamentarians directly, and—more critically—that they can bring about change at the ballot box.
Hence, politically, in the context of a democracy, if change can happen at the ballot box, then youths on the ground who are playing the long game for social change do not have to appeal to office holders per se, but can focus their outreach to other Singaporeans, usually other like-minded youths. Long-term issue-based advocacy and community-building can ensure the longevity of initiatives, creating a base which could translate into future policy gains. In doing so, they do not necessarily have to align with the established positions of political parties and could instead—especially with proof of popular support—lobby parties to take up or advocate for issues.
Substantively too, youths are more likely to be disappointed by the slow pace of policy change, even if they understand trade-offs and that shifts in public opinion take time. On issues such as mental health (as mentioned, on which the ground has been looking to the government for more extensive and expansive reform), climate change (on which youth advocacy has been most visible), and LGBTQ rights (on which younger Singaporeans are more inclined to believe that same-sex marriage is not wrong and to support the repeal of Section 377A), the ground will not be pacified with speeches or conversations which are not matched by actual policies.
In terms of representation, well aware of the racial and social-economic divide in Singapore, the extent to which national or government activities actually engage a demographically diverse group of youth participants has been questioned. The Youth Conversations reportedly reached 3,000 youths in person. However, how many were from disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds or identified as sexual and gender minorities? Which participants had already engaged with the government through past events or similar activities? Beyond the final report and recommendations, were participants satisfied with the conversations and the issues which were (or were not) addressed?
In other words, how much of that rhetoric translated into actual change?
The Collective Challenge of Moving From Awareness to Acceptance and Action
For both the government and the ground, bridging their divide depends on the ability to engage other youths who are decidedly not apathetic, yet figuring out how to be more civically involved.
For the government, this means moving beyond its comfort zone to engage an increasingly diverse group of youths who are more likely to challenge dominant ideologies rather than conform. Fresh and diverse views are out there. They will not surface through antiquated conversation formats (or Zoom meetings) involving the same, tired faces. For example, the less the government hears from someone like me, a middle-income, university-educated Chinese male aspiring academic, the better. It has to hear narratives which may not cohere with conventional expectations and to create more inclusive platforms for these narratives to be presented.
Furthermore, to accept that constructive conversations can happen outside of its ambit does not entail disengagement from non-government affiliated groups—even including those who may be suspicious of or hostile to its agenda—but rather calls for a non-condescending acknowledgement that socio-economic problems are recognised as connected and therefore require systemic change. In this vein, more inclusive platforms mean the engagement of more diverse voices in government task forces and consultations.
For youths who work with communities on the ground, whose roles are to imagine and to present ambitious and alternative visions which often transcend simple fixes, it is difficult to chart a way forward, to bridge this divide. Some are cautious not to be seduced by the trappings of being at the table, for instance, to be co-opted as part of government task forces, conversations, and initiatives. How does the ground negotiate systems and navigate structures, while trying to challenge and to bring about the narratives which change these systems and structures? While the Internet has been useful for the building of communities and solidarity, the ground would benefit from reaching out to wider audiences—beyond traditional spaces, such as the university—to expand and to diversify the base.
As it is for the government, the ground will only preach to the converted if it does not involve and reach a wider, more diverse audience.
Youth civic engagement and political participation can be fostered, and with COVID-19 (and GE2020) there is no better opportunity to articulate aspirations for a post-pandemic Singapore. As the government and the ground both work to reach out to even more youths, progress does not mean meeting strictly in the “middle” or the “centre,” but at the very least taking a step towards each other, with the government—arguably, with its mandate, resources, and political capital—taking a few more, perhaps even wider, steps.
Kwan Jin Yao is a social welfare PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research centres on the development, well-being, and civic engagement of adolescents and young adults, especially those from low-income families. He also runs socialservice.sg, a website, newsletter, and podcast covering social service research in Singapore. His personal website is accessible at kwanjinyao.com.
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Image credit: SG Climate Rally; Photo was taken at SG Climate Rally 2019.