Parliament: Vital to harness energy of youth for change, says Edwin Tong

Participants at the Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park last September. The Government will work with youth to better support vulnerable communities, embrace diverse viewpoints, and on causes like the environment.
Participants at the Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park last September. The Government will work with youth to better support vulnerable communities, embrace diverse viewpoints, and on causes like the environment.ST FILE PHOTO

Young people today want to push for a more caring and inclusive society by reducing social inequality and improving civic discourse and participation, government engagement efforts under the SG Youth Action Plan last year have found.

This, in turn, brings up the more fundamental questions of what kind of social compact and politics Singaporeans want for the country in the long run, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said yesterday.

The key is to harness the energy of youth to bring about positive change, instead of allowing uncertainty and discontent about their future and aspirations to fester and result in negative confrontation, Mr Tong said on the fourth day of the debate on the President's Address.

He outlined two key thrusts of his ministry's plans on this front.

First, his ministry will work with the young to give voice to their dreams and aspirations, and the space and avenues to engage with the rest of society. Second, Singapore needs to give its youth hope of a brighter future, including having good jobs and good lives.

The Youth Corps Internship Scheme that starts this month with 300 opportunities at social and community groups, and a Youth-Tech programme to equip at least 1,000 youth with digital skills and placements at such organisations, can help pave the way towards more opportunities.

On the aspirations of youth, Mr Tong said the Government recognises their changing values and ideals when it comes to longer-term social and political issues, and will work with them to better support vulnerable communities, embrace diverse viewpoints, and on other causes like the environment.

Building a more caring, inclusive society includes weaving the tapestry of Singapore's society to accommodate its diversity of threads seamlessly, he said. Keeping it together is a must, for when a thread comes loose, it threatens the integrity of that next to it and if left unchecked, could unravel the entire fabric.

And youth must have as much of a voice in this discourse as anyone else, he added.

"While previous generations might have chased the traditional 5Cs, this generation is concerned with some other Cs - climate change, constant competition and caring communities," he said.

His ministry will also expand its partnerships with youth on topics such as the stigma associated with mental health issues and environmental sustainability, said Mr Tong, who said he agrees with Ms Raeesah Khan's (Sengkang GRC) view that youth need to have a seat at the table to look at such issues.

"We will continue to create more opportunities and avenues for youth to partner the Government and society on issues that matter to them, and we will do so on a regular and sustained basis," said Mr Tong.

 
 

They can also be given more platforms to have conversations with older generations to implement change, while understanding the constraints and trade-offs that age and experience can sometimes give a better insight to, he added.

"The older generations in turn need to be a little more patient, accepting and appreciative of... differing views (across generations as)... these shared ideas help take us forward."

Mr Tong also acknowledged that young people had asked "hard questions" about the fairness and tone of political campaigns at the recent general election.

"They asked to see more diverse views in Parliament, more checks and balances, and more open debates on constructive policy alternatives. These concerns and questions are entirely valid, and reflect the rapid changes in our economic, political and social environment, amplified and catalysed by the current Covid-19 situation."

The Government does not have all the answers in the best of times, and in an uncertain environment, it is all the more important that it charts a path together with the community to forge a way forward, said the minister. In the same way, Singapore's diversity means there will always be perennial questions that revolve around race and religion, but also newer, divisive and contentious issues, including questions concerning LGBTQ+, equality and personal freedoms.

While it is a paradox to keep enough space between different parts of the whole while building a tightly knit society, he said, this is a paradox Singapore "must, can and will overcome" through respect and expanding the common space.

All Singaporeans play a role in keeping the Singapore Tapestry from fraying or worse, being stretched and torn apart, he said. "Yet even as there is only one tapestry, we remain individuals, with our own identities, dreams and aspirations. In fact, it is this diversity of yarns that makes Singapore exciting and more beautiful than it would otherwise have been," he added. "Our differences, our diverse ethnicities, cultures, heritage and beliefs, make for a collective which is far richer, and a whole which is far greater than the sum of its parts."

The minister also noted that today's youth face intense competition. While globalisation presents new opportunities, it also opens up academic competition beyond national boundaries. Competition for jobs and opportunities have also been exacerbated. Singapore has taken steps to better protect Singaporeans, but the "hard truth" is that competition is a fact of life, and Singapore cannot influence the trajectory of other countries, he said.

"I want to encourage our youth to realise that competition drives us to excel. Competition pushes us out of our comfort zone to be more than what we thought we could be, and realise a better version of ourselves," said Mr Tong.

 
 
 

Singapore also needs to remain meritocratic, but not ossified. "The forces that enabled the Boomers and Gen X to progress ought not be allowed to stratify society," he said, adding Singapore must work hard to ensure that meritocracy does not develop into structural inequality.

"Many of the young in other developed countries see the dreams of their parents slipping beyond their grasp and are reacting against a system which they might feel is no longer capable of giving them hope. We cannot let this happen to us."

Mr Tong urged Singapore's youth not to stop dreaming and never to lose their sense of optimism.

"This is not a 'lost generation', despite what some have said. This, in fact, is a generation of opportunity," he said, assuring them that the Government will work with them to realise their dreams.

"One day, you can tell your own kids of how mum and dad overcame the crisis of a generation. You can tell them how you united with fellow Singaporeans to leave behind a more beautiful and tightly knitted tapestry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2020, with the headline 'Vital to harness energy of youth for change: Edwin Tong'. Print Edition | Subscribe