Touchy topics to get an airing at youth forum

Comma Convention co-organisers (from left) Joanelle Toh, 20; Shahrany Hassan, 41; and Shahrman Nayan, 28. Their aim is to get 500 young people talking frankly about thorny issues like race and religion, terrorism, xenophobia and poverty.
Comma Convention co-organisers (from left) Joanelle Toh, 20; Shahrany Hassan, 41; and Shahrman Nayan, 28. Their aim is to get 500 young people talking frankly about thorny issues like race and religion, terrorism, xenophobia and poverty.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Race, religion, terrorism among issues up for discussion at event

Every time a terrorist attack takes place somewhere in the world, Mr Alfian Ismail, 35, braces himself to explain repeatedly on Facebook that terrorism is not Islam, and that Muslims are not terrorists.

"We tend to talk about it among friends of the same faith, and the nature of the conversation is usually voicing our frustrations that we have been put in a bad light," the executive officer told The Straits Times.

Mr Alfian, his friends and a group of like-minded youth believe such misunderstandings happen because people are afraid to ask questions that are, they feel, politically incorrect or potentially offensive.

They also fear that letting such biased views fester could be damaging to social harmony.

Their experience prompted them to band together to organise a youth convention on national identity.

Called Comma Convention (Commacon), the one-day event will be held at Suntec City on Saturday next week. Their aim is to get 500 young people talking frankly about thorny issues like race and religion, terrorism, xenophobia and poverty.

A recent Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies study on race relations found that two in three of the 2,000 people surveyed found discussions on race disconcerting, as they think such dialogues can be offensive and lead to tension.

But such subjects are exactly what the team wants to tackle, said the event’s co-organiser, Ms Shahrany Hassan, 41, a managing director of a legal matters firm.

She said: "It's important that we have deeper conversations and not just politically correct exchanges, so as to appear that there's harmony.

"We need to go beyond the surface. With hate so rampant on social media, it's important to provide a platform for non-politically correct questions to be asked and addressed."

The organisers are contacting schools and youth groups and already have more than half the 500 sign-ups they were hoping for.

In particular, they want to attract youth from low-income homes and voluntary welfare organisations, for instance, so the convention will not be an "ivory tower" event, said undergraduate Joanelle Toh, 20.

Youth worker Shazana Sharif, 30, said: "I mix with a lot with youth who don't go for these conventions. They have a lot of opinions on these issues, but not the platform to do something about it."

There will be trained facilitators and stand-up comedians to get the ball rolling, as well as short plays, before discussions begin.

One person behind popular satirical Facebook page SMRT Feedback will also speak on racism, terrorism, xenophonia and online anonymity.

The event will be kept informal, said co-organiser Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 36. "We have no guest of honour, no keynote speaker - we'll just start with the comedians."

The organisers got support and some funding from the National Youth Council and a number of people from the organising team are with the Association of Muslim Professionals, "but it is not a government initiative", said Ms Shahrany.

"The Government has not told us this cannot be done, that cannot be done. We are neither a pro- nor anti-government initiative, but a ground-up one that wants to promote youth activism."

Co-organiser Shahrman Nayan, 28, who works in a film and video production firm, said: "Youth want to embrace the meaning of multiracialism. They have already accepted the people around them, but there are a lot of questions on race and religion that they want to ask, yet no one feels they can ask.

"If left unanswered, this can breed some unnecessary animosity. So, speaking up is the first step."

Those interested in attending the free event can sign up at http://commacon.asia.

Why is it named after a comma? Organisers said it is because there is no full stop when discussing these issues and they want the conversation to continue even after the event.


Correction note: Ms Shahrany Hassan's designation has been amended. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2016, with the headline 'Touchy topics to get an airing at youth forum'. Print Edition | Subscribe