A heart for social causes

Far from being keyboard warriors, some millennials roll up their sleeves to address social issues they care about

Millennials have had many unflattering labels - snowflake, strawberry generation, self-absorbed, spoilt, si gui kia (Hokkien for ingrate, wastrel) - thrown at them.

And some say they are keyboard warriors too - firing off comments on their social-media accounts behind the shroud of their laptops and mobile devices.

But do not call Mr Ho Xiang Tian, 23, a keyboard warrior or social-media activist.

When it comes to promoting his causes, the founder of #LepakInSG - a ground-up group that organises environment-related events in Singapore - would much rather hold workshops about waste management or organise events about water pollution.

In fact, it was because he attended or helped out at so many events that he decided to start the group in early 2016. Its Facebook page has more than 1,600 followers.

Earlier this month, an OCBC Bank online survey of 866 people aged 16 to 29 found they were largely concerned with societal causes.

Four in five said human rights, poverty, the environment, helping the elderly and mental health awareness were important to them.

A 2017 National Youth Council survey that polled 3,531 people aged 15 to 34 found that nearly seven in 10 were involved in community groups such as those for the arts, sports or social welfare in 2016, up from 65 per cent the previous year.

But millennials have also been accused of merely ranting about these issues on social media - earning them the label of social justice warrior (SJW), a derogatory term for a person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views.

It is usually assumed that these views are shared through channels like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Indeed, National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Chua Beng Huat says the critical difference between activism two or three decades ago and now is social media.

"Pre-social media, only the most articulate were able to get published in the very limited two pages in The Straits Times forum," he says, adding that many social issues went unvoiced.

"Now, with the Internet, opinion space is practically unlimited."

All 10 of the groups or individuals involved in social causes The Sunday Times spoke to have some level of social-media presence.

Slacktivism, the act of signalling support for a cause while doing very little for it concretely, is yet another term commonly associated with millennials.

For instance, slacktivists may indicate their support by just liking or following a social-media page.


Cape (Community for Advocacy and Political Education) leader Jiang Haolie, 23, facilitating a discussion on how civil society can galvanise public support for their causes at a Cape workshop in March 2019. PHOTO: JOEL YEW

But millennial activists say that social media does help.

Student-run Community for Advocacy and Political Education (Cape) uses its Facebook page, which has about 1,700 followers, to help build bridges to civil society and improve political literacy. A post by Cape that provided infographic summaries of the recent fake news Bill, for instance, was shared more than 150 times in two days.

The Local Rebel, an intersectional feminist collective, has more than 2,500 followers on Twitter, which it uses to share ideas and promote its print publication. Co-founder Irie Aman, 22, says the group's target audience are youth aged 15 to 25.

"We found that many used Twitter more than Facebook, so it was an effective platform for us to achieve our aim of making activism accessible," says the third-year NUS psychology and sociology undergraduate.

But beyond the virtual realm, millennials are actually getting their hands dirty - sometimes quite literally.

Every month, a group of migrant workers from India and Bangladesh gathers at a field near Boon Keng MRT station to teach Singaporeans to play cricket.

They are part of Vaangae Anna ("come, brother" in Tamil), an initiative co-founded in 2016 by Singaporeans Hema Kalamogan, 27, and Shobana Sreetharan, 26.

Ms Hema, who also volunteers at migrant advocacy group TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), says: "Migrant workers are often looked down on here. Many Singaporeans don't see that they have their own strengths and passions as well, so we wanted to change that."

Other than social media, the face of activism has also changed in other ways.

Today, you will not find the fiery placard-wielding, protest-marching activists of the founding and independence years.

 

But there are a handful of activists who still run afoul of the authorities.

Last October, artist Seelan Palay was arrested under the Public Order Act for a performance art tribute to political detainee Chia Thye Poh. He was jailed for two weeks after refusing to pay a fine of $2,500.

More recently, The Straits Times reported last month that prosecutors were seeking a fine of between $10,000 and $15,000 for activist Jolovan Wham, who was found guilty last year for a Facebook post that scandalised the judiciary.

Millennials, however, seem to have gotten the knack of advocacy without getting themselves arrested. Some even work in partnership with the Government.

Ms Saza Faradilla, 24, campaigns against sunat perempuan - the practice of female genital cutting in the Malay community here.

She has worked at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) and UNHCR (the United Nations' refugee agency) Malaysia.

She attended Meet-the-People sessions and e-mailed her Member of Parliament to present her research and views about the issue.

She eventually met Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim to discuss the issue.

"I think it's important to keep meeting (government representatives) as this keeps the issue at the forefront," she says.

Last February, Mr Ho and volunteers of #LepakInSG gathered feedback on the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, which outlines the national vision and plans for a more liveable and sustainable Singapore, and successfully asked for responses from more than 10 government agencies.

"Having done (environmental work) for a few years now, what we have to say is taken more seriously by them. Over time, we show what we say makes sense and they see the value in it," Mr Ho says.

Some young people have also chosen to push their causes by working for politicians.

A team of legislative assistants, mostly in their 20s and 30s, works for Nee Soon MP Louis Ng, helping him research issues ranging from single parents to educational mobility for Parliament.

Can they be considered activists?

Ms Melissa Chong, 29, says it helps that she and her team members come from the same civil society backgrounds.

She was with the Singapore Youth for Climate Action, while a team member met Mr Ng while volunteering at the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, which he founded.

"It doesn't seem like an obvious choice to effect social change by helping a politician, but I think it can be more effective, though most people don't," says Ms Chong, who is also a sustainability consultant.

Do millennial activists feel that their youth put them at a disadvantage?


Daryl Yang, 25, with Yale-NUS College professor Khoo Hoon Eng, marching at the San Francisco Pride parade with the National Center for Lesbian Rights in June 2016. Mr Yang was an intern at the centre. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DARYL YANG

Mr Daryl Yang, who co-founded a network for students from the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community in universities, says: "Activism evokes a certain response. Especially for younger people, we are often seen through the SJW stereotype, so we need to find ways to surprise people so they don't shut down immediately."

The 25-year-old also works with the Disabled People's Association Singapore.

In multimedia journalist Simon Vincent's book, The Naysayer's Book Club (2018), which profiles 26 figures from local civil society known for challenging the status quo, anti-Internal Security Act activist and former political detainee Teo Soh Lung says she is going to retire from activist work.

"Okay, you young people. Singapore is yours," she says.

Mr Yang shared an analogy he found inspiring from a talk by Dr Vivienne Wee, a founding member of Aware.

Being an activist, she said, is like trying to move a paper boat to shore in a lake by creating ripples with thrown rocks.

Their respective shores, whether fighting for civil liberties, climate change, against discrimination of sexual minorities, may sometimes seem far away.

Sometimes you might rock the boat too much and you may not even know if or when it is getting to the shore - but at least it is moving.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline 'A heart for social causes'. Print Edition | Subscribe