Fix empathy deficit, listen with respect to youth, says MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin at PAP convention

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SINGAPORE - Before members of the People's Action Party (PAP) can talk about emerging stronger from Covid-19, it is important to acknowledge some of the bubbles they find themselves in, how these lead to the divides seen today, and what it will take to bridge them, the party's youngest elected MP in Parliament said on Sunday (Nov 28).

Part of the solution to avoiding groupthink and echo chambers is ensuring diversity among not only PAP MPs but also party membership at the ground level, another speaker said.

In her speech at the party's convention, Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin called on the party and its activists to fix their empathy deficit and grow more comfortable understanding views they disagree with.

She noted that at workplaces, schools and homes, the effects of intergenerational differences, racial intolerance and shifting gender roles can be felt.

"As a younger Malay woman, I've been in spaces where I feel these divides very deeply," said Ms Nadia, 31.

The MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC cautioned that people have to be conscious of their inherent biases and recognise that the precious common space held between friends and neighbours is one that needs to be taken care of.

"The differences in society are not a threat; they are opportunities for us to have hard conversations - I hope that we will have them and, in listening, be at least open to the possibility of changing our minds," said Ms Nadia.

In his speech later at the event, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that the new generation of voters wants to see more debate, contestation and questioning of established ideas.

"The PAP must respond to this and show Singaporeans that we are not afraid of opposing views or being challenged, that we encourage healthy discourse. We welcome good ideas wherever they may come from," said PM Lee, who is PAP secretary-general.

Ms Nadia said that two-way empathy is needed more than any other trait at this time.

"I call for empathy that goes two ways. Empathy should drive us to amplify voices of others, to join forces for a shared cause, for our future.

"We have always been a party of action, and empathy is how we will continue to stay relevant and continue to take meaningful action for our Singaporeans."

Bukit Timah branch secretary Gho Sze Kee called for diversity in perspectives and party renewal to ensure effective communication and to have a better sense of the ground.

She noted that during the 2020 General Election, PAP fielded its largest group ever of women candidates.

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But the branches can also see women taking on more roles, she said, adding that 26.9 per cent of branch chairs and 12.9 per cent of branch secretaries are female.

She said: "This clearly does not reflect the gender distribution of our voters since half of the voters are women. We must empower more women to helm the running of branches. Gender diversity is essential to the PAP."

Ms Gho said that a challenge for the PAP is to uncover and attract more diverse believers to its cause, and ensure it taps the strengths of these people.

She noted that the PAP has been in power for many years, which does confer a particular disadvantage.

"Like any other long-ruling political parties in other countries, we run the risk of complacency. We have to avoid the dangers of groupthink and stagnation, we must not wallow in our own echo chambers," said Ms Gho.

To combat this, the PAP has to introduce new energies and a diversity of perspectives in terms of age, gender, race and background.

Party membership at the branch level has to not only reflect the diversity of Singapore, but also has to count when it comes to anticipating ground needs, giving input for policy formulation and in speaking to voters.

In her speech, Ms Nadia also spoke on the need to better partner the next generation of youth.

The PAP cannot call for youth involvement and in the same breath not make space for their voices and experiences, or dismiss them with labels, she said.

"We must listen with empathy, hear out their views as respectfully as we would like ours to be heard, think about the way we communicate as much as the message itself."

The party should welcome and nurture them and their interests, instead of lamenting how their ways are not the same, she added.

She pointed out that young people are not apathetic - many are involved in ground-up initiatives, social enterprises and volunteering for a variety of causes.

But many youth also feel disconnected, viewing institutions and the process as too slow a way to create change, compared with how fast things are moving today, she said.

So they instead self-organise and plan their own social movements and occupy spaces online.

"Where red tape stops them, our youth will get things done in their own way with or without us. Let it be with us - and let us continue to take action as a party which values empathy, relevant for every generation."

In his opening speech at the convention, PAP chairman Gan Kim Yong, who is also Trade and Industry Minister, said that the party needs to allow youth a space and role to play.

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He said: "Singaporeans tell us they want a better home - one that is inclusive, sustainable and full of opportunities. Many of them are stepping up to partner us in this effort to write the next chapter of the Singapore story.

"Many of our youth are keen to participate in deciding their own future and are speaking up like never before. We must let them feel that they have a space to own and a part to play in our party and in charting the path forward for Singapore."

Another speaker was Mr Sanjeev Kumar Tiwari, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees. He spoke of the importance of strengthening the relationship between the PAP and unions, exploring new initiatives and delivering on them in partnership with unions and the labour movement.

While efforts are already ongoing, more can be done, he said.

"This can be strengthened further as the outreach is still within the circles of the leaders and the key representatives on the both sides. We must try to move it to all members of both organisations."

More importantly, these efforts and outreach must go beyond vulnerable groups and reach professionals, managers and executives in the sandwiched class, those in the gig economy and other sectors where issues they are facing may be different from the past, Mr Sanjeev said.

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