“Mr. Wong said that, as Singapore continues to evolve, youth must be equipped with the knowledge and attributes they would need to become active and discerning citizens” (National Youth Council To Be Revamped To Better Engage The Young, Miss Joy Fang).
It is hard to disagree with Minister Lawrence Wong’s clarion call to action. For some time youths have been encouraged to be involved “in causes and projects that help build a better society … [with aspirations for Singapore to be a] democracy of deeds” (TODAY, May 31). Despite its flaws the school-based community involvement programme has contributed to rising volunteerism rates, and it has also encouraged some youths to adopt meaningful causes. The many positive individuals – who have done great work – Minister Wong cited in his speech are evidence of these trends.
Whether the National Youth Council should play a central role is another question altogether. Even without the proposed changes youth projects have already sprung up organically.
Besides questions over the new engagement efforts – how are they different from existing projects, without the additional resources; what are the existing problems with the council; and doubts over their sustainability – Minister Wong’s comments on cynicism were puzzling, especially when juxtaposed with the purported need for the young “to become active and discerning citizens”. The Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth was referencing a speech made by Member of Parliament Hri Kumar, who earlier spoke of a deep-seated sense of cynicism and hopelessness which characterised political systems in “mature democracies”. The discussion on constructive politics was still going strong.
Yet Mr. Kumar’s argument – that good voter turnout in Singapore vis-à-vis Britain, Germany, and the United States is an “expression of optimism” – is not necessarily accurate. After all voting is compulsory in Singapore. Moreover disillusionment could be just one of the many reasons for low voter turnout. Scepticism is often confused for cynicism too. If youths were to be a part of an active citizenry we must be keen to question and criticise fairly.
More precisely, how is cynicism understood by the two parliamentarians?
And community projects are perfect platforms to develop such scepticism, even cynicism. What are my motivations? Am I aware of the stereotypes, biases, and perspectives I hold? Could I be doing more harm than good? This honesty with our shortcomings sustains our involvement in activities, and critical dispositions will always come in handy.
That dose of scepticism will therefore, in the words of Minister Wong, “provide a voice for youth to influence and shape national policies”. Young people grow cynical, disillusioned, and disengaged not because of the lack of opportunities, but when they are pigeonholed into supposed “opportunities”. Cynicism does not develop from scepticism, but from the lack of avenues to express that very scepticism. Maintain spaces for dialogues and conversations.
A democracy of deeds, not just words.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.