Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Youth's deafening silence


In March, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong reflected about the "bo-chap" (can't be bothered) attitude of young Singaporeans. He told a newspaper: "They think Singapore is the centre of the world ... They are not aware that there are big challenges happening outside, great developments in the region and that these would have an impact on their lives ... It is back to the so-called 5Cs."

Then, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the future premier, lamented how disengaged young Singaporeans were when it came to community work. He observed last month: "Right now, many youths prefer hanging out in Orchard Road while their parents are at community centres. This has to change."

Most recently, Acting Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, during a speech at Presbyterian High School, added more food for thought.

He said: "Our teachers observe that students are increasingly individualistic — lacking a spirit of wanting to help others. Nor are they encouraged to do so by their parents ... Success and improved living standards have reduced their appetite to take to difficult situations and learn to overcome them."

These comments paint a less-than-rosy future for Singapore. Are our young people ill-positioned to face tomorrow.

Have they started to take these value judgments as the cardinal truth?

Some time ago, I argued in this newspaper that our young people are SAD — sceptical, apathetic and detached. But, since returning to Singapore last August, I have observed a certain dynamism in the youth, which has made me revisit my view. I did not see this dynamism when I left Singapore over five years ago.

At most public events, conferences or dialogue sessions — I have attended at least 10 since my return — young people are often the ones asking questions. At the recent Annual Conference of Feedback Groups, a substantial proportion of those who asked questions were students. The questions have covered a variety of topics, not just "bread-and-butter" issues.

More young people are writing in to the press or making their views known on television or radio. Why is this happening? A newspaper reader wrote: "I think young Singaporeans are more assured that their ideas are valued and feel a stronger sense of ownership towards this nation."

This trend is best seen among young Singaporeans who are increasingly setting up social enterprises.

Last December, I attended the inaugural Young Entrepreneurs Congress held at the Ngee Ann Convention Centre that was realised by the young for the benefit of the young. Media guru Robert Chua, the founder of China Entertainment Television Broadcast Ltd, welcomed this trend and saw much promise in the youth present.

One polytechnic student shared with me the resistance he faced from school administrators when he mooted the idea of an entrepreneurs' group. He was doing very well in school, but was told: "Better concentrate on your studies."

A group of young scholars got together last year to form the Kopitiam Discussion Group, which has been encouraging others consistently to take an active interest in local and international current affairs.

Another young person has formed the Young Leaders Foundation Ltd, that has a noble aim of connecting students to role models. It is reaching out to schools.

Tan Tock Seng Hospital revealed last month that over 50 per cent of the 8,000 good wishes it received during the Sars outbreak were from young people.

Space limits me from providing further examples. Arguably, these indicate there is hope.

Our deafeningly silent young persons have perhaps borrowed a page from PM Goh's leadership style: They would rather let their actions speak.

So far, their actions show that they are less individualistic. They do not shy away from community work, which includes helping others. They are as hungry as their forefathers, perhaps for different things.

The young of Singapore are not a diffident lot, as some circles would have us believe. Rather, many of them are playing an active role, which would stand them in good stead for the future.

Let's have more confidence in our young people.

Dharmendra Yadav