This article is written in partnership with the Ministry of Communications and Information in support of Forward Singapore.
SINGAPORE — Between juggling her hectic work schedule as a florist and taking care of her two-year-old daughter, Ms Melissa Goh, 35, often finds herself strapped for time. So, participating in any kind of civic discourse is the last thing on her mind.
With getting her daughter fed, bathed, and ready for bed, “there’s not much energy left to do anything, and you just want to focus on getting yourself ready for the next day,” said Ms Goh.
“I don’t think you have much time for yourself till nine or 10 (at night),” she added.
Echoing similar sentiments, Ms Rebekka Lim, a 17-year-old social work student at Nanyang Polytechnic, said that her demanding course load and time-consuming assignments do not allow her to “commit confidently” to any kind of participation on matters of public concern.
Her assignments — on top of the usual lessons and lectures — usually require long hours of fieldwork spanning weeks.
“You don’t know how long it will take for you to finish the work. So you can’t plan very effectively. It’s hard to make commitments,” said the first-year Nanyang Polytechnic student.
For 25-year-old Daniel Loke, his career in the aviation industry takes precedence over everything else.
“I’m more worried about my career before these political things,” he said, noting that Singapore is politically stable and there is no “pressing need” for him to get involved.
“Of course, there are some things that bother me, such as the GST (Goods and Services Tax) hike and stuff like that, but in general, things are quite well taken care of,” he said.
Besides not having the time, another reason Mr Loke is not participating in civic discourse is the fear of being “cancelled”, which might affect his job prospects.
He explained that having a comment online that offers a different opinion might be blown out of proportion and go viral for the wrong reasons. “It can cause many issues for your career and reputation.”
Still, youths such as Mr Loke and Rebekka told TODAY they want to be involved if they have the time and chance, but they are not stepping forward now because of the reasons they cited.
Mr Loke in fact thinks it is “very meaningful” to participate in civic matters and is “really happy to learn more”.
He had noticed how the elderly often have difficulty getting to medical appointments and would want to look into volunteering to take them to see their doctors but cannot find the time to do so.
“It’s more of a time constraint rather than not being interested,” he said.
Similarly, Rebekka says her uninvolvement is not due to “a lack of interest”, but not knowing how to contribute given the little free time she has.
She added that she would like to participate in some of the programmes offered by the NYC but was “very worried” whether she can finish her school assignments on time.
While time constraints and familial duties are often cited by youths as reasons that restrict them from participating in civic discourse, the third edition of TODAY’s Youth Survey 2023 found that 75 per cent of 1,000 respondents agree that youths should actively participate in civic discourse.
Furthermore, a poll from the National Youth Council (NYC) this year also revealed that 47 per cent of 1,000 respondents are open to partnering or engaging the Government on issues they are interested in — a significant increase from 29 per cent in 2021.
NYC’s chief executive officer, Mr David Chua, said the increased figure signals an “encouraging trend that shows that more and more youths are keen to contribute”.
STARTING SMALL WITH CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
With the myriad of causes and advocacy groups available in Singapore, there are many ways in which young Singaporeans can get involved in civic engagement.
“Participation can take many shapes and forms, from micro-volunteering opportunities to longer-term projects such as the Youth Action Challenge (YAC),” said Mr Chua from NYC.
He added that participation can also be as simple as sharing views in surveys and polls like those from NYC or contributing to NYC’s feedback channels.
The YAC is a structured four-month programme that allows youths to act on their passions and co-create an inclusive, sustainable and progressive Singapore.
Back in 2018, Ms Attiya Ashraf, 28, like most university students during their last semester, was thinking about possible career pathways that she could take. She was interested in social impact and international development and saw volunteerism as a way to attune herself to local Malay-Muslim issues.
“At the start, when I was figuring out my journey in terms of what causes I was interested in, entering Mendaki Club was a way for me to discover whether this was a space that I was interested in committing to,” said Ms Attiya, who has since become vice-president of the club run by the Malay self-help group.
While she also volunteered at different organisations, Ms Attiya felt that Mendaki Club allowed her to explore different demographics within the Malay-Muslim community. She pioneered a women’s chapter within the organisation, where she created a support system through which Malay-Muslim women can expand their personal network and enhance their journeys in professional development.
Even if the result of the youth panels is a small policy with seemingly no significant impact, Ms Kong still sees it as a win.
These panels also offer a chance for personal growth and learning more about how policy is made. “The more experienced you are, the more you can offer valuable feedback,” she said.
Product manager Dev Bahl, 26, agreed with Ms Kong. His company, Mages Studios, uses augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to build life-affirming solutions.
Currently, his company uses AR and VR to develop training tools for hospitals and healthcare professionals. One of them includes creating a mobile game that mimics the co-op video game Overcooked to train Intensive Care Unit nurses for hospitals in Singapore.
Mr Bahl said: “The Government has set up an infrastructure that is safe, educational, and genuinely allows us to work our energies as a collective towards positive change.”
The youth panels will also further develop and expose young Singaporeans “to the requirements and needs of nation-building, as opposed to just throwing someone into the deep end”, he added.
Ms Attiya said: “I do think that the approach that these new panels are taking is quite exciting.”
She sees them as a way for policymakers and youths to better understand both sides.
For one thing, policymakers can be aware of the various issues that youths face. At the same time, youths appreciate the nuances that policymakers have to grapple with as they develop policies and initiatives that have to align with the needs of society, she added.
“It’s not a common opportunity to have a channel to interface directly with policymakers as a civilian, and I think that bridge is important,” Ms Attiya said.
STAYING THE COURSE DESPITE CHALLENGES
While the work of an activist is often as rewarding as it is relentless, getting traction for one’s cause can, at times, feel like a Herculean or Sisyphean task when it is a one-person enterprise.
While advocacy groups can delegate tasks and turn to each other for support, “solo” activists have to do it all by themselves.
Ms Natalie Song, a 35-year-old counsellor, is the co-founder of a nonprofit called Song and Pashley that provides low-cost counselling services.
The survivor of domestic violence started the outfit in 2020 when she saw how counselling helped her and her co-founder process and reconcile trauma so that they can function again.
“When I first started out, I was very eager to just get the message out there that counselling can really help people who have been through abusive relationships and come to terms with what has happened to them,” said Ms Song, who is also a director at KeyNote – Women Speakers Directory, a nonprofit organisation that connects women speakers in various fields to events.
“But I soon realised that I’m not able to just because of the limited emotional capacity that I have, that’s why I was close to fully burning out back in 2021,” she said. “I think pacing yourself and taking care of your emotional well-being is very important.”
Ms Song said she was fortunate that her three children were older (between the ages of four and seven) and more independent when she decided to set up Song and Pashley.
She even completed her postgraduate diploma in psychology counselling by taking evening classes. She shares child custody with her ex-husband.
Mr Syazwan calls himself a “wan-man show” since he is not only a one-man act but also, to his knowledge, the only one fighting to preserve Pulau Ubin.
Of the challenges he faces, Mr Syazawan recalled the time when he was invited for consultations on the protection of intertidal zones in Changi Beach.
While nature conservationists wanted to protect marine life, a blanket ban would have left islander and coastal dweller communities, who engage in foraging for molluscs and shellfish on these beaches, feeling concerned and vulnerable.
During the engagement session, Mr Syazwan noted that there were very few representatives from the islander and coastal dweller groups, or seafaring indigenous people also known as Orang Laut.
“It was very intimidating because I would feel like, well, would my sharing make any difference because all these people (nature conservationists) seemed very fixed on making sure that a blanket ban would be the best option,” said Mr Syazwan.
When Minister for National Development Desmond Lee thanked her for her efforts in a Facebook post, Ms Kang felt heartened that her opinion was taken into consideration.
NYC’s Mr Chua pointed out that the youth panels announced by Mr Tong in April serve as a good example of how open and transparent two-way communication can take place between youths and the Government.
In NYC’s previous engagements with youths, it would bring in experienced facilitators, including NYC senior staff, and also prepare civic conversation toolkits such as one on race and religion called “Beneath the Surface”, to promote healthy conversations.
This ensures that these engagements remain a safe environment where open and constructive discussion and feedback can take place and where everyone feels heard.
Mr Chua added: “Workshops will also be conducted to better equip youths with skills, and facilitate the sharing of information to help all parties understand the different trade-offs between the different stakeholders in our society,”
Furthermore, the feedback and insights gathered from both NYC’s formal and informal platforms are properly documented and shared with involved partners.
“In the case of youth panels, selected recommendations may also surface in Parliament for debate where appropriate,” said Mr Chua.
PROGRAMMES TO ENGAGE YOUTHS
Apart from the youth panels, NYC has a variety of programmes for youths to participate in and commit to in a way that complements their lives.
Youths can explore a range of programmes that range from self-discovery, such as On My Way, where youths can learn about different jobs and industries.
There, they can connect with schooling seniors and industry professionals and get a taste of various job roles.
For youths who want to learn from industry professionals during school-to-work transitions or embark on a deeper journey of self-discovery, they can tap into Mentoring SG. The national movement aims to build a culture of mentoring in Singapore and make mentoring more accessible for youth.
Mentors across various industries would help youths broaden their perspectives on their definition of success and provide guidance, support and practical advice to the youth as they navigate key transitions.
If youths can commit for longer periods of time, they can opt for the Youth Corps or participate in community projects through the Youth Action Challenge.
Youths can also start small by accessing more information through NYC’s resources, such as its Youthopia website.
Mr Chua added: “Everyone has a part to play, and we encourage youths to take any small step to be more informed or get more involved, as it will enhance our shared understanding of a collective reality and help us build towards a better future for everyone.”