SINGAPORE — When it was announced two years ago that Muslim nurses in public healthcare would be allowed to wear the “tudung”, or headscarf, while at work, the team at Lepak Conversations felt that they had played a part — however small it was — in the policy change.
The ban on the wearing of the tudung in certain uniformed services had long been a much-debated issue among the Muslim community. When it was overturned, the youth-led advocacy group for Malay/Muslim issues had been adding their voices to the cause for a year.
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the change in August 2021, he said the Government had been observing the situation in Singapore and that by and large, interactions between different races were comfortable.
He noted that non-Muslims were more used to seeing Muslim women wearing headscarves, and Muslim women wearing the tudung at ease interacting socially with non-Muslim men and women in most settings.
Aside from online campaigning, Lepak Conversations had taken part in engagement sessions with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) before this announcement was made, to share their views and suggestions on how the policy change could be implemented.
But the team also realised that their success was largely due to good timing.
“We were lucky that our advocacy on allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab in healthcare aligned with the development of the White Paper on Women’s Development and we were therefore able to advance the issue,” said Lepak Conversations founder Yulianna Frederika, 25.
The Government had produced the White Paper last year to lay out proposals to support women’s aspirations and address challenges they face, including creating equal opportunities for women in the workplace.
“For other issues that weren’t as relevant to national initiatives, we didn’t see the same success,” Ms Yulianna said.
The TODAY Youth Survey is an annual survey that seeks to give a voice to Singapore’s millennials and Gen Zers on societal issues and everyday topics close to their hearts.
This is the third edition of the survey, and it looked at youths’ views on housing, the importance of a university degree, career development, the gap between blue-collar and white-collar wages and civic participation.
The Government has made efforts to reach out to citizens and youths in particular, to garner their views and create a more collaborative policymaking culture.
In April, Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, announced that youths will sit on two to three panels that will be set up this year to offer their views on government policies.
Over the past year and a half, the fourth generation of Singapore’s political leaders have been engaged in the Forward Singapore exercise, which has sought to canvas public opinions on policies that should be implemented to renew the Republic’s social compact.
There are also Government-run online feedback portals, including Reach and the youth-focused Youth.SG.
But it seems that such efforts have not fully won over Singapore’s youths. Even those who regularly engage with government representatives on the issues they most care about told TODAY that they feel the Government can and should do more.
SG Climate Rally has been involved in consultations and discussions with government officials over various climate-related issues, such as policies relating to Singapore’s goal for net zero emissions and the eligibility criteria for carbon credits for companies.
In a statement issued by the Government after one such consultation, the team from SG Climate Rally could identify several points that they had contributed.
“That was the most tangible sign to us that (the Government) took on some of that feedback,” said Mr Paul.
Through his experiences in such engagement sessions, he believes there is a strong desire among civil servants and policymakers to listen to youth voices and create a more open and collaborative style of policymaking.
… AND THE MISSES
Even though these youth groups have had some productive sessions with the Government, they agree that feedback after the sessions is inconsistent, making it hard for them to assess the value or impact of their contributions.
“It’s very hard to tell if any feedback that you give will be listened to,” said Mr Paul of SG Climate Rally.
He added that submitting views and feedback to the Government can feel like a “black box”, as the group might not get any reply or indication that their contribution was received and read.
When the group questions certain policies and recommends alternatives, there may not be a response from the Government, but then later on, they might see the policy be tweaked in line with their suggestions, he said.
The group does not expect a detailed reply to every single submission they make, but a simple acknowledgement would suffice, Mr Paul said.“I think it’s not that they’re not receptive. Sometimes they are receptive, but it’s not consistent,” he added.
Mr Jiang from Cape agreed, saying that consultations remain a “non-transparent process”.
“There is still a strong DNA within the Government towards an outdated, top-down style of state-society relations that is difficult to shake off,” he said.
“It can feel like an assembly line, where individual views become transformed into amorphous feedback, which then disappears into the black box of the Government.”
This can feel disempowering and patronising, he added.
These youth groups are also aware that they are more likely to be heard if the issue they are campaigning for happens to align with a government priority of the moment.
For example, Ms Yulianna attributes the success of Lepak Conversation’s campaign to allow public healthcare nurses to don the tudung to the coincidental launch of the White Paper on Women’s Development.
Meanwhile, it is “extra challenging” to advocate for issues that may not be a government priority at that moment, she said. For example, one of the issues that the group is championing that has not gained as much traction with the authorities is more comprehensive sex education for asatizah.
He noted how even though he attends many dialogue sessions with the Government, he still feels intimidated by the much older participants. If more youths were well-informed, they may overcome this sense of inferiority and be braver about speaking up, he said.
“I think, currently, my opinion as an individual does not matter,” said Putra. “The reality of it is that the Government would not go through the effort to listen to one 17-year-old student, and understandably so, unless I go to extreme lengths to garner attention.
“But I think that’s why youths need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves and be able to collectively have a voice.”
TODAY will be going live on Oct 19 and 20 to discuss the findings of the Youth Survey. Tune in to the webinars at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/today-goes-live-2023-2259246