She’s a tiny angel in white, so easily overlooked on the vast stage that seems like a sea around her. But her voice is a crossbow aimed at the thousands before her and the thousands more watching, waiting from behind computer screens and television panels. Orange ribbon of remembrance on proud display, she is not just a 9-year old. She is Yolanda Renee King and she will march together with the masses just as her grandfather, Martin Luther King Jr. did all those years ago.
When the hashtags started flying and #Marchforourlives picked up pace, it set records in more ways than one. It was changing the way we discussed gun control, true. It was also the biggest youth-led protest and shows of political activism in the developed world in years. Even younger than the pioneers of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, these protesters haven’t even entered college.
Just a month prior, Singaporeans lambasted MOF’s decision to marshal social media influencers in an attempt to court the Singaporean youth over matters of the budget. It was good intentioned but our social space simply hadn’t developed sufficiently or in the right direction for such an attempt to pan out as hoped.
With these two contrasting contexts in mind, why is it that we, the Generation Ys and Zs, appear to be so hopelessly apathetic? Might we, in some distant future, ever be capable of garnering a movement as impassioned as #Marchforourlives?
But first what does it mean to be politically engaged?
To determine someone to be apathetic, we must first define what it means to be engaged. Engagement isn’t merely scrolling through our Twitter feeds and passively taking in the headlines of the day. While awareness is useful to some extent and things such as the GP (General Paper) in schools ensure we don’t remain under a rock, they don’t encourage response. Here, I’ll lay out 3 somewhat intuitive determiners of engagement:
- To feel invested in local affairs and a sense of ownership
- To be aware of how to engage and the tools at our disposal
- To be willing to initiate discussion and act upon convictions
Finding the courage to say ‘I disagree’
When Kishore Mahbubani, one of the most eminent Singaporean diplomats, made a statement regarding our lessons from Qatar, the blowback he was forced to face from both the Minister of Law K. Shanmugam and his contemporary Bilahari Kausikan was nothing short of ugly. Though the claims being raised on both sides were valid and backed with reason, Mahbubani’s stance which strayed from the norm received a disproportionate amount of criticism. If this was the fate of the Dean of Lee Kuan Yew’s School of Public Policy what more of the average Joe on the street?
The standard mode of response of the government to critique against their stance has always been to defend their position on all counts, speaking out against dissent to avoid doubt from being seeded on the decisions taken. While useful in ensuring cohesive cooperation from the community, this also means our biggest thinkers shy away from all forms of political discourse as best they can. This is precisely why social media influencers that seem to have the greatest sway over our youth consider words such as ‘political activism’ and ‘social change’ taboo out of fear of unwarranted backlash. It’s easier to simply turn a blind eye towards uncomfortable issues and use their positions of power for less controversial campaigns and stints that do little to encourage meaningful discourse in society.
On the flipside, what this means is that we won’t have an Oprah Winfrey or Tarana Burke to model after. The main purpose of such public figures is to give youth the cue and the motivation to speak up. When even people in positions of power dither on touchy issues, the message we as the youth get is that such activism is still discouraged. It’s the pervasive sense of self-censorship that won’t be broken until we show some form of tolerance to alternative views. Fed with a constant stream of news, we know that our main media sources are quite effectively neutered and that platforms such as mothership.sg will always be seen as ‘alternative media’. When dissent, no matter how constructive, is delegitimized, it creates disillusionment instead and a polity that loses faith in active discourse.
‘I turned my pain and anger and turned it into action’ – Christopher Underwood
Let’s then assume that we suddenly have youth who wish to break free of their silos of silence in a way their forebears never dared to. We then have the question of are they able to?
The key weapons wielded by the young activists of #Marchforourlives was their ability to reach out to the masses, to effectively use rhetoric and logical arguments to engage those who opposed them. This attitude of questioning the authority in a civil manner is something that can’t emerge overnight. It needs to be cultured from the classrooms where discussion over unconventional stances are welcome and not politely rejected. The biggest posterchildren of dissent that our society has are individuals like Amos Yee and Han Hui Hui. This is problematic because their means of expressing dissent itself make them objects of ridicule rather than justice warriors to be idolized. The root of this inability to express dissent arises from the general aversion from debating contradictory stances in our educational institutes. Without practice in raising discontent, what we will see is that when issues of significance do emerge, our young either choose not to respond or respond in a manner that undermines the credibility of their concern.
But what will this change?
Yet even with a space for discussion, no strings attached, and all the tools for discourse at our disposal, we might still not choose to engage. Why? It’s an issue of relevance. In retrospect, what triggered the #Marchforourlives movement wasn’t so much the shooting itself but the prevalence of it. It simply represented the tipping point at which gun violence was an existential threat for anyone on the streets. Suddenly, it wasn’t a story on the evening news but something you might be confronted with at any time. The consequences of the issue were real. They were visceral.
Not so much for the controversial issues back home.
For the vast majority of us, discussing things such as class disparities or the lofty ideals of human rights won’t change much on the ground. This is why the recent muddle over ‘High SES’ (Socioeconomic Class) and ‘Low SES’ were met with more jokes then questions of what class and income disparity meant for us. Issues across the border such as the Rohingya Refugees and Brexit seem ‘sexier’ and more relevant to us than things happening within our home simply because there seems to be feedback from the ground of the very real consequences of this issue. Most of us hardly bat an eyelid at the verbal tussle between research fellow Dr Thum Ping Tjin and Law Minister K Shanmugam over Operation Coldstore. The hearing, as part of the public hearings by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, was to discuss measures to be implemented on such online matter in ways that are likely to be punitive. The new measures probably will be a further stranglehold on discourse and deliberate ignorance of the past but what does this matter right?
In the absence of incentive or an understanding of relevance, it’s unsurprising that our youth don’t engage or respond to policies and issues in Singapore. We don’t see a reason to.
“Our parents ask us to follow them but in some instances… a little child shall lead them” – Barbara Johns
Bringing back a quote from one of my favourite cartoon characters, “Can we fix it? Yes we can.”
For us, the youth, to participate more in the political sphere, we need a ground-up approach that begins in the classroom and lecture halls, the institutes of education that are supposed to hand us the reins of responsible free speech. This includes creating a climate to raise dissent and remain vocal. Media outlets need to be a source of opinion rather than merely facts. They need to reflect the relevance of engagement, to show what the real consequences of engaging and speaking up are to the benefit of the people. Our government will also do well to face the fact that silence doesn’t equate to consent. As a whole, it would be disingenuous to encourage involvement while simultaneously censoring the outcomes of such discussion. If not, we will continue to view dissent and critique as harbingers of misfortune instead.
A/N: Vetted by a kind soul that somehow still bears with my writing on his off-days