The apolitical generation
SINGAPORE CITIZENS are used to a diet of constant exhortation both from their leaders and the many arms of government. On posters plastered on the underground transport system, they are advised to eat fresh fruit and vegetables; on the radio they are called on to speak good English; and just about everywhere they are reminded to be courteous to the people they meet. But among the barrage of messages, few pleas are made as frequently or as strenuously as the invitation to the country's youth to interest themselves in the politics of the nation.
To listen to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team of cabinet ministers, one might think Singapore faces a crisis of apathy among its younger generation. And, if opinion polls are to be believed, it does. Most young Singaporeans - those under 30 years of age - show scant interest in becoming politicians, or involving themselves in the gritty affairs of daily governance.
Observers say this rejection may stem from society's increasing affluence, which has moulded a generation more interested in self-advancement than wider social or political causes. Unlike its immediate neighbours, Singapore can fairly claim on many measures to have moved from 'third-world' to 'first-world' status in the space of 35 years. As a result, cosy-living 20-somethings are more inclined to seek paid work rather than unpaid protest, they say.
More controversially, others suggest that the policies pursued so assiduously by the People's Action Party (PAP) to consolidate its dominance of the political scene may have also fuelled the political disaffection. In power for decades, fiercely protective of its near-total hold on parliament and ever on its toes against enfeebled opposition, the PAP may be its own worst enemy when it comes to promoting a wider interest in public affairs.
Mr Goh made a classic pitch to teenagers in a speech last week at the prestigious Raffles Institution, a top-notch school which he himself attended years ago, as did the country's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. But in a delivery that focused on the future facing Singapore in an increasingly turbulent Southeast Asia, the prime minister added a fresh twist, admitting that for most of his audience politics was simply not terribly compelling.
'I am aware that most students do not focus on politics as a career,' Mr Goh said. 'I never did. So I am not asking you to do so now. Focus on your studies and prepare yourself for a good job. But read widely and take an interest in current affairs. Then when you are in your 30s and 40s, and you have competence, character, aptitude and drive, we will seek you out. And when you are invited to serve your country, do not turn it down lightly.'
To add some spice, the prime minister mixed the lofty ideals of public service, describing it as 'a noble calling', with a tactic often deployed when older people appeal to the young: try to send a shiver down their spines.
'Singapore may not fall under communist rule, but it can come under a bad democratically elected government. If you look at the leaders elections have thrown up elsewhere, you will see that the results were often dismal,' Mr Goh went on, although he diplomatically declined to name any examples. 'Each generation has to produce its share of competent leaders . . . If that generation fails to do so, as has happened in many countries, the disastrous consequences for the country will last beyond one generation.' It was heavy stuff.
The verbal artillery is deployed for good reason. A recent survey of the younger generation's hopes and fears in The Straits Times found them to be wired up to the Net, proud of their homeland, under stress from exams and, importantly, fearful of any involvement in the political process. (The 432 respondents were also homophobic, generally strait-laced about heterosexual relationships, and disinclined to help out with voluntary work).
'They are . . . a generation markedly indifferent to politics', the paper's correspondent reported. 'Nine in 10 would never consider entering politics.'
James Gomez, director of Think Centre, one of Singapore's few non-government groups dedicated to the promotion of open, possibly critical debate of public-policy issues, says youth involvement is missing not just from political parties, but in social groups across the board. 'Everywhere there is a general lament,' Mr Gomez says. ' 'Where is the youth?' '
Mr Gomez says many young people are under pressure from their peers not to become involved in civil society work, removing a crucial social network. 'The basic point is one of non-support that affects people in Singapore at large,' he says. 'The immediate reaction from people is 'Why are you doing that? Why don't you get a job?' Speaking up is seen as unproductive work.'
Associate Professor Lee Chun Wah, of Nanyang Technological University's School of Communication Studies, is in a prime position to observe each passing cohort of youngsters. He finds that many young people do not read the local or foreign press to keep abreast of current affairs, but instead extol the virtues of the latest video releases on MTV.
'Most young people - by which I mean those under 30 - are too comfortable in Singapore,' he says. 'Everything is provided for; they don't see the need to go into politics and sacrifice their time.'
Professor Lee says young people may also be put off by ignorance of how public policy is developed, debated and put into practice, coupled with knowledge that the PAP has traditionally marked some topics as 'out-of-bounds'.
'They're quiet. They know where the OB [out-of-bounds] markers are,' he says.
This very Singaporean concept has been developed over the years by PAP leaders to signal where they believe the limits of debate lie. Certainly these days, the markers are more widely spaced than in the 70s or 80s, but despite the relaxation - as shown by the introduction of Speakers' Corner, where people can talk in public about a variety of topics - many young people have yet to turn up the volume of national debate.
Social commentators, such as political scientist Chan Heng Chee and author Cherian George, suggest this passivity may come from government efforts to combat radicalism in the early years, stifling involvement across the political spectrum even today.
Apart from toughly worded speeches, the Government is also trying a hi-tech track in the form of Young PAP 21, an Internet discussion group affiliated with the ruling party's 5,000-strong youth wing. Set up last December, the site features debate of the mundane, such as how to enhance pedestrian safety, through to more weighty fare such as Taiwan and China, national service and the nature of citizenship in the 21st century. The postings, which may be anonymous, throw up some intriguing insights into the attitudes of those sufficiently engaged to want to log on.
Recent postings included a call from online user 'Butsdan' for young Singaporeans to come home from overseas and help the country to develop further: 'We know that u leave Singapore by the tens of thousands during the 80s n 90s during the recession years for a better life in the west. In those years our PAP govt was very oppressive in terms of human rights, et cetera, this cannot, that cannot, levy here, levy there,' Butsdan alleged. 'Now in the new millennium, the govt is much more open. They are aware of a growing multitude of problems such as the widening income gap, ageing population and growing disenchantment with many government policies such as the constant tampering with electoral boundaries . . .'
Lim Swee Say, chairman of Young PAP, declined requests for an interview to discuss the party's new venture, but has claimed it goes beyond a desire to extend the ruling party's influence.
'The real motivation . . . is not really to serve the interests of the PAP but rather to ensure that young Singaporeans would be politically aware,' Mr Lim said at the forum's launch. 'Because if young Singaporeans are not politically aware, over time there is a danger that . . . when we get into times of crisis we may lose our creation and a community and a nation'.
Mindful of that challenge and the broader pattern of youthful disinterest, Mr Lim and his party colleagues are busily trying to line up some fresh candidates for the next general election, which must be held by August of next year. The obsessive and permanent search to induct younger talent into PAP colours is the most obvious confirmation, were any needed, of the wariness of young people in stepping into the political limelight.
At the next hustings - which the PAP is tipped to win - Mr Goh will want to present about 20 or more new, preferably young, faces to convince voters that the party has a promising new generation. That task will remain a tough one unless circumstances in Singapore change, and change significantly.
'Young people trust the Government,' one Singapore citizen said. 'Most of the time they appear to have things under control. It may be like Hong Kong - people are more concerned with making money than with anything else.'
Jake Lloyd-Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)is the Post's Southeast Asian correspondent