Young politicians weigh in on civil society and youth empowerment in virtual dialogue

SINGAPORE – Politicians should pay more attention to civil society activists and hear out opposing views, said young politicians in a virtual dialogue on Saturday (Sept 5) morning.

Civil society can also serve as a “voice for the voiceless” and as the vanguard of change, they added.

The session was organised by non-governmental organisation Maruah Singapore to discuss the July general election and its effect on young people. It featured five speakers, each of whom had contested the recent general election under the banner of a different opposition party.

Topics tabled included the relationship between politics and civil society, the importance of youth empowerment, and political leadership. The session was moderated by Maruah honourary secretary Braema Mathi and also featured Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Civil society is important because it represents voices on the ground, said 28-year-old legal engineer Nicholas Tang, a member of Red Dot United.

“It’s okay for a political party to give thought leadership on issues, but at the same time, the sense of the ground is important,” he said.

These conversations need not be combative, said Ms Min Cheong, 35. The marketing and communications professional was a member of the Singapore Democratic Party’s team in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

“It’s really important to encourage a marketplace of views. It’s important to hear opposing perspectives out. And I think it’s really crucial to encourage people to have conversations that are mature, and that are sensible and geared towards finding common ground,” said Ms Cheong.

Another topic that came up was Singapore’s education system, which prompted several participants to argue that it is not encouraging critical thinking and fails to instil a true passion for learning.

“It doesn’t focus on the intrinsic joy of learning,” said lawyer Charles Yeo, 30, who contested under the Reform Party’s banner.

“Therefore, when a person becomes older, the learning that he has so-called engaged in is illusory. He didn’t really learn because he didn’t concern himself with what is the spirit of learning.”

Mr Terence Soon, a 30-year-old pilot who was part of the Progress Singapore Party’s team in Tanjong Pagar GRC and heads the party’s youth wing, stressed the importance of critical thinking in helping people see different perspectives.

“If we only follow what the schoolbooks say, we won’t be able to look at what is out there,” he said.

Prof Tan said that in Singapore, the concept of critical thinking tends to be understood as solving a problem in a novel way. But critical thinking should not just involve thinking about how to answer a question, but “questioning the question” and rethinking the assumptions that may lie behind the question, he said.

“While we recognise, most of us, that we have to expand critical thinking, we must encourage our students to question the question and question the questioner.”

When asked who their heroes were, all participants listed American politicians or public figures.

Mr Soon picked Mr Bernie Sanders, while Ms Cheong named Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mr Tang said he looked up to US author and activist Sam Harris and Mr Yeo chose Martin Luther King. The last participant, 38-year-old pre-school teacher Vigneswari V. Ramachandran, who stood under the Peoples Voice banner in the recent general election, picked US President Donald Trump.

“I think we’ve got a lot to learn from him as a country,” Ms Vigneswari said. Referring to the accusations of xenophobia cast at the US President after his decision to expand the border wall between the US and Mexico, she added:

“He was like: ‘I’m not the president of Mexico, I’m the president of America.’ And I think Singapore should actually do that… give Singaporeans priority.”

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