PM wants them to make noise but they're just finding their voice
Thursday • September 28, 2006
• News Analysis
It takes a while to warm up young Singaporeans — even with the Prime Minister egging them on to jump up and take a shot in open dialogue.
"This evening, I've been trying hard to get people to put their hands up to speak. But some shy," quipped Mr Lee Hsien Loong, 54, at last Saturday's forum with 220 youth, aged 17 to 30, at the Supreme Court.
This was the 12th time a prime minister of the country had held an annual dialogue with young Singaporeans from schools, voluntary welfare organisations, the civil service and the media. For Mr Lee, the exchange fitted in with his priority, since becoming premier in 1994, to galvanise those born after 1965.
Then, he had called on the "P65", or post-65, group — which makes up about half the nation's current population — to step up and shape its future. On Saturday, he urged those not happy with things not to just up and leave but to "make a nuisance" of themselves until they had fixed it.
It was a rare event to witness the engagement between prime minister and youth; for the first time, the normally closed-door dialogue was open to media coverage. What was also different was a "pre-dialogue session" held the week before, where younger Members of Parliament and the participants brainstormed which 12 questions to ask the PM and by whom.
Except that Mr Lee didn't quite stick to the script when the day came. Instead of first answering the set questions and then taking follow-ups "if there was time", he often halted the flow of the 100-minute session to push for more spontaneity. Such as when he stopped co-moderator Minister Vivian Balakrishnan from moving on to the next topic because Mr Lee wanted to hear more views on race relations.
The room waited. Eventually, a Muslim teacher asked what the out-of-bounds markers are when it comes to religion and race.
"I think we're already discussing OB markers," a smiling Mr Lee said, before addressing her question on why schools in multi-ethnic Singapore prefer an open "common space" to one for each religious group.
Mr Lee wanted more crossfire. So he heard a girl's lament that her years in schools dominated by Chinese students had led to an ignorance about other cultures. Swiftly, Mr Lee whipped out a sheet listing cross-cultural activities organised by some of the schools.
No issue was taboo, from the impact of foreign talent to the rise of new media. The openness impressed participants who, afterwards, applauded Mr Lee for his "warmth", "clear, satisfactory answers" and being "not condescending".
Some voiced fears of foreign talent taking jobs away from the locals, a concern that had cropped during a string of recent dialogues between youths and P65 MPs. Mr Lee reiterated that foreign talents help enlarge the economy, creating more jobs for the locals.
The twin topics of new media and political expression took up about 40 minutes of the session.
Inquisitive youths wanted to know if Mr Lee's "older colleagues" would be able to accept an era of political expression with fewer boundaries. His reply: More young parliamentarians will be brought in to "do the talking", but opening up has to be done step by step because "politics is a serious sort of business".
What of the Government's plans to engage the young through their increasingly preferred medium of expression — blogging? Mr Lee's response was that while engagement by way of new media was necessary, "we have to experiment to see how it works". For example, should he start blogging to reach the young, he asked. He wasn't sure, but he would do it only if he had something "sincere and substantial" to share.
Turning the tables, Mr Lee then asked how many blogged. About a third raised their hands. At the same time, many participants started marching up to the mike to proffer their views on, what else, speaking up.
The lively exchange on youth expression heartened Mr Teo Ser Luck, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, who told Today: "If they want political freedom, it's because they want to have more say. If they didn't want to speak up or if the blogs were not active, then I'd be worried."
But encouraging as Saturday's session might be for Government-youth engagement, Mr Teo is only too aware of a much larger pool of youths that has not made it to any dialogue session.
Those who attend such "formal" settings, Mr Teo said, are the "converts" and "good youths who do their homework". Such as the polytechnic student who stumped him by asking, during the pre-dialogue session, if the $1,800 income bracket for S-Pass applicants (skilled middle-level workers) was too low.
But many more don't think about such things. "What should we do? Go to the void deck?" he asked, wondering if activities at housing estates would work.
For now, Mr Teo and his fellow P65 MPs can take heart in the email that have been streaming in, asking how one could take part in the youth dialogues — and they are "not from the usual-suspect schools".
"They're warming up to us," noted Mr Teo.
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