Youth And Politics 21: Looking Ahead

Posted by Daniel Chew under Public Forums on 1 October 1999

2nd Speaker for the day, Daniel Chew, Chairman of Socratic Circle.

INTRODUCTION

Singapore has been known as a police-state or nanny-state in some western democracies. You may have heard that a recent article in the New York Review of Books has also portrayed Singapore as regimented and our people as "too frightened to think". To what extent is this statement true? Are Singaporeans simply contented, or just afraid to think? This issue cannot be easily resolved, but I hope that the rest of my sharing would be able to shed some light on this issue, especially when it comes to the specifics of Youth and Politics.

We are all aware that Singaporean youths are apathetic, especially towards Singapore political development. Are we too afraid, too busy, or simply too contented to care for Singapore? There are several factors that contribute to current situation, here I would discuss the excuses of restrictive mechanisms, the issue of not having enough time and self-censorship.

THE PRESENCE OF RESTRICTIVE MECHANISM, BUT WE CAN OVERCOME IT

There are numerous mechanisms that was instituted at a time when political stability was required to ensure the survival of the nation. Later other mechanisms were developed to achieve "better" political stability in various settings, or even perceived by some as consolidation of political powers. Let me explain what I mean by illustrating it with some examples from our universities and show how we can overcome it.

As all of us are aware, University students are able to "move" the society. A good example would be our neighbour Indonesia where the University student movement is one of the main contributing factors that resulted in the resignation of all time powerful president, Mr Suharto.

If we look at our local Universities, we would see that there are 2 major student "power bloc" on each campus, namely the Student Union and the Halls of residence. There are at least 40% to 70% of the total student population who stay in the halls. Although the Union Committee is the umbrella body for all constituent clubs and students in the university. Comparatively while, the respective management committees of the halls of residence are able to mobilise and move their residents effectively, this is not so with the Student's Unions.

The Union Executive Committee and the management committee of the halls of residence have their respective roles and responsibilities, but primarily these institutions are for the welfare of the students. However, perhaps, I say "perhaps", a way to ensure that these two major blocs do not unite to become a threat to any establishment, mechanisms that create constant conflicts between these two organisations were put in place (intentionally or non-intentionally). For instance, halls and unions were constantly required to negotiate for the allocation of the halls of residence to their respective members. Such negotiation is critical as the negotiation power affects the respective members' loyalty and participation in its activities. Thus, there would be constant conflict of interests and both the major bloc would be required to devote manpower and resources to address these issues or conflict resolution. To ensure better check and balance, the Student Affairs Office or Student Liasion Office would play a middle-man role to ensure that neither side gain an upper hand regularly. What a "stabilising mechanism"!

Let me illustrate the role of the "stability mechanism" by drawing on another example. I once represented NTU and visited several universities in China. One of the universities we had visited was Nanjing University. As a friendly gesture, we made an impromptu dinner invitation to the Nanjing University Student's Union. We extended the invitation in the late afternoon during our visit. Amazingly, within half an hour to an hour, the Union managed to shortlist 40 students from more than 100 students for the dinner that was held in the same evening. I was certainly impressed by the Union's ability to mobilise its students, and I realised that it was possible mainly because all their hostels were clustered together in the same area! It was impossible to mobilise our students in NTU in such a short period. Then, I began to understand why our halls of residence were scattered all over the campus.

Now let me move on to a non-university example where youth are still involved. This is the example of the Socratic Circle. The set-up of Socratic Circle was difficult as we were the first non-party, citizen-based political organisation in Singapore's history. The registration process took almost 2 years as the authorities were not sure of how to handle such registration. Since the authorities were more familiar with the registration of political parties, we were even advised to register as a political party to speed things up.

Anyway, SC finally got registered only when we agreed to changes in the constitution as dictated by the authorities. They wanted no political party members in the club, and all activities restricted to club members only. Initially, we had wanted an open-to-all Singaporeans club. Nevertheless, notwithstanding all these obstacles, we still proved that such a club could be formed in Singapore. But experience has shown that the constitutional restraints placed on us have limited our activities and hemmed in our drive because there are many things we can't do. For instance, we are not allowed to post even simple discussions on our website due to the constitution limits. Such "stabilising" mechanism in place would certainly inhibit the growth and development of organisations like ours!

Notwithstanding that, Socratic Circle endeavours to serve its objectives despite many of the hurdles ahead of us. That is why in today's forum the ability to take part in this activity hosted by Think Centre can help us overcome this handicap.

TIME NOT ENOUGH, BUT WE CAN MANAGE OUR TIME

The second reason why Singaporean youths are apathetic towards Singapore political development was that we have too much at stake and time is simply not enough.

We are simply too busy or caught up in our studies or pursuit of career or material wealth which usually require say 75% of our time (excluding sleeping time). We are also expected to devote time to our family, loved ones, friends, faith and religion, and any other available time will be for personal leisure and development. There are just too many excuses for us not to find time to care for Singapore and its political development.

Frankly, it is a matter of time management and commitment. For instance, during my term of office in the Union, I spent an average of 40 to 50 hours every week on Union activities, and equal amount of time on my studies, and the balance of my time on giving tuition (I was financially independent since NS days) and with my family, loved ones and church activities. And right now, though most of the time I work in office till past 10 p.m. in the evenings, and at times till 3 or 4 am in the morning. And now I am going to be a father!

Well, I can always say: time is not enough! However, I still make time and effort to initiate and run 2 charitable organisations and a political discussion group (i.e. Socratic Circle) because I am committed and willing. Ultimately, it is a matter of willingness and commitment, isn't it?

SELF-CENSORSHIP

Thirdly, there is a strong strain of self-censorship that operates among our youths. One of the Singapore 21 initiatives proposed that "there should be an attempt to spell out the "out-of-bounds markers" in more precise and transparent terms". The argument is that "when these "OB" markers are clearer, people can be encouraged to take a more active part in civic life, knowing that there is less danger of straying into them unwittingly."

Clearly, the above S21 initiatives may be well intended to address the self-censorship issue that is quite common among our people, especially our youths. We often have coffee-shop talk to voice our dissatisfaction or displeasure against certain policies. However, when it comes to formal feedback, few would make the stand. Some of us may be afraid of being "blacklisted" by infringing the OB markers knowingly or unknowingly.

On the other hand, even if there are policy issues which we are interested and hope to take up, we are usually too busy to do a detailed research on the relevant topic. Thus, we are constantly in fear of presenting the wrong or incomplete views that may be later regarded as laughing stocks.

An interesting observation is that the Political Matters Feedback Group which provides certain policy inputs in respect of government policies / national issues is growing in size. However, I understand that quite a few of the participants of the feedback group prefers to withhold information and "conceal" their personal identity as much as possible.

President Nathan's recent emphasis and call on civil society to play a role in tandem with the government has clearly indicated the government's desire to see the people sector playing a greater role in the policy making process. The government's recognition and acceptance of constructive disagreement will certainly give us more assurance to trade excessive self-censorship for active participation in the building of our nation.

WAYS TO IMPROVE CURRENT SITUATION

So, what are the ways that may help improve the current situation? One way is to review / improve the existing mechanisms that restrict youth expression in politics. This is one of the toughest areas to work on. Although some of us may have already been spending significant amount of time to work on it, hoping a change for better, much was left unattended to. I will leave this topic for further discussion later.

Another way is to overcome 3 types of mentality: a. "It does not affect me"; b. "It does not work"; c."There are others who can do the job better". "It does not affect me" mentality Often, we think that many of the policies do not affect us directly. It is not true most of the time, simply because public policies are instituted for the public!

For instance, HDB had recently announced a new policy which provides that house owner will not be granted a second mortgage loan at concessionary interest rates if they move laterally or downgrade to a smaller size flat. A first look at the policy appears that it would only affect those people who may be trying to make "profit" / "cash out" their CPF savings through such exercise. However, through a closer examination, you will agree with me that the policy will also affect those who has genuine needs for such exercise. For example, there are people who wish to downgrade to a smaller flat because their children have grown up and moved out from the flat. Accordingly, the couple may no longer see the need of a (big) flat intended for a family of say five or six which requires a higher maintenance and opportunity costs.

In view of that, I sent an email through Feedback Unit and HDB responded 10 days later. Their response is that "from the housing perspective, HDB flat owners, including elderly couples who intend to move laterally to a similar-sized flat or downgrade to a smaller flat should have sufficient funds from the sale of their existing flats to finance the purchase of their new flat. If necessary, they can still obtain a mortgage loan at market interest rates to purchase the flat."

At this point of time, can I have a show of hands: How many of you are NOT satisfied with such a reply? Thank you. Personally, I am not satisfied! To cut a long story short, there was much going back and forth before I got a near satisfactory answer. My main point is this: don't be satisfied with a reply. Don't stop questioning the underlying assumptions and keep probing until you are satisfied that certain policy will achieve its desired effect. Remember it not accurate to say it doesn't affect because most policies because they are public policies do eventually affect you.

Now let me elaborate on the"It does not work" mentality. Many a times, we thought that even if we provide useful policy input to the relevant agency, the agency may not appreciate our input, not to mention adopting our feedback.

Recently, I put forth a suggestion to a government agency but there was no response to my feedback despite several follow-up efforts on my part. However, I did not give up and tried different means to solicit a feedback from the relevant agency. Of one of efforts that I had made was to highlight this matter during a conference I attended as the Chairman of Socratic Circle. The matter was brought to the attention of the permanent secretaries and the mass media. In the end, with the assistance from the Feedback Unit, I received an official response that my suggestion had been considered and was expected to be implemented next year.

Ultimately, we need to be persistent and do not give up easily!

Thirdly, let me touch on the "There are others who can do the job better" mentality. We often think that there are others who can do the job better. We tend to think that there are people who have either the time, expertise, or interest to attend to the policy matters. We also tend to think that the authorities know best at times. But is it true?

Well, during my University days, there was constant fee hikes as the government policy then was that the students should bear most of the tuition fees. I initiated talks with the then Education Minister, Mr Lee Yock Suan, and we managed to work out some steps to assist the poorer students who were most affected by the fee hikes. One of the steps taken was the initiation of the Students' Fund to assist students who encountered financial difficulties in raising the tuition fees. Within a short 6 months' period, our Union raised more than $250,000 through the organisation of various fund-raising efforts and the balance of $750,000 was raised by the succeeding Union Executive Committee. The fund raised is expected to benefit hundreds of needy students, not including the youth leaders that were being build up through the organisation of the various fund raising activities.

This would not have been possible if we have assumed that the authorities know best or others can do the job better.

Finally we need to create an awareness of issues that make people realise that it matters. We need to help create awareness in our youths that policies do matter and make a difference to their lives. When our youths realise that policies do affect life and their interests, they will be less apathetic and be more willing to take up more active role.

We need to help create awareness in Singaporeans that policies do matter and make a difference to their lives. When we realise that policies do affect life and their interests, they will be less apathetic and be more willing to take up more active role.

An example was the introduction of the academic modular system introduced during my University year 2. One of the drastic changes (from the old system) under the new system was a student may be required to take 3 to 4 exam papers during a 2-day span. In comparison, under the old system, there is a 6-day span that allows our students more time for preparation.

Thus, when the exam timetable was announced, there was a great commotion, especially among the engineering students who were most affected. There was self-initiated petition exercise, negotiation, etc. Even the regular meet-the-student session organised by the Union had a much more significant increase in turn-out.

I was then a year 2 ACCOUNTING student, and it was just 3 weeks before my exams. Notwithstanding, I feel for the engineering students, and I WANT to fight the case for them. I put everything behind me, and started negotiating with the authorities as the Union President. Well, at the end of the exercise, the University budged in and revised the exam schedules just 2 weeks before the exam proper.

Essentially, when people realise that they have a stake, they will want to play an active role and hopefully influence things in a favourable manner. The problem now is, most of us are not even aware! And how can we play a role when we are not even aware of it?

For example, I was quite disturbed when I was thinking through our ageing population issue. Essentially, a huge portion of our gross earning goes into CPF saving, and yet, why are we constantly mindful, or even wary, of the ageing population that cannot support itself? Why is it that we are unable to support ourselves when we grow old despite the CPF savings? Isn't it an irony that the Parent Support Bill is required so that the parent can sue a child for maintenance and not create additional burden to the society?

As I thought through the issue, I realised that it was probably because our CPF monies have not grown in the way that they should have.

Just look at our CPF special account, which is also the account specially designated for retirement. The account attracts a rate 1% above the bank saving rates (with a guaranteed base rate of 4%), which normally works out to be the bank fixed deposit (FD) rate for 12 months. (My fixed deposit that matured a few days ago carried an interest rate of 5.375%.)

If a bank is paying a FD rate of say 4% for a 12 months' period, it would usually offer a higher rate (say 4.25%) for a longer period (say 24 months). That is, the longer is the maturity period, the higher is the interest rate for the monies deposited. Then, why should our CPF monies, which would be in the CPF accounts for 20 to 40 years, enjoy only the FD rate for a one-year maturity period?

Moreover, bank fixed deposit rate is usually the "risk free" rate, and hardly keeps up with the inflation rate. Does it mean that our CPF monies are actually "SHRINKING"? We have yet to consider that the rate on our CPF ordinary account (comprises 80% of our CPF monies) is pegged at 0.5% lower than the bank saving rates (which is usually 1% lower than FD rate).

Next, if a bank is paying 4% interest for a one-year FD, it should be expecting to generate a much higher returns from investments and loans. Say for instance, NTUC Bond Fund claimed to achieve an average return of 11% for the past ten years (Bond Fund is one of the moderate risk investment instruments). Under the principles of high-risk high-return and diversified portfolio investment, and assuming that CPF Board has a good mix of high and low risk investment portfolio, the returns generated using our CPF monies should not be less than the average 11%.

Next question: what happen to the margin since our CPF monies should be earning a market rate of at least 11% to 15% and we are receiving rates from 2.5% onwards?

I hope that we are not suffering a form of INDIRECT TAX.

Notwithstanding that, it is a good sign that more leeway is likely to be given for the investment of our CPF monies in both the Ordinary and Special Accounts.

Well, with the highlight of issues that would appeal to the mass and not just the intellectuals, more thoughts and interests could be triggered. And the next issue would be who should bring such issues to the attention of the public.

HOW EACH ONE OF US CAN PLAY A PART

The essential question is how each one of us can play a part? The answer is quite simple (though may be difficult to do it): spend a little time and start thinking, and help others to start thinking!

As a start, you may wish to start to join some discussion group like Socratic Circle.

Well, for your information, Socratic Circle was conceptualised as a "coffee shop" for political discussion and association. Many of the founder members were from the NUS Democratic Socialist Club who had wanted to continue with their political association after we graduated. Of course, there was also the idealistic vision of a club for Singapore citizens to come together to discuss issues, share and learn from one another.

In essence, Socratic Circle is established as a network of socially and politically concerned citizens of Singapore who are committed to a democratic country. If you are interested in our activities, feel free to talk to us or email us at socratic_circle@egroups.com. Application forms would also be available at the registration counter or our website http://homex.s-one.net.sg /member2/socratic_ circle.

Coming back, through participation in political discussion groups such as Socratic Circles, or through participation or organisation of political discussion forums such as Politics 21 forums, we will certainly create the much needed awareness and we may start thinking and help others to do so.

CONCLUSION

There are just too many issues for us to think through. Many of us are just too contented, perhaps because of ignorance, or time not enough, or thinking that there may be others who could do the job better, either in terms of time or expertise. We often opt to give up viewing our opinions or providing policy input to the relevant agencies and remain apathetic, and eventually leave the entire matter out of our minds, or just simply refuse to think.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure we are not afraid to think, and we can certainly make a difference if we are willing. And let us help one another to think better, and create a better awareness that it does matters!


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