Reaching out to our youths

Last weekend as I was collecting my mail at my void deck, a youth about 17 years old with arms covered with tattoos and a cigarette between his fingers came around the corner and ejected a wad of spit on the floor just a few feet from me. I looked at him and told him in the most civil tone I could manage at that point, “Excuse me, please don’t spit on the floor”.

He sheepishly replied, “Sorry…I didn’t see you there”, as he attempted to “clean up” his mess by using his foot to spread the sputum over the tiling.

“Even if you didn’t see me, you shouldn’t spit, what. This is our flat”, I attempted to reason with him, before getting my letters from the mailbox.

My new acquaintance happened to be taking the lift up to his flat together with me. He asked me, “Which floor?” while still holding that glowing cigarette. Although I was tempted to point out that he should not be smoking in the lift, I thought it best to let it go. Besides, by him offering to help me press the lift button, it was at least an indication that I didn’t just make an enemy out of my neighbour (he lives one floor below me).

As I got back to my flat, there were two issues that troubled me. The first was why Singapore youths continue to be so inconsiderate and exhibit anti-social behaviour like spitting in public places, smoking in lifts, not giving up their seats on the MRT to pregnant women and the elderly, etc. The second was what it would take to reach out to “at risk” youths like my young neighbour.

I think the two issues are related, and by addressing the second problem, the first will naturally be solved to a great extent too.

In the course of my volunteer work with youths in the past 6 years, I have learned that a key reason why many kids veer off the straight and narrow path is because many of them lack self esteem and affirmation in life.

My young neighbour has probably heard more than his fair share of negative words from his parents, teachers and perhaps even law enforcement officers for his anti-social behaviour. Unfortunately, I just added to his “honour roll” of reprimands in his life.

My objective in telling him off was simply to try to get him to feel a bit more “ownership” over our block of flats. However I can’t help but wonder if he thought I was some educated guy who looks down on “bad kids” like him. That was certainly not my intention. I regret that I didn’t attempt to make some small talk with him as we were in the lift, just to dispel any preconceived notions he had about me.

I think one way to reach out to youths is for more of us “older youths” make a greater effort to befriend them and mentor them. This is obviously not easy, given the social and “cultural” gap between us. But once they see that an adult is willing to take the time to listen to them as they talk about their hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments, they are much less likely to try to find their identity and sense of self-worth in their peers, many of whom are probably negative influences on them.

There are several voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) in Singapore which help bridge this gap by providing a framework for young professionals to befriend and mentor teenagers. Two volunteer programmes that my wife and I have been involved in the past few years are the Friends of Children programme by Life Community Services Society, and the Trybe programme by Save the Children Singapore Ltd.

Friends of Children is a befrienders programme matching volunteers with children whose parents are incarcerated (i.e. in jail). Volunteers commit to meeting their assigned child at least once a month for informal mentorship. Trybe runs motivational courses for secondary schools, Institutes of Technical Education and even reformative training centres (juvenile prisons) with a message telling them that they can achieve their dreams if they believe in themselves. Trybe also runs a “Life Coaching” programme, which is a teen’s equivalent of coaching for corporate executives. The volunteers attempt to impart positive values in their mentees through regular, structured lessons conducted for groups of 3 to 6 teens over a period of one year.

Youth crime thankfully saw a slight decline last year after more than 5 years of exponential increase. However the task ahead to reach “at risk” youths in Singapore continues to be mammoth — and growing. Nevertheless, as touchingly illustrated in the Starfish story, we can all make a difference, one life at a time. On my part, I hope that when run into my young neighbour again, I’ll pluck up the courage to give him a nice smile and hopefully chat with him on the way up to our respective floors — just to let him know that he matters too.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

5 thoughts on “Reaching out to our youths”

  1. lack of self esteem and affirmation in life. Indeed.

    How did this come about? a system that sorts kids out at a tender age. which results in an “elitist” education system. reminds me of I Not Stupid movie.

    (SAP, Sports School etc. Sports School is the most enigmatic among the elitist thinking – u have to have high acedemic marks to join Sports School! Ask Fandi or our only gold Olympian weightlifter or Mardan Mamat whether they did well in school).

    And i think its fair to say that the Elites breeds Elites, thus the cycle continues.

    Perhaps we needed this structure when our nation was formed in 1965. But times have changed, and we need to change with it. sigh – its such a depressing topic, talking about our youths, and our future. their disaffection is sooo sad – if only they know how much they can contribute.


  2. Actually I feel that you are slightly elitist in your post. Just based on reading what you wrote, I feel like you stereotype your neighbour because
    1) He is tatoo-ed
    2) He is smoking
    3) He spat on the ground

    True… he may be breaking the law by doing 2) in the elevator and 3), I don’t see how it makes him an ‘at-risk’ youth.

    Maybe it is this attitude that youths perceive that make them want to rebel.

  3. Maybe it’s the way he was brought up; parents were probably too busy working. And there were no good role models around – if you look around, people in authority are gruff at best and they don’t necessarily lead by example.

  4. Anon @ 1:45pm –

    Ah yes, I was half expecting someone to accuse me of being condescending (or “elitist” in your case) for labelling someone “at risk”

    Firstly, “at risk” was directed generally, not just at this chap. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term. I think we need to reach out to all youths, not just “at risk” youths.

    Secondly, before we get all tripped up over semantics, we should ask ourselves whether we are doing our part to reach out to the next generation. Or are we just sitting in our ivory towers pretending we don’t have a problem on hand, and that smoking, tattooing and what-have-you are not tell-tale signs of deeper problems which need to be addressed.

    But yes, I agree with you, if we label them as such in their face, then it will almost certainly become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  5. First question to always ask is whether the person wants to be helped or not?

    I suspect this “at-risk” youth doesn’t view himself as being anything abnormal.

    Help? I doubt he’s thinking he is in need of any help.

    In society, there will always be different types of people with different personalities, different lifestyles, different health beliefs, different behaviours, different opinions about what constitutes civil behaviour etc etc etc

    Who knows? Maybe if you go to this youth’s flat, you’ll find spittle all over the floor (I’m referring to inside the house). Maybe to him it’s just ok to spit on the floor!

    Unfortunately, I think in Singapore the main message going out to people is that we should mind our own business. In this case Gerald was fair to make a request as the spit fell into the range of his “personal space”. (If he had seen the guy spit about 10m away would Gerald have gone over and made the same request? I doubt so) And the youth realised he made a mistake by not minding his own business and spitting into someone else’s “business”. So he apologized. As for smoking in the lift. Well I guess same thing applies. If his home is filled with smoke, then what’s wrong with the lift filled with smoke? Of course if Gerald makes a request, the youth might oblige and snuff out. But Gerald didn’t.

    So we just mind our own business.

    It’s as basic as that. We are all trained to be self centered, selfish in order to have strong self preservation skills. What is that term they like to teach teachers to teach children in school? Singapore is vulnerable. You are vulnerable.

    Mind your own business.

    Sad man.

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