Youths and politics

It may come as a surprise to some, but I disagree with former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong’s view that “school and grassroots work don’t mix” (Today newspaper, 4 January 2011). I disagree with the thinking that if you are still in school, then you should not have anything to do with politics; that politics is somehow an “adults-only” activity which will corrupt young minds.

It may come as a surprise to some, but I disagree with former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong’s view that “school and grassroots work don’t mix” (Today newspaper, 4 January 2011). Mr Siew felt that “partisan activities that favour a specific political party or politician should not be officially sanctioned and endorsed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) or schools” and that “campaigning for political parties and politicians is clearly improper in schools and workplaces”.

I disagree with the thinking that if you are still in school, then you should avoid partisan politics; that politics is somehow an “adults-only” activity which will corrupt young minds. Consequently, this leads to local schools and even universities banning any partisan political organisations. For example, in the National University of Singapore, students who are interested in politics can only join a club like the Democratic Socialist Club, which disavows any political affiliation. In contrast, when I was studying in the University of Southern California, there was a College Republicans club and and College Democrats club. Members openly supported and campaigned for Republican or Democratic candidates during the local, state or national elections. A search on the Internet will find numerous Republican or Democrat clubs in high schools across the US.

I see nothing wrong with young people, even minors, getting involved in politics. Politics affects all our lives–yes even the young lives. If we can get more young people to understand the issues, to get involved in supporting a cause they earnestly believe in, or to help organise a political campaign, I believe our next generation will become much more engaged and civic minded than they are now. Politics is not inherently evil, just like television or the Internet aren’t inherently bad. It’s only when it is abused does it corrupt.

I think what Mr Siew was really concerned about–which of course he couldn’t explicitly say if he wanted his letter published–was the MOE supporting the PAP’s political outreach activities on campus. I share this concern too.

I believe the real reason why the PAP bans partisan political clubs on campus is to prevent young minds from being shaped by alternative political ideas. They know that impressionable young people are more easily ‘converted’ to agree with the opposition cause than older adults. However when it comes to clubs that support the PAP, these are given the green light.

The Boon Lay Youth Club (BLYC) was founded in 2003 by the son of PAP MP Mdm Ho Geok Choo to, among other things, help out at PAP MPs’ Meet-the-People sessions and organise PAP grassroots activities where PAP MPs are invited as guests of honour. According to a Straits Times report, Mdm Ho successfully lobbied the then-Senior Minister of State for Education for BLYC to be recognised as a co-curricular activity (CCA) in her son’s school (whereby students can earn points for favourable admission to university). This wish was promptly granted. Mdm Ho proudly declared to the Straits Times that “the Youth Club has become an appendage of the Boon Lay (PAP) grassroots organisations”. Years later, the current president of the club sees nothing wrong in writing an article for the PAP’s organ, Petir, and signing off as the president of BLYC.

Now that the MOE has given official sanction to BLYC, I wonder if they would give their approval if a club in a junior college were to be set up in support of an opposition party MP.

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.

11 thoughts on “Youths and politics”

  1. Thanks for showing me a new angle of looking at this issue. I never thought of this before.. Now will any opposition parties go to approach some schools to start such a club? :P

  2. Think you have a bit of 矛盾 here.

    If you have no problem with political activities in school, why are you bringing up this issue at all, esp with remarks like “Years later, the current president of the club sees nothing wrong in writing an article for the PAP’s organ, Petir, and signing off as the president of BLYC.”– which implies that there is an issue for him to be writing such an article in Petir and signing off as President of BLYC.

    If you’re supportive of building political awareness in youths and of political activities in school, then why take MOE to task for allowing this club to qualify for CCA recognition? Shouldn’t you be welcoming this as a step forward from years of trying to depoliticise students and campuses? And shouldn’t you start to plan for a youth club in Hougang?

    I’m not quite sure what Botak Siew’s beef is. That MOE is supporting PAP? I think in MOE’s mind it’s quite clear– the boys are taking part in grassroots activities, which– apart from Meet the People sessions– included community activities, which includes helping needy families fulfil their Christmas wishes; cleaning up 40 to 50 needy homes and install new gadgets; organising camps at Raffles Institution for primary school pupils; and organising Boon Lay’s New Year countdown party (a big task, apparently).

    I do not see how the above translates to supporting the PAP or politicising in schools.

    While five decades of PAP rule have made many cynical about the distinction between grassroots work and PAP political activities, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, ie that grassroots activities are indeed social outreach and community help activities which should count towards CCA’s.

    The main point of controversy seems to be the students’ participation at MPS sessions, and the fact that Mdm Ho had to pull some strings with Tharman to get BLYC recognised as a CCA activity.

    On the former, I would even say that learning the workings of MPS sessions (as stated in the ST story) is non-political. I think anyone who has met his MP (PAP or otherwise) knows what happens there– basically it’s a complaint session and beg the MP for help to solve problems, whether it’s NS deferment, hawker licence or problems with other govt agencies.

    Given the long queue of residents waiting to see the MP, I do not see any opportunities for MP’s to talk politics at all, much less sway visitors in the direction of their party.

    Hence I don’t see MPS sessions as political. Indeed, it’s the MP carrying out his work, what we elected him to do, ie help residents.

    On the string pulling, I agree that was inappropriate, the club president should have gone thru proper channels like everyone else to get recognition. But on the other hand, people go to MPS and ask MP’s to write letters to govt agencies or ministers on their behalf. So Mdm Ho, instead of writing an official letter, ambushed the minister and asked for his help in this matter.

    Isn’t this what we want from our MP’s, ie to get things done for us?

    In summary, notwithstanding that I don’t see BLYC’s activities as political, I think that if you are supportive of political activities among youth and in school, then you should welcome this and encourage it regardless of whether the youths support PAP or other parties. I think you should even give recognition for MOE allowing more political awareness in students.

    I think you should feel encouraged by this development, and seek to replicate this in Hougang or any other constituency where WP may have MP’s in future.

  3. Politics is part and parcel of a society. The earlier the better.
    What is more important is the openess of it, the transparency and the level playing field of the ruling and alternative parties.
    If MOE is non-partisan, then it must work to ensure every party has a voice.

  4. It’s not MOE’s job to ensure anything, other than its decisions are above-board and transparent.

    MOE will not and should not go out to help any political party.

    And indeed, I see that MOE’s stand in this instance is very clear. A bunch of boys asked that their club, which does grassroots work in Boon Lay, be eligible for CCA points.

    The approval paper would have been a simple yes or no decision, based on precedents and the merits of the application.

    Not based on whether the constituency is under PAP or other parties, or whether the boys want to observe MPS sessions.

    I would expect that with this as a precedent, if a bunch of girls want to form a club to undertake grassroots work in Hougang and join the Hougang MPS session, there is no reason why MOE should not give them CCA eligibility.

    And if it’s refused, that’s when WP should raise it as a national issue. And also to get Ravi to file a judicial review, of course.

  5. Wai Leong,

    Perhaps you are right. We should allow the pap to eat its own words sometimes! But then again, you are aware that in Hougang and Potong Pasir, the pap ‘adviser’ takes precedence over the legally elected MP who happened to be from the opposition in very material national programmes. It is very likely because of this that Giam and many of us all the more sees it fit to slant his article this way.

    You are right it should be a national issue to be discussed in parliament should the MOE refused for whatever reasons (and the govt is on record to be good at fabricating such) to grant an opposition inspired club. I can foresee, that such an undertaking or proposal by the two opposition MPs in their own wards would not even get past the schools’ principals. We have seen how opposition parties applications for public events took donkey years to get police approval. This is common knowledge. If the Singapore Police Force, ie MHA, is so obviously biased and partisan what confidence can we have that there is any chance that the MOE is any different? Do you also sincerely believe that the pap mps would give such an issue its proper correct heraring and airing in parliament? Dream on.That is also the single most important reason to vote in sufficient opposition MPs to form a CRITICAL MASS that the govt and its mps would dare not take for granted. No discussion in parliament is possible unless there is a critical mass of just more than one-third opposition MPs for this will provide the check and balance required against the rampant excesses of the govt all these years.

  6. Anon,

    Thanks for comment. First, I don’t see grassroots activity as partisan, so I saw nothing wrong with the moe move.

    Second, even if it was partisan, Gerald’s stand is that politics and schools can mix, so I still see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I believe that if one believes politics and schools can mix, then one should be encouraged by this move.

    Third, if one believes that any club which wants to get involved in grassroots activities in Hougang will surely be shot down by MOE, then that is unfair to MOE. Because one is prejudging, presuming guilt before trial.

    Fourth, if indeed MOE does shoot it down, then I believe the right course of action is to file an injunction in the Courts against MOE. The Govt is not above the law, and the Courts can order MOE to reverse its actions. You may not believe this, but even individuals have successfully challenged the Govt before, eg to reverse the order by the Commissioner of Police to revoke the driving licence of an asthmatic.

    Fifth, if a judicial review fails, then one should raise the issue in Parliament, and let the PAP explain themselves to Singaporeans. If, after hearing the PAP’s explanations, people still vote PAP, then too bad, they’ll have to live with the consequences of their choice.

    Last, this is not about having more opposition in Parliament. Singaporeans have to change their mindsets from wanting more “opposition” to wanting a new govt.

  7. I agree with Wai Leong that on the surface, the BLYC is a good idea as it gets youths more involved in politics. It is about time steps were taken to reverse LKY’s view on dumbing down the populace in order to easily control them; the problem is that the poplace is also where a political party gets its candidates and rank-and-file supporters.

    The true test is if an opposition club is to be opened doing exactly the same as the BLYC.

  8. Gerald, I would not really disagree with you here: “I disagree with the thinking that if you are still in school, then you should avoid partisan politics; that politics is somehow an “adults-only” activity which will corrupt young minds.” I would however say that official sanction must be non-partisan, and a close reading of my piece will show that my focus was on what MOE and RI(JC) did, and not what the students did.

    My piece got edited in a few parts. One edit in particular is relevant to the main thrust of your blog posting — in the original piece, after the line about such a CCA being acceptable only if it is non-partisan, I had gone on to suggest that such non-partisanship could see the club engaging with PAP and opposition constituencies in equal measure.

  9. I think it’s a good move to open up CCA/school activities to grassroots organisations, provided the MOE and the affected school are impartial to the target wards or regions. But knowing how the system works and the fact that Ho had to lobby with Tharman for CCA recognition, any sensible Singaporean can imagine the inherent difficulties a group of students would face if they were to set up a club to serve a non-PAP ward.

    It is interesting to note, it is reported the youth club president “is adamant” that the youth club is not politicising junior college students when this same club president has written, I presume, about the club activities in the People’s Action Party magazine Petir.


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