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  Today Online 28 Sep 07
When talking to today's youth ...
Loh Chee Kong

SOMETHING was brewing at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum at the National University of Singapore last Friday.

With the bubbling good times, gone were the perennial questions on jobs and the economy. And in came concerns about social, political rights, the quality of life and Government policies.

It was a perfect platform for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to engage the youth and increase their sense of ownership in the country.

But alas, the two appeared to be on parallel planes. As the forum went on, one could not help but detect a gap between what the Prime Minister was trying to say and what the young, idealistic minds were pining for.

Mr Lee's key message was clear: Young Singaporeans need to take ownership of the country and shape it into a home, against the tensions brought on by globalisation. A tried-and-tested message honed by politicians over the years.

But it was not a message an MTV generation fed on a daily diet of the cut-and-thrust of Internet debates wanted to hear. Mr Lee's delivery was earnest and lively.

But the content did not seem to strike a chord. The students appeared eager to lap up the political insights and personal anecdotes of the country's top leader not things they have already read in the newspapers or lectures espousing them to love their country.

The students' body language said it all. When Mr Lee spoke about the uneasy adik and abang (small brother and big brother) relationship between Singapore and its neighbours and related his personal experiences with journalists from these countries, some students sat up and edged forward in their seats.

But when the topics switched to how the Government has been remaking Singapore to face future challenges, accompanied by slogans like "moving forward, seizing opportunities", the same undergraduates slumped back in their seats and fidgeted restlessly.

We all know what it felt like being a student, when issues of the day were either black or white, with few shades of grey. Challenging the status quo was cool ditto Che Guevera T-shirts and toeing the line was not.

Even then, there was an underlying sense of awe for the authorities a Confucian value that was deemed essential alongside good work ethics and the tacit acceptance that the Government knows best.

But as the Q&A session after the forum showed, that awe is diminishing replaced by not just idealism but a keen awareness of current affairs, which invariably cultivates a desire to be part of the decision-making process.

Can we have a Human Rights Ministry, especially to protect children and promote gender equality? Undergraduate Lydia Rahman wanted to know.

"We probably have one of the smaller Cabinets in South-east Asia. But I think, in terms of results, we are not doing so badly. We are not last," came Mr Lee's stoic reply, after he went on at length on how the Penal Code was tweaked to deal with child sex tourism, and how Singapore has "done well" compared to "any other Asian society" when it comes to providing equal opportunities for women.

Isn't it about time as a growing nation that we look beyond the economy? Another undergrad Vasudha Srinivasan had asked.

The economy is not everything, replied Mr Lee, "but if you were starving, you would put it as item number one on your list". "But because your stomach is full, so you can afford to think," said the Prime Minister, who added that there were many things, including multiracialism, social harmony and meritocracy that Singaporeans took for granted.

The Government obviously had a message to get across.

But in its steadfastness in doing so, it should be mindful of the concerns of the younger generation.

After the forum, undergraduate Choo Zheng Xi, who was one of those present, said he felt there was "a slight disconnect".

Ms Vasudha, who asked the now-famous "full-stomach" question, also said participants walked away with "an unsettled sensation".

She lamented: "Ample weight was not accorded to the concerns that lay beneath (the questions) and were glossed over too quickly to satisfactorily provide an insight, perhaps due to other pressing factors, such as the time constraint."

Is it merely youthful angst and idealism, something these undergraduates would grow out of? Perhaps.

But what the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum showed is that the Singapore youth is fast shedding the unflattering tag of "political apathy". And the task of setting young hearts fluttering is only going to get tougher.

Singapore has come a long way in addressing political apathy among youth. Now that its efforts are bearing fruit, the last thing to do is to turn these probing minds away.

Having shown its intent to reach out to young voters those below 35 made up 40 per cent of voters in the last General Election Singapore's leaders can start by talking the youth talk and de-emphasising the often-repeated messages.

Two days after the university forum, Mr Lee and several Cabinet Ministers were at another dialogue, this time with grassroots leaders on the impending CPF reforms.

The free flow of views was cuttingly frank, even as it was peppered with laughter. The grassroots leaders went away with a sense that they had their day.

It's a pity that the undergraduates at the NUS forum did not feel the same way.

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