I asked my class of undergraduates this morning if they knew about the happenings in Hong Kong. They knew there were demonstrations but didn’t know what they were about. Nor did they know that the demonstrations were student-led. So I had to tell them that the young people of Hong Kong were unhappy that they were unable to pick their own leaders or rather, they had to pick them from a slate of Beijing-picked candidates.
I got to asking them if they would ever do what their peers in Hong Kong were doing – skip classes, get out on the streets and agitate for a cause. They looked flummoxed at the question. None could come up with a cause that could galvanise them. So I suggested: What if a neighbouring country decided to block access to Singapore? The answer: the people should do nothing because it might bring more problems for the G which already had to deal with another government. Well! That was extremely thoughtful!
I pressed the issue and one undergraduate thought they would be moved to act if, say, a “bumiputra’’ policy of sorts implemented here, in the form of quotas based on race. The rest of the class nodded sagely. So, I asked, that’s because it affects you directly I suppose….They agreed.
They also agreed that they were more concerned about studying and stability than agitating for any kind of big picture cause. There was some laughter about being “brainwashed’’ and focusing on the immediate; about being brought up to value peace and stability. There was also talk about whether protests and demonstrations would lead to anything at all. In other words, we should do a cost-benefit analysis first. What a practical group, I thought. Lost cause, I thought. Then again, even in my time, some time ago, there was little “political’’ activity on campus. It was mightily discouraged and the one time an attempt was made by the students’ union to convey a sentiment on a political matter – selling tee-shirts saying no to the since-rescinded graduate mothers policy – the university administration came down on the undergrads like a ton of bricks.
Given that the class was talking about protests, we of course went on to talk about another protest – the Return Our CPF lobby which created such a ruckus on Hong Lim Park over the weekend. They didn’t realise that the lead organiser Han Hui Hui is all of 22 years old, their peer. They were shocked. They wondered why she had “so much time’’. After all, they were studying so hard. Plus, it is not likely that she had any CPF to collect. They saw the video of the little altercation Ms Han had with the authorities. They blanched and pronounced her “immature’’. As for her motivations, she was an “attention seeker’’. I said she was a student and another undergraduate immediately went online to find out that she was a “full-time political activist’’. They wondered what she lived on.
I don’t agree with Ms Han’s near-anarchic antics and I wouldn’t want to hold her up to her peers as a model to emulate. I marvel at her energy and wish it could be directed to better use than working up crowds. Then I looked at my class of stolid undergraduates and wish they were more interested in what’s happening around them, rather than what’s before them. I told them about the Population White Paper protests and the rage against the 6.9 million figure by 2030. I said the supporters were mainly old(er) people, when it was actually an issue that should bug the young(er) people. (By that time, I hope to be resting by the beach…)
Is there any way we can build a young generation of people who are in between the stable/stolid and the hysterical/anarchic? Should we? Or should we make sure they burrow into their books and don’t get too interested in other matters in case they feel the urge to get “involved’’ in the “wrong way’’? By the way, I am NOT fomenting revolution. And I am very sure people will argue that youthful ideals need not be channelled into political activities. In other words, we should get them involved in the “right way’’, like join the Youth Corps and do good.
But I am aghast at how ill-informed and un-interested (much less uninvolved) our young people are in the issues of the day. “No time,’’ is what they cite as a reason. I always retort that they should “make time’’ if they want to be citizens engaged in the life of the country. What is the point of being a person if you care about nothing bigger than yourself? No need to demonstrate; but at least KNOW what’s happening.
I read today ESM Goh Chok Tong pronouncing that the jury is “out’’ on young Singaporeans. He cited that old saw about the first generation building something good, the second generation maintaining it and the third generation squandering everything. Hmm, I think I belong to the second generation….I catch myself agreeing with him and then wonder if I am being “ageist’’. The older people said the same thing about my generation too, and I guess we will do the same for the younger lot, like calling them “strawberries’’.
Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe I’m being unfair. I don’t think I was very interested in current affairs when I was their age. I too wanted to study and get As. I suppose I am hoping that they will reach the age of enlightenment (not entitlement) earlier than I did.