The travails of Singapore’s democratic youth

Chee Soon Juan

I have had the pleasure – and heartache – of working with youths in Singapore who have, through the years, expressed to me their anguish and frustration with the system that dumbs them down and ignores what they have to say.

Pleasure because many of them demonstrate maturity in intellect well beyond their age. 

Heartache because time and again, they have had to deal with parents who believe that the PAP can do no wrong and, worse, parents who go to great lengths to censor and censure them.

It is bad enough that one has to struggle with one’s conscience in a political environment where conformity is prized, but when familial relations are brought into the equation, things can be too much to take.

I have had a couple of Young Democrats for whom the conflict with their parents became so intense that they had to leave home, temporarily at least. They ended up staying at my place until things calmed down.

One mother was so terrified that she threatened to report her son to the police when she found out that he was reading one of my books. She forbade him to get involved with “bad company”.

Another parent called me up to plead with me not to let her daughter get involved in opposition politics because she wanted her child to be an “upright citizen” and “help Singapore succeed.”

No one should have to go through such conflict just to speak up in one’s own country. But such is the reality in Singapore. Many have honoured their filial obligations and stayed away from the SDP. Still, others have stood firm and become active members of the Young Democrats.

But whatever the outcome, I have always had the pleasure of sharing my thoughts with these young Singaporeans whose paths in life I have had the honour of crossing. Obviously the one question that we had to deal with is how to go about resolving the differences with their parents.

I tell them (and to the many who may yet be crossing this hurdle) not to aggravate the situation by going behind their parents’ backs and secretly emgaging in political activity. Parents, like most everyone else in Singapore, need time to be persuaded that joining the opposition for democracy’s sake is an honourable and desirable undertaking.   

At the same time, however, we must remember that age does not have a monopoly on wisdom. Enlightened youths have the rare opportunity to educate their parents about the need for change in Singapore and that democracy is crucial to the future of our nation.

Advocating and working for change in an intimidated society is a lonely task. It is much more comfortable, both physically and psychologically, to be on the side of power. But for those whose conscience and awareness do not allow us to remain idle, we have the obligation to speak up.

In this regard, I am reminded of a critically acclaimed play that was turned into a movie in the 1950s. The classic
12 Angry Men, starring the late Henry Fonda, featured a jury, all white males, appointed to determine the fate of a young man who was accused of murdering his father. If found guilty, he faced the death penalty.

Eleven jurors were convinced of the man’s guilt. Juror #8, played by Fonda, was the lone hold-out (the jurors knew each other only by number). A unanimous decision was needed for a guilty verdict. In the beginning of the movie everyone was furious at #8 because the evidence was overwhelming and all wanted to get it over with and go home.

But #8, who was initially hesitant and unsure of his own position, insisted on scrutinising the evidence. As he presented his views, his confidence grew and so did the uncertainty of the other jurors. With his persistence and insistence of getting at the evidence instead of pandering to the prejudices of his fellow jurors, #8 slowly managed to persuade the jury to come to the truth. In the end, a not-guilty verdict was passed.

There is a need for us to understand that majority opinion, especially one based on prejudice, misinformation and fear cannot go unquestioned. More important we have to speak up, softly if we must but insistently nonetheless.

This we must do to those who despise us as well as to those who, as parents, love us.

Read also: An Open letter to Shafi’ie’s Mom

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