Taking baby steps into politics
By Daryl Choo and Justin Chua
Class Notes talks to some exceptional young people who do not conform to the stereotype of the apathetic youth, wearing the badge of their political party allegiance proudly.
Law undergraduate Ariffin Sha, seen here on 25 Feb 2020, became the assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People's Party in November last year. PHOTO: DARYL CHOO
Ariffin Sha is 23 years old, still pursuing his law degree and is the Number 2 man in a political party. If he contests in the upcoming general election due by April next year, he might well be one of Singapore’s youngest candidates.
The assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) founded by veteran politician Chiam See Tong waved off the appellation.
“There’s no requirement or obligation for someone who holds leadership within the party to stand (for election),” said Mr Sha, a trainee at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, a law firm known for defending prisoners on death row and high-profile human rights cases.
“To be absolutely honest with you, I also don’t know (whether I will be contesting),” he added.
He was elected to the post in November last year, at the same time Mr Chiam announced his retirement from politics. The SPP’s current secretary-general is Mr Steve Chia, 49, who was a former non-constituency MP between 2001 and 2005.
By the time he was elected as assistant secretary-general, Mr Sha had been with the SPP for four years.
Young people have been described variously as politically apathetic, preferring to focus on their studies and career. This lack of interest was evinced by a Class Notes survey of 100 first-time voters, most of whom said they have never taken part in any political party events.
Their involvement in political activities might be more voluntary in nature, in the form of backroom work. To be named as a member, however, is seen as a step too far.
Judging from interviews with young people who are politically active, there is usually an incident or instance which opened their eyes to political work.
For Mr Sha, it happened when he was 16, after an altercation with his teacher.
He recalled his teachers telling students to "study hard or you’ll go to ITE’’. “So I was like, what’s wrong with ITE? What kind of encouragement is this?” he said.
He was referring to the Institute of Technical Education, often seen as the fallback option for secondary students who do not do well enough in their ‘O’-Level examinations to enrol in a junior college or polytechnic.
Mr Sha was so incensed that he wrote an opinion piece about the attitude of teachers towards vocational schools, which he submitted to socio-political site The Real Singapore. The site has since been shut down by the government for publishing articles that were against public interest and national harmony.
He would go on to set up Wakeupsg, an alternative news and opinion site run almost entirely by young people under 25 years old that is known to be critical of the government. He has left the team, he said, as he didn’t want the site to be compromised by his political affiliations. Instead, he contributes regularly to socio-political site The Online Citizen, focusing mainly on legal issues.
Many of his articles are about the death penalty, the abolition of which is a cause he strongly champions. One such example was a 2017 commentary questioning the culpability of 29-year-old Malaysian Prabagaran Srivijayan who was hanged on drug trafficking convictions.
Mr Sha didn’t join the SPP right after his teenage epiphany. Instead, he made the rounds of opposition political parties. In 2014, at age 17, he was involved with the youth wing of the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
It was refreshing, Mr Sha said, to discuss political issues with like-minded people from his generation. “A lot of times, politics in Singapore, and opposition politics in particular, is dominated by (older people),” he said. “Sometimes when they agree with you, they’ll say, ‘Wah, you’re very advanced for your age’... but when they disagree with you, they’ll flip it around and say you’re very naive.”
Mr Sha's political awakening happened after an altercation with a teacher when he was 16 led him to write an opinion piece about the attitude of teachers towards vocational schools, which he submitted to socio-political site The Real Singapore. PHOTO: DARYL CHOO
He also volunteered at Workers Party (WP) MP Faisal Manap’s meet-the-people sessions at Aljunied GRC. These weekly sessions for constituents to go to their MPs for help to resolve various matters, is a common gateway for youths to get involved in grassroots work and eventually make their entry into politics.
The next year, he joined the SPP as a member after helping out one of the party’s candidates, Mrs Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, campaign in the 2015 general election. Mrs Chong-Aruldoss lost the fight for Mountbatten to People's Action Party’s (PAP) Lim Biow Chuan.
By then, Mr Sha had also been writing parliamentary speeches for former SPP Chairman Lina Chiam, who was a non-constituency MP from 2011 to 2015. The most memorable speech he helped write, he said, was the one Mrs Chiam delivered in Parliament in 2015 against the law banning the retail sale of alcohol after 10.30 pm.
“It was a rare occasion as Mrs Chiam was the lone voice in Parliament who voted against the Bill,” said Mr Sha.
In a way, the Chiams were his political mentors.
“The way (Mrs Chiam) does things is quite inspiring for me, because we all know she’s not exactly a model politician,” Mr Sha said. “She used to be a housewife, she was a nurse. And I think when she first went to Parliament, she really struggled.”
It was Mrs Chiam’s tenacity, he said, to personally reach out to activists, government groups and academics to gather information and views before speaking up on issues in Parliament, that got Mr Sha interested in helping her write her speeches.
The Chiams even influenced his choice of school. He is studying law at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, which Mr Chiam had gone to 60 years ago. The decision to study there was in part because of Mr Chiam’s convincing, he said.
“As for Mr Chiam, it was his principles and his character,” Mr Sha said. “Mr Chiam is someone who commands respect across the aisle, and I think that’s because people have seen that...he wanted what is best for Singapore, and he put himself out there for it.”
Most established political parties the world over have a separate wing for youths, as well as for women.
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party both have youth wings, admitting members under the age of 26. The Labour Party even had a separate students wing, called the Labour Students, which was purged from the mother party after 40 years in what critics have said was an attempt to shut down a centrist faction of the party.
There are student wings in the United States too. The College Democrats of America and College Republicans National Committee are the affiliated student wings of the Democratic Party and Republican Party respectively. On top of serving as recruiting tools for the parties, the student wings canvass for votes for their party and organise voter registration drives.
When the world’s youngest prime minister Ms Sanna Marin, 34, was elected leader of Finland, she already had 14 years of political experience climbing up the party ranks through its youth wing. She joined the Social Democratic Youth of Finland at the age of 20, ran for a local council seat at 22 and became an MP at 29 before being elected Finland’s leader last year.
Closer to home, Malaysian youth wings play an important role in mobilising ground opinion. Becoming the chief of the men's or women's youth wing is also a sign of bigger things to come.
Former UMNO youth chiefs Hishammuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin, for example, were named potential candidates to be Malaysia's next Prime Minister after rising to prominence within the party, until UMNO's unexpected loss in Malaysia's 2018 general election thwarted the party's leadership succession plans.
In Singapore, the People’s Action Party started its youth wing in 1986. Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said this was a way to recruit new blood into the party, which was at that time seeing the withdrawal of its old guard MPs.
“Youths generally have different interests, and perhaps, even different aspirations from those of older party members. Regrouping them under a Youth Wing will allow us to cater to their separate interests,” he said. It was first put under the charge of PM Lee Hsien Loong, who was then a 34-year-old Minister of State.
Today, it is chaired by 48-year-old Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport as well as Communications and Information. The wing has an age ceiling of 40 years which does not apply to its leadership. It is usually led by a young minister, including former Foreign Minister George Yeo (1991 – 2000), former Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say (2000 – 2004), Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (2004 – 2008), former Minister of State for Manpower as well as Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck (2008 – 2012) and Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (2012 – 2017).
The youth wing, rebranded as the Young PAP in 1993, was reported in 2011 to have almost 10,000 members. Sixteen party activists currently hold the role of regional chairman, each chairing one Group Representation Constituency, including the Workers’ Party-held Aljunied GRC. The youth wing even has a separate division for females, called the Young PAP Women launched in 2005.
Besides holding meetings, the Young PAP submits policy recommendations such as a position paper in March this year calling for stronger legislation to tackle climate change. It also holds community service and engagement events at the grassroots level, organised by the Young PAP’s regional branches.
RELATED STORY:Changing the climate — by the Young PAP and the SDP
A few first-term MPs in the current Parliament have their roots in the Young PAP.
Former oncologist, Dr Tan Wu Meng, 45, was the Young PAP's first organising secretary, a position he held from 2008 to 2010. He contested in Jurong GRC in 2015 and is now Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs as well as Trade and Industry.
Ms Sun Xueling, 40, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development, spoke at the PAP’s 50th Anniversary Rally in 2004 when she was an undergraduate. That same year, she received the Service Award at the Young PAP Awards.
Mr Desmond Choo, 41, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, was formerly from the Young PAP’s executive committee when he first debuted in GE2011 as a PAP candidate in Hougang SMC. He lost to WP’s candidate Mr Yaw Shin Leong, and again failed to win against the WP’s Mr Png Eng Huat in the 2012 Hougang by-election. Then came 2015, when he won as part of the PAP’s five-member Tampines GRC led by then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Going further back, Ms Tin Pei Ling, MP for Macpherson SMC, was formerly the Young PAP’s regional chairman for the Holland-Bukit Timah region. She became an MP in 2011, when she was 27.
Other MPs known to have come from the PAP’s youth wing include Messrs Alex Yam, Patrick Tay, Liang Eng Hwa, Vikram Nair, Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim, as well as former MPs Mr Sin Boon Ann, lawyer Davinder Singh and Dr Ong Seh Hong.
The Workers’ Party youth wing was set up in 2005 and is currently chaired by NCMP Leon Perera, 49.
Among the slate of 16 new candidates the party introduced in GE2015, those who have held leadership posts in the youth wing include Messrs Bernard Chen, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, He Ting Ru and Redzwan Hafidz Abdul Razak.
Since 2011, the Workers Party youth chiefs have all had stints in Parliament. They are Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap, one-term MP Lee Li Lian, non-constituency MP (NCMP) Daniel Goh and former NCMP Gerald Giam.
The WP youth wing organises regular panel discussions on various issues seen from a young person’s perspective, such as housing, employment, and inequality. It most recently held an online seminar called “The Covid-19 crisis: through medical, economic and legal lenses” last Wednesday (April 22), with a panel consisting infectious disease specialist Leong Hoe Nam, public health expert Jeremy Lin, senior counsel Harpreet Singh and Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist of the national sovereign wealth fund GIC.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also has their own youth wing, known as Young Democrats, which was founded in 1999. It was the first opposition party to have a youth wing and currently has about 60 to 70 members headed by the party’s Organising Secretary Jufri Salim, 37.
On its website, the SDP prides its youth wing as a group that can express their opinions openly without fear of “offending anyone higher up the hierarchy”.
“We are quite open and free to voice any dissenting views and… age does not necessarily define how involved one can be in terms of party direction, policy proposals, operations and so on,” the party’s spokesman Surayah Akbar said in an email statement to Class Notes.
The party has said a part of its election strategy will be to get its youth wing more involved to target millennial voters. It has introduced two new faces from its Young Democrats arm to the media — 32-year-old community associate Fadly Azad, and 34-year-old Min Cheong, a marketing and communications professional.
Among the Young Democrats’ members is prominent civil activist Jolovan Wham, 40, who has twice chosen to serve jail sentences in lieu of paying fines for organising an illegal public discussion and for questioning the independence of the courts.
The Young Democrats played a major role in forming up the party’s climate change policy paper, Ms Surayah said, which was presented by a panel of four youth wing members in February.
SPP’s youth wing has about 10 to 15 members, although it has other young volunteers who do not join the party formally, Mr Sha said. NSP’s youth wing is no longer active. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) does not currently have a youth wing but has plans to form one after the general election, its spokesman Chika Tan said.
WHY THEY SIGNED UP
For many young party members in Singapore, their first exposure to politics is often volunteering at the weekly meet-the-people sessions.
A PAP activist of eight years, 26-year-old Mr Clarence Ching first started as a volunteer for MP Lily Neo’s meet-the-people session in Jalan Besar GRC, after he read Dr Neo’s speeches in Parliament championing for more financial aid for the poor.
“I was very motivated by that,” said the final-year political science student at Durham University in England. “I was in secondary school, and I told myself once I’m done with secondary school, I’ve got to volunteer with her.”
When he became the president of the current affairs club at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he started a programme to send students to volunteer at various meet-the-people sessions, including those held by the WP, to better understand the issues faced by residents.
Mr Ching (second from left) celebrating with fellow PAP supporters after the results for the 2015 General Election were announced. Photo courtesy of Clarence Ching
There are also programmes at the grassroots level that expose student leaders to the meet-the-people session, such as those under the Marine Parade Leadership Foundation, organised by the South East Community Development Council, an arm of the People’s Association.
Similarly, Ms Anthea Low, 19, decided to join politics after she started volunteering at her constituency’s meet-the-people session, which she said opened her eyes to many residents who had been “left behind” in society.
She had submitted her application to join the PAP’s youth wing but ended up joining the newly-formed PSP while she was waiting for her application to be approved. Unlike the PAP, the PSP’s application process is much less stringent, which has allowed the party to grow to more than 1,000 members within a year of its formation.
Workers’ Party volunteer Hui Shan, 22, who declined to provide her full name, said she still feels there is a stigma attached to individuals who participate in opposition party activities. Some of her friends have even called her “courageous’’ for her work with the WP.
“It takes true conviction, grit and selflessness to commit to this thankless but important job,” said the political science undergraduate who began volunteering with the WP after she met the party’s youth wing chief Leon Perera at a tea session in Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore three years ago.
Many youths would much rather observe events from afar and hold discussions within their private circle of friends than involve themselves in party activities, for fear of affecting their career prospects. That’s why law undergraduate Vincent Lee, 25, found it surprising that Mr Sha, whom he has met at party events, could rise to hold a leadership rank in an opposition political party.
“Most of us are not willing to delve so deep into partisan politics, especially at such a young age,” said Mr Lee, who had also volunteered to help political parties in the past. “And knowing that there’s a fear factor in Singapore, I wouldn’t think our peers would wish to compromise our reputation amongst employers by being so actively involved in opposition politics.”
The young people interviewed said society shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss youths as politically apathetic just because they don’t take part in political party events. In recent years, more young people have started involving themselves in events such as those held by rights groups AWARE and Pink Dot SG.
“Joining or helping out in political parties is merely one of the many ways to take part in political advocacy,” said Ms Hui Shan.
Mr Lee, likewise, thinks it is important for youths to get involved in civil society work, whether through advocacy work with non-governmental organisations or through political party activities.
“Without a critical mass of youth having a diversity of views, or an environment where such views can be heard, policymakers will not be able to understand our sentiments and our vision for the kind of society we aspire to be,” Mr Lee added.
Mr Ching, the PAP party activist, said youths play a significant role in politics because they represent the ideals of a future generation of leaders. He gave as an example the LGBT rights movement, which he expects to see become more normalised in the coming years.
“There are youths in the PAP who are passionate about the LGBT (rights movement),” he said.
“It’s significant and powerful that we have our own issues that we champion for,” he added. “We are not afraid to talk about it, and I think that's the beauty of it.”
For Mr Sha, even as he tries to pave the way for more young people to go into politics, he recognises the worry youths have about joining an opposition party. “I purposely make it a point not to ask them to join,” he said. “I just leave them to make their own decision (about joining the SPP) because this is not an easy decision.”
Instead, he goes about engaging youths through other non-partisan means, such as his work with the Freedom of Information Singapore Working Group, a committee made up of six university students advocating for a freedom of information law in Singapore.
“Instead of saying young people are the leaders of our future, I think we should allow young people to play a role right here right now,” he said.