Monday, January 10, 2011

The politicization of youth participation

Here's an interesting opinion piece by Khairulanwar Zaini in Singapore's The Online Citizen that has implications for youth participation everywhere. A youth group called the Boon Lay Youth Club (BLYC) has been endorsed by the federal Ministry of Education (MoE) as an official co-curricular activity (CCA). The BLYC is sponsored by a junior college to give young people opportunities for community service, and the MoE endorsement signifies that the club's goals are in line with the Ministry's aim of encouraging the development of a sense of community and civic duty. The endorsement as an official CCA also means that members can earn CCA "points" that may help them improve their chances for admission to university.

The endorsement of the BLYC has been criticized by some Singaporeans, however, because the BLYC has ties to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Critics charge that the government's endorsement is a back-door strategy to support the children of the ruling elite, and to bring impressionable young people into the party. Defenders of the endorsement counter that it is simply a way to recognize a quality program and to reward young people who engage in service to their communities.

The specifics of this case are less important to supporters of youth participation in governance than the larger point made by the author of the opinion piece. Prior to independence from Britain in the mid-1960s, Singapore had a rich history of student activism. According to Zaini, the PAP-led government realized that such activism could threaten political stability (or its own authority, depending on one's perspective), and slowly drained Singaporean education of any trace of politics. The result, says Zaini, is that young people have become politically apathetic. According to Zaini,
"[I]t is not about the BLYC being a covert party apparatus, but that the government has contrived a new understanding of community service and civic participation: one that is intricately interwoven with statist interests. The problem is really how civic initiatives inevitably gravitate towards partnership with – or even under the complete guidance of – the government. This is not surprising, because the political vacuum of society has found itself occupied by the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. With such a monopoly, it is merely a matter of semantics to collapse all civic efforts into endeavours that maintain the government’s perpetuity."
This is the dilemma of officially sanctioned youth participation. When governments or other public entities like school districts sponsor youth participation, do they really want authentic youth voice? Not if those voices are loudly demanding change. At least in the developed world, the young people who participate in government-supported youth participation initiatives are unlikely to challenge the political status quo because doing so could lead to restrictions on youth voice, and to negative outcomes for those young people who raise such challenges. Thus most youth-in-governance initiatives are expressly apolitical, and the young people who participate end up spending most of their time planning youth- and family-oriented events that rarely lead to any significant change.

This is not a new problem. Any state-sponsored program is unlikely to support overt criticism of the state by those who participate in the program. This is why many young idealists are more attracted to grassroots activism than to youth-in-governance initiatives, which they see as support for the status quo. The noisy and unambiguous demands for change favored by many grassroots groups can be emotionally satisfying, and sometimes effective. Yet these tactics can also be counterproductive because they place those in power on the defensive. Quiet, incremental approaches to change such as youth participation may be frustrating at times--especially for young people--but they can also be effective because those who participate in them learn how power, influence and relationships can lead to lasting change through policy. The risk of cooptation is ever present, of course, but for young people with patience and determination, participation in governance can be an effective strategy for social and political change without violence.

BLYC debate: Excavating the political

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