By Niki Cheong
I almost got expelled from secondary school once. My classmates had “decorated” our classroom with flags from the various political parties campaigning the 1995 general elections. Our discipline master stormed into our class threatening to invoke some law preventing students from engaging in political activity. At 16, and with very little knowledge about how the world works, we all panicked and removed the flags immediately.I never thought about that incident again until I got involved in student politics as an undergraduate in Australia over 10 years ago. As a credit transfer student, I entered the university at an older age than some of my “comrades”. Yet while engaging in political discourse, I felt much less informed.
It is unfortunate that I only found my political awareness in a foreign land and that I was more familiar with how politics worked in a country in which I was a visitor compared to that of my own.Some days, I imagined what it would be like if Mr Siva, the discipline master, had sat my class down and spoken to us about politics, explained why what we did was wrong (if it was) and tell us why the country was so caught up in political hype instead of threatening us all with expulsion.
I say this because I believe it would have been the first time for many of my classmates, as it was for myself, to have such a discussion and to learn about the foundations of how Malaysia operates as a democratic country.
After all, we were – as the clichés go – the children who would inherit the nation, and be the leaders of the future.
This experience dates back to over 15 years ago but I suspect little has changed since.
Just last year, it was reported that Electoral Commission deputy chairman Datuk Wira Wan Ahmad Wan Omar said primary school students were too young to be exposed to politics and campaigning, in response to SK Taman Tun Dr Ismail 1’s head prefect elections, said to be the first of its kind in Malaysia.
I’m sure there will be people who agree with the deputy chairman but one would think that this would be the best way to start educating students about democracy.
After all, we are not asking 12-year-olds to make a decision on who should be the next prime minister. Wouldn’t empowering them to select their own student leader be a great lesson on the importance of informed decisions and consequences of good or bad choices for when they actually do?
From my experience, many young people in Malaysia have to take extra efforts to educate and empower themselves with these kinds of knowledge. Yet we adults are so quick to dismiss them as apathetic.
How do we expect youths to engage in discourse or even just care about the issues affecting their lives and country when they were never exposed much to the idea that they too have an investment in the communities they live in?
After all, primary schools are not encouraged to have elections, secondary school students are threatened with expulsion and, through legislation, tertiary students are not allowed to engage in politics.
This begs the question of when in a person’s live does he or she become politically empowered – adulthood?
Luckily, youths today have access to more resources than I did back in the mid-90s. Back then, my only concept of doing something for the community was in the form of charity – whether it was a school walkathon or donation drive.
These days, there are more options. Civil society is very open to ideas and engagement with young people while the increasing democratisation of our public sphere has given the youths access to information and discourse. Then there is of course the Internet, which is not only educational but also helps these youth to network with their peers across the globe.
I truly feel that all these together will make a difference and why it is so important for young people to be involved – whether it is in politics, civil society or important causes (health, environment and the likes). It is through experiences that they can educate and empower themselves.
Because let’s face it, despite the increasing interest in young people – especially by commercial entities – there is still a sense of “young people should remain seen but not heard”.
This is clear in the way young people are so easily dismissed – whether through participatory restrictions, age limitations or flimsy excuses.
The good news is that young people grow up, and so it is up to the youths of today – you – what legacy you want to leave for the children of tomorrow.
If you are anything like many of my friends back home who are actively playing their part, then you need to start (if they haven’t already) to take to your pens, to your blogs or even to the streets where necessary to make your stand.
Your actions today will empower the voices of tomorrow. And that will make all the difference.
Niki Cheong (www.nikicheong.com) is studying for his Master’s degree in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London. He previously featured in a column called The Bangsar Boy and was formerly editor of The Star R.AGE.
Image taken from here
This article was published in CEKU on the 14th of December 2011. The original article can be found here.