It is often said that young people are the leaders of tomorrow.
If so, young people should be encouraged to realise this vision to become leaders and active citizens involved in democracy and society.
But successive governments have not regarded the active participation of young people as a top priority. The rejection of the application of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), a youth political party, and the dilly-dallying to enable citizens who have reached 18 to register as voters for the next general election are just two examples.
In reading this recent headline “Automate, woo young Malaysians, palm oil sector told”, I wonder if I should cheer or cry for our youth.
The reported solution proposed to tackle a labour shortage in the palm oil industry – due to the coronavirus crisis and the non-availability of foreign labourers – is framed in flashy terms: “It can be difficult to draw the young into the sector, but if they are provided with good wages and perks, I think we can bring them in. (But) if work is too laborious and involves too much hardship, we have even seen some foreign workers run away.”
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Even in the economic context, it is a narrowly focussed perspective of the potential and capabilities of our young people. Crucially, this brings into question the whole palm oil industry operating on this basis.
Many young Malaysians actually are keen on and capable of doing more qualified or meaningful work than becoming commercial plantation workers, whether or not the plantation sector is mechanised to make it attractive to work.
If equality of resources, opportunities and support are provided to young people – both in rural and urban areas, girls and boys, vulnerable groups and geniuses alike – then every girl and boy can have the chance to nurture or develop their talents, skills and dreams.
So why are the government and industry players still focusing on a sector that needs a huge labour force, a sector that the majority of Malaysian youths are not longing for?
Equally important, young people should be empowered to speak for themselves, to be heard and to make their life choices and informed decisions in all spheres of their lives.
Another issue that often makes me wonder if I should laugh or cry is women’s rights and gender concerns.
How often have our elected representatives (apart from a few like Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto) raised women’s and gender issues in state assemblies and in Parliament?
More often than not, women’s and gender issues are simply politically expedient, raised when the need arises, for example, on 8 March, International Women’s Day.
Or they are catchwords uttered during campaigning. Election season is a good time to observe the political speeches, appearances and acts of politicians and candidates, both women and men, just to count how many times they mention girls, women and gender.
We should expect MPs and state assembly members, particularly those from NGO backgrounds or who have worked with NGOs, to articulate women’s or gender issues on their own initiative rather than being pushed by civil society.
Yet, after winning their seats, most elected representatives seem to have abandoned the interest in continuing the women’s struggle and gender justice, alongside women’s NGOs, civil society and especially ordinary girls and women.
If so, in future elections, why should NGOs even support their fellow activists in getting elected – for once given the electoral mandate, they tend to forget these issues, what more if they are appointed to the cabinet or state executive councils.
Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer