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Young and restless In Malaysia

Sketch: Wong Soak Koon

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We should listen patiently in order to comprehend the current needs of the younger generation who inhabit a far more complex world, writes Wong Soak Koon.

This piece is inspired by a young lady’s speech I heard on the Just Saying series (Astro Awani) some months ago. After outlining intelligently and succinctly the woes of youths in Malaysia, she ended with a poignant plea for youths: “Please don’t hate us.”

What led to these pithy but profoundly effective words?

She had earlier shown us that many people, presumably older folk, tend to stereotype youths, in particular those living in the Klang Valley, as unthinking spendthrifts “lepaking” (hanging out) in Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tealife sipping RM16 lattes, or, shopping for RM500-a-pair sneakers.

As all stereotypes go, these pictures only apply to some youths, certainly not to all since no group is monolithic. Youths differ according to gender, race and social class. Not many can afford to savour expensive, aromatic coffee.

The young lady on Just Saying convinces me of the hardship of many young people in the Klang Valley earning very small salaries and paying astronomical sums for food and lodging. Some have paltry savings (these are the ones who may have had to skip a meal or two), some none at all and a desperate few may have to seek financial assistance from loved ones.

The cost of living has gone up so much while salaries, especially starting salaries, have not. It isn’t Starbucks but your neighbourhood teh tarik stall that is a regular haunt for numerous cash-strapped youths – and that is provided the price of capati and teh masala does not keep going up.

Many youths may have migrated from smaller outlying towns to Kuala Lumpur to chase the Malaysian Dream. We have our own brand of the “American Dream” and I shall give it the slogan: “Everyone can be an entrepreneur.” Many young people today believe in this dream: “Work a few years, save and then we can be a startup company owner mah. Be your own boss, good what.”

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But is this true? Society should value innovation and ambition so start-ups that are sound should be supported but it won’t be easy. As a middle-aged friend of mine puts it, “Not everyone can be a Mark Zuckerberg” nor should they want to. At base, it is not merely a matter of self-owned businesses or being an employee. It is a matter of fair opportunity and salaries for our youths.

The salaries of young people who have worked very hard for graduate or professional degrees should be commensurate with their effort and must be recalibrated to take in the rising cost of living. Not only a matter of material need, this is mental and emotional satisfaction as we all want to be fairly compensated and clearly appreciated.

Youth is a season of hope and idealism, but it is also a time of risky emotional roller-coasters. Do we want to engender a feeling of disillusionment among our young? In some economically challenged countries, for example, in Greece, an entire generation may be lost to disappointment, disenchantment and depression.

Some of us who are older senior citizens have forgotten, or choose not to recall, our own turbulent emotions when we were in our 20s and 30s. I say to the lady whose plea on Astro Awani was “Please don’t hate us”, that older folk will try to come alongside young people and help – not “hate” – them.

First and foremost, older folk must learn to listen. By this I mean genuinely empathetic listening where we do not butt in with endless suggestions. Allow youths to speak their minds in safety with no quick dismissal or instant judgement.

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Sketch: Wong Soak Koon

Hard as it may be to do so, seniors should note that time does not stand still. What worked for us when we were young may not work today in quite the same way.

Change is the only constant in life, so we should listen patiently in order to comprehend the current needs of the younger generation who inhabit a far more complex world than we did in our youth.

The surest way to get a young person to switch off instantly is to state portentously, “You know, during our youth, we never did that sort of thing.” Much more mutually productive dialogue would emerge from listening patiently and compassionately.

In his classic tale of estrangement between father and son in Death of A Salesman, the playwright Arther Miller explores how his protagonist, Willy Loman, blindly, almost ruthlessly, forces on his son Biff the ideals of the American Dream. Biff must be financially successful, as well as immensely popular in order to live out his father’s hopes. Biff must shine in his career so as to fulfill the golden promise which good looks and great athletic prowess in high school would ensure.

In a climactic moment of honest revelation in the play, Biff tells his father, “Why am I trying to be what I don’t want to be when all I want is out there waiting for me the minute I know who I am?”

Does Biff Loman sound too romantic given my earlier comments on the big challenges facing youths in our country today? Perhaps, but his plea for a return to the authentic rings true. It is a plea from the young which many parents have chosen not to hear.

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Are there enough channels in our society for youths to live out diverse career paths, not merely the standard doctor, lawyer, engineer or investment banker routes? Are our tertiary institutions and other training programmes varied enough to offer a wide range of career choices?

Or, have many youths been forced to be square pegs in round holes? Are we so hung up on the 4.0 tech needs that we cannot see beyond nanotech, artificial intelligence, drones, etc?

Granted, a highly digitalised world opens up many frontier challenges as well as novel opportunities for the young, so they must be prepared. Nonetheless, the domain of the arts, the realm of emotions are equally crucial to nurturing rounded young people.

I return to the words of that young lady who riveted my attention on Just Saying. She reminds us that our youths are not mere materialistic money-minded automatons. Sure, they want a comfortable life but they are far from apathetic where civil society and the political domain are concerned.

In an insightful article written before the 2018 general election, Francis Loh of Aliran reminds us that “youths are an important part of the political ferment that is occurring. Malaysian youths are not the problem. They are part of the solution.”

Our youths continue to engage in arts and the theatre; they participate in community betterment projects as NGO members or volunteers. These activities provide opportunities for multi-racial exchange engendering respect and tolerance among youths of different races. I dare say many of our youths are disgusted and appalled by the racist remarks some politicians still mobilise for political mileage.

Far from hating the young, we look to them with hope and we want to ensure that they have a fair deal in life. We welcome their continued critical vigilance in safeguarding democratic spaces and justice.

I agree with our youthful Youth and Sports Minister, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who tells young people, “Always be sceptical, always be critical.”

In this way, youths will keep us older folk on our toes.

This piece first appeared in the Edge.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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27 Apr 2019 6.11am

The present day youth are the most luckiest as they enjoy the most comfort ever. They are surrounded by high-tech facilities. But their well being is debatable. How much are they connected to people? At home parents are busy. In school teachers are concern only about how many A’s they can produce.In neighborhood, parents are too protective .More and more are living in gated and guarded environment. Life will blossom only people are surrounded by people and not by high tech facilities alone. We are too much concentrating on convenience, comfort and neglecting the technology of life where we can be connected to people.

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