For the September edition of our “A Future in ASEAN” series titled “Youth Political Activism: Transformation and Challenges for Southeast Asia”, ABYA is proud to present a distinguished panel of academics. They are Associate Professor Jamie S. Davidson of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, Associate Professor Punchada Sirivunnabood in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Mahidol University, and Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Program, Nanyang Technological University.
Written by: Deborah Tan & Stanley Toh
Edited by: Isabelle Goh
The webinar took place over Zoom on the 29th of August, and we were proud to have more than 50 participants in attendance for the sharing session.
Youth Political Activism in Thailand
To give us a better understanding of the student protests taking place in Thailand, Professor Punchada provided us with a context of recent Thai politics. She shared that grievances aired during the protests have roots in Thailand’s 2019 General Election.
The 2019 Thai General Election was the first election in 5 yearssince the military coup in 2014. The 2019 election was also unique in that for the first time in about 50 years the military is trying to maintain its political power through democratic processes, as evidenced from the drafting of a new constitution and the formation of its own political party to contest in the elections.
Surprisingly, the military backed party garnered 116 seats in parliament while a new rising party with considerable youth support – Future Forward Party, managed to win 81 seats, which was significantly higher than expected.
Professor Punchada explained that many youths and students in Thailand were disgruntled that the senate was essentially appointed by the military, and in turn, the senate naturally voted for Prayut Chan-o-cha to be the Prime Minister. Moreover, the Future Forward Party that was popular with the youths was dissolved earlier this year and banned from politics. This led to a large number of university students organizing flash mobs around universities in the country such as Mahidol University, Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University.
Interestingly, Professor Punchada shares that the recent youth political activism in Thailand has led to a surge in the number of students signing up for her political science class this semester from around 30 to more than a 100, signifying the growing interest in youths to learn more about the politics of their own country.
The recent resurfacing and growth of the student protests is attributed to the youth’s unhappiness with the government extending a state of emergency to continue the fight against Covid-19, as they perceive that the government is only doing this to further control and quell the student protests.
Student protestors now have 3 main demands: the dissolution of parliament and the calling of new elections, the amendment of the current constitution, and last but not least, an investigation into allegations of abductions and killings of Thai dissidents outside the country.
To conclude, Professor Punchada hopes that the government can set up panels to engage the students in discussions, giving them a chance to negotiate for peace. She also believes that the government should restrain from using force as it would only escalate the situation.
History of Youth involvement in Indonesia’s Political Landscape
“It is hard to understate the political power that the term ‘pemuda’ (which means youth in Indonesia) has … it evokes this heroic dynamism, vitality, that is in some respects central to the creation of the Indonesian nation.”
According to Professor Davidson, youth involvement in the politics of Indonesia can be traced back to the colonial period and the birth of both Indonesian nationalism and the Indonesian nation: many of Indonesia’s great nationalist leaders were young university students in their early to mid-20s.
He highlighted that the 1928 Youth Congress was a symbolic moment that marked the start of Indonesian politics.as it brought together different youth organisations across the archipelago. “It is hard to separate the concept of … Indonesian politics from youth politics, they are one and the same in some respects.”
Following independence, the youth continued to be politically dynamic in Indonesia but there were splits in the 1950s and 60s, along the Left (who were leaning towards Communism) and a Right more conservative youth group called ‘Kammi’.
During Suharto’s New Order, many youths who helped bring him to power became disillusioned with the regime and soon fell out of favour with the government. After the infamous Malari riots of 1974, all politics were unfortunately banned from university campuses.
Three main branches of students appeared: those who became politically apathetic, those who continued to channel their political activism by forming and joining NGOs outside of their university, and those who became more Islamic and conservative, a group that gradually spreadthroughout Indonesia’s universities.
Professor Davidson highlights that students played a large role in Suharto’s downfall, especially those in Yogyakarta, who were the first to take to the streets, leading to a cascade across the nation. However, he remarks that today, student activism and youths are in discomforting times and seem rudderless compared to the past.
In examining the role of youths in politics and business in Indonesia today, Professor Davidson shares two case studies. To illustrate how politically rudderless Indonesian students and youths have become during Indonesia’s democratic era, he mentions Budiman Sudjatmiko, a former student activist who has now joined President Jokowi’s party as a politician. The second example he brought up is that of Nadiem Makarim, founder of Gojek and one of Indonesia’s most prominent businessmen; Nadiem has now been co-opted by Jokowi’s government as the country’s Minister of Education and Culture and the new symbol of youth in Indonesia.
Impact of Youth Activism on Politics in Malaysia and Singapore
Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah shared that there has been a rise in youths and younger candidates who are directly involved in electoral politics in Singapore and Malaysia. Such examples include the high profile opposition candidate Nicole Seah in Singapore, and the previous Minister of Youth and Sport Syed Saddiq in Malaysia.
Youths are also at the forefront of social discourse in three main areas: LGBT issues, climate change and race. While there is greater pushback against LGBT issues in a largely conservative Muslim Malaysia, the LGBT movement has gained more ground and sympathy in Singapore.
Professor Walid also mentioned that youths in both countries are more concerned and vocal about climate change and environmental conservation. This can be attributed to the fact that youths will have to live with the tangible effects of environmental neglect for longer than the older generations.
Equally prominent in youth activism in Malaysia and Singapore is the discourse about race. Youths are increasingly aware of possible sources of racial inequality and are not afraid to discuss these issues publicly.
Open discussion over social media is also facilitated and catalyzed by “woke” language imported from the West. This was clearly seen recently in the surge of youths talking about the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death. Many tried to link it back to the local context to show how certain policies and mindsets may lead to racial inequality, such as “Chinese Privilege”.
The push for change in how we approach race has, perhaps, the greatest impact on politics in Malaysia and Singapore. After all, political structures in both countries are heavily driven by race, and any change to public opinion will certainly influence the political sphere.
In response to this conclusion, Professor Walid argued that there will be a need to re-negotiate the social contract between races in Malaysia. The political status quo is that Malays hold political power, while the Chinese dominate the economic sphere. However, the people of today cannot be expected to be comfortable with this social contract that was formed in 1957.
In Singapore, youths have also sent the ruling People’s Action Party a strong signal that they will not accept “gutter politics” and that the way they think about race is vastly different from older generations. This signal came in the form of mass support for opposition candidate Raeesah Khan during GE2020 after police reports were made against her online comments that allegedly accused Singaporean law enforcement authorities of racial and religious discriminationRaeesah Khan’s team went on to win Sengkang GRC, a significant victory for the Opposition since GRCs tend to favor the ruling party in elections.
Wrapping up, Professor Walid summarized that youth activism, especially in Singapore tend to toe the line when opposing governmental policies. However, youth voices are still heard and have a definite impact on politics in Malaysia and Singapore going forward.
State – Business Relationships
Opening the Q&A segment was the question, “How are politics and business intertwined and do we see the recent political developments changing that relationship?”. In short, business and politics in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are tightly linked.These linkages come in the form of patronage, where businesses donate capital to the government in exchange for a favorable business environment including but not limited to – protected markets, government contracts, and projects. Gojek and CP were also raised as examples of huge government-backed companies.
There was a general consensus across the panel that recent political developments will not and have not challenged this relationship, and have in fact, strengthened such relationships in Thailand.
Social Media and Youth Activism in ASEAN
Attendees also posed questions on whether social media would lead to a more common opinion of politics amongst youth in ASEAN and how we as youth can interact responsibly on social media so as to avoid getting stuck in echo chambers.
There was a general consensus that social media is potentially more divisive and will not, in and of itself, lead to a homogeneity of ideas across the ASEAN region. Asst Prof Walid cautioned against thinking that social media is the be all and end all, and that there can bea certain upper middle class snobbery present in the language used on social media in political discourse.
Citing the case where blacks in America aren’t as enthusiastic about Kamala Harris potentially being the first black Vice-President as compared to the hype around it on social media, Asst Prof Walid showed that social media is certainly not representative of everyone’s opinion or stance on issues.
We would once again like to thank our speakers, Associate Professor Jamie S. Davidson of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, Associate Professor Punchada Sirivunnabood in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Mahidol University, and Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Program, Nanyang Technological University, for their insights and time at our September edition of “A Future in ASEAN” series. If you would like to hear more about such topics, please do keep a lookout for our next webinar!