Young Ones! A Glorious Era Ahead Is Yours To Make


Imagine 500 years ago. A young person in this part of the world looks up to the cloudy skies this time of the year, as the deserts of Australia start to get warmer while the seas surrounding China become colder. We know the sciences – as the air in the hotter region rises, the winds from the cooler region flow into the low pressure zone. Soon, new sea journeys will begin, bringing ships and goods and travellers from East Asia traveling with the north-east monsoon to the Malay Archipelago.

The winds not only bring traders’ goods or religious men’s scriptures, or the adventurers’ maps and notes, but also their aspirations and anxieties, as well as their hopes and fears.

The cycle of hot and cold, the changing of the north-eastern and south-western winds, have fuelled travels from East and West to our neighbourhood for over a millennium. We thus became the meeting place of the great civilisations of the world: China, India, the Europeans and Islam, mingling with the great Nusantara empires and kingdoms. These rich, mostly peaceful interactions form the basis for the diversity of cultures which we have inherited today.

Fast forward half a millennium. A young person in this part of the world looking at his smartphone reads how China and the US are both preparing new arsenals for a new trade war. He also reads how pundits paint and project a gloomy world, and an even gloomier future. After all, we are going to comprise the collateral damage of this war between giants, even if it is only a trade war.

The truth is, Malaysians, we have an option not to be pessimistic and we, especially the young, can choose optimism.

We once served as the meeting place of great civilisations, and we can once again play that role. In a time when the world is hungry for conversations in the midst of confrontations, we can again be the bridge builders we once were. And think about it: the legacy of cultural and linguistic diversity which we have inherited – these are the very elements that will enable us to be in the position to speak to the world and invite the world to speak to one another, whether in diplomacy or in trade.

Do not let anyone tell you that our diversity is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a good – nay, a great – blessing. My Muslim friends pointed me to this amazing verse from the Holy Quran, Surah Al-Hujurat, verse 13:

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you people and tribes that you may know one another…”

Our diversity is a blessing and more so today when it empowers us to position ourselves strategically in a contentious world.

Speaking of the trade war, the Chinese summarised Sun Tzu’s factors to consider for success in a war into six characters: 天时地利人和 (tiānshídìlìrénhé), loosely translated as “climate, terrain and human factor”.

We have a cooperating climate – the winds have been on our side for the last thousand years, we have favourable terrain, fertile river confluences and vast flatlands protected by stable mountain ranges. But what about 人 和 – the human factor?

Young Malaysians, you are the human factor.

The next 10 years, from 2020 to 2030, will be what I call the “Youth Decade”.

Beyond 2020

In 1991 our prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, laid down a vision for our country: Wawasan 2020. It was a vision to propel Malaysia into the class of developed nations. I was nine years old, but from then on and throughout the 1990s, my peers and I eagerly imagined flying cars cruising through futuristic cityscape by year 2020.

We have an option not to be pessimistic and we, especially the young, can choose optimism.

Today, we are just months away to 2020. Our vision is clearer now – there will be no flying cars on our streets or in our skies. We still have old problems with us: the public delivery service needs to be improved, the education system is ripe for radical reform, racial relations must be improved if we are to live together for the next one hundred years – and we definitely are.

But to say that there are only problems is to miss the obvious: while there are no flying cars, we have achieved something worthy of a developed nation. After 62 years of independence and 56 years of forming Malaysia, we finally achieved a two-party system in our democracy. We undid several draconian laws, abolished a fake news legislation, restored academic freedom in the universities, improved on corruption index, climbed up 22 positions on the Freedom of Media Index and now top other South-east Asian countries in the area of media freedom.

We have more women in the Cabinet today than ever – a woman is in charge of the rural development ministry and another is in charge of the urban development ministry; a woman is in charge of primary industries and another is in charge of science and technology. To top it all, for the first time in our history, we have a woman as deputy prime minister.

In the youth sector, we have, at 27, Syed Saddiq, the youngest minister not only in our country but perhaps the democratic world. Six ministers and deputy ministers are aged below 40 years old. In Parliament, 12% of our MPs are below 40 and two of them are below 30 – MP for Muar Syed Saddiq and MP for Batu, P. Prabakaran, 23.

Let us stop there for a moment, and look further beyond 2020 into the future.

Mahathir, now prime minister again, launched for us a new goal, this time looking towards 2030 as a time when there will be Shared Prosperity. In other words, in the next decade, we have to deal with not only poverty eradication but also equity in economic distribution. For a long time, the focus of our national economic programme was growth. In 2014, as a newbie in Parliament and on the opposition bench, I spoke about how growth does not equal distribution. We must not confuse the two. Having large national GDP numbers may not mean much if the prosperity is not shared equitably among the different states in Malaysia – with the working class, between males and females and with the least advantaged among us.

Growth alone is not enough. We need to have better redistribution of wealth and privileges to ensure that every Malaysian can enjoy the prosperity of our country.

Empowering Youths to Enter the Third Decade of the 21st Century

In July this year, Parliament passed two very important legislations with regard to youth.

On July 3, an amendment was made to the Youth Societies and Youth Development Act 2007 to redefine youths in Malaysia from previously being 18 to 40 years old to being 15 to 30 years old. This is to give expression to what was already set out in our 2015 National Youth Policy. It is also to rationalise our age definition to match international or at least United Nations standards. I call it a rationalisation exercise because it is not logical or practical to call a 40-year-old and an 18-year-old “youth”.

Two key things emerge from this. Firstly, we now are able to measure our youths against world youths. If we want to work with international standards, we better make sure we are comparing apples to apples – then we are able to gauge more accurately the achievements, challenges and issues facing our youths against world trends.

Growth alone is not enough. We need to have better redistribution of wealth and privileges to ensure that every Malaysian can enjoy the prosperity of our country.

Secondly, by this rationalisation, resources meant for youths can be focused and solely invested on them. In other words, 15-year-olds do not have to compete with 40-year-olds anymore for resources that are morally and logically meant for them!

About a fortnight later, a second legislation was passed where Parliament created history when all MPs from both sides unanimously supported the historic #Undi18 amendment to the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 years old. In doing this, Malaysia has finally caught up with world trends that had been going on since the 1960s.

When we first came into office, the minister and I talked about making youths strategic partners of the government in shaping the future of Malaysia together. With the #Undi18 constitutional amendments, we are finally set on this path. Now, young Malaysians will be formally integrated into the mainstream of our democracy, having the power to make decisions on the most important matters in our country.

What do all these mean?

Youths are more adapted to the fast-changing technological terrain and are able to catch up with an exponential rate of disruptions. And today, being given all these resources and political power, Malaysian youths are equipped to enter the third decade of the 21st century as builders and shapers of this new era. In other words, youths will be the ones who will realise Shared Prosperity in our country.

It is youths who will decide if we want to embrace the liberal spirit of our Rukun Negara, or fall back to extremism and fundamentalism. It is youths who will decide if we want good governance despite the cost of inconvenience, or if we would rather have an “anything-also- can-settle” government. It is youths who will decide if we want a new Malaysia, where diversity is celebrated and embraced, or continue living in anxiety about the Other. It is youths who will decide if the wealth of this blessed land is enjoyed by all, or monopolised by the few.

This is the Youth Decade.

Photo: Mohd Johari Hussin/123RF.COM.

2019 is the 50th year of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. When the Americans began their space programme more than half a century ago, they were greatly surpassed by the Soviet Union. More than a decade before Apollo 11, the Russian, using Newtonian logic, already sent Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957. Within a month, Sputnik 2 was launched into space carrying Laika the dog, the first animal in space. This sparked what was known as the Sputnik crisis in America – the fear of being left behind in the space race. America was left wondering about “What Ivan knows that Johnny doesn’t”, implying that education made all the difference.

The scientist and futurist Michio Kaku observing the Sputnik crisis wrote how the crisis gave birth to a generation of students “who considered it their national duty to become physicists, chemists or rocket scientists.”

In a similar vein, today’s Malaysian youth must consider it our national duty in the next decade to become the data scientists, AI builders, computer technologists and biotechnologists of the future. But more than that, we must consider it our national duty to build a cultured and civilised Malaysian society, reclaim our role as the meeting place of the ancient monsoon travellers, and be the place where the world meets in peace.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports.

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