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Friday, August 27, 2010

BN Youth Lab disproves youth apathy


Panned before it even got off the ground, the BN Youth Lab has been called a publicity effort as opposed to a serious endeavour to engage the nation’s youth.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin has been a prime mover behind the endeavour, fuelling speculation that BN Youth Lab is merely a vehicle to help his political relevance.

To be fair, Khairy has certainly leveraged on the public interest in the BN Youth Lab’s findings. But what politician could resist an opportunity to be seen as relevant to the younger set, who proved key to BN’s defeat in the 2008 general election?

For the youth, by the youth

What is BN Youth Lab all about? Basically it is Umno Youth’s attempts to engage Malaysian youth on key issues that interest them. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak had mooted its formation in a meeting with key Umno Youth members.

Kicking off the effort was a telephone survey involving a sample of 1,000 respondents, youth were asked about what mattered to them.

The results were enlightening. Youth shared concerns about issues that embraced a broad spectrum that included the economy, media freedoms, education and the minimum wage.

A key question asked was whether the respondents would vote in the coming elections, and 75% of the respondents, many of whom would be first-time voters, emphatically said yes.

BN Youth Lab then progressed beyond a mere survey to engaging focus groups and then setting up a ‘lab’ that involved a cross-section of the target demographic. The end result? A report that compiled a list of recommendations made by the youth to be submitted to the prime minister.

Media commission ‘to be addressed later’

A month before the report was made public, Khairy had a personal audience with the prime minister to discuss the recommendations.

“He (the PM) was happy with the recommendations,” Khairy told a private audience with BN Youth Lab members.

However, a contentious portion of the report, pertaining to a proposed media commission was left out of the public report.

Khairy said that though the PM was amenable to the media practicing self-regulation as opposed to the current Home and Information Ministries’ involvement, it was a matter he felt needed “further thought” and revisited in depth on its own.

Following the encouraging response to the BN Youth Lab, the Youth and Sports Ministry is due to sponsor another youth lab. According to Khairy, this lab would likely build from the BN Youth Lab report as the foundation.

Moderate or cowardly?

A bit of disclosure here: this writer was a participating member of the Youth Lab sessions that led up to the final report. I agreed to joining on tacit knowledge that I would report on my experiences and assurances that the members were strictly non-partisan.

From observations, the members of the lab sessions were predominantly middle-class urbanites. What they also had in common was a bias towards leaning somewhat towards the centre, which could explain why the recommendations were generally tame.

On the subject of the ISA, instead of calling for its outright abolition, respondents instead called for key revisions to its terms as well as for greater transparency.

Among the ISA recommendations made were:

1. A maximum or cap to the detention period as opposed to two-year renewals.

2. Compulsory financial assistance for ISA detainees’ dependents

3. Amending Section 8 where the Home Minister’s approval would then be needed for all detentions, and not just for those exceeding one year

4. The police would need to inform the Home Ministry of an ISA detention within 14 days. Failure to do so would earn the detainee the right to immediate release.

Other recommendations included support for a minimum wage of at least RM1,000, better child care facilities, and monetary incentives to companies that employed more than one race.

The “bravest” recommendation perhaps was a call for the Universities and University Colleges Act to be amended to allow university students to participate and hold ranks in political parties.

From my own experience in the Lab, we were constantly reminded to suggest concrete, practicable measures as opposed to mere ideas. The limited time given, four afternoons on weekends, also restricted the depth particular issues could be explored.

Yet some allowance had to be made for the composition of the labs members. These were not scholars but for the most part civilians not vested in either civil service.

To their credit, BN Youth had a mostly hands-off approach to the lab and served as facilitators without attempting to influence the issues or directions conversations veered towards.

The aftermath

Mok Han Kit, another BN Youth Lab participant, admitted that he was initially skeptical about the whole process.

“I am skeptical anything will actually come out of this but I’m not totally discounting the possibility,” he said.

His fellow participant, Jillian Lau, considered the proceedings “eye opening”.

“It showed me that the ‘other side’ (government-affiliated) actually did care about what was happening in the country,” she said.

At the preview meeting for the BN Youth Lab members, Khairy was asked what reassurances there would be the measures proposed would be implemented.

The Umno Youth chief said that there would be tracking methods put in place to monitor the progress of the recommendations. Details on the exact methods were still sketchy at press time but the members were assured they would be kept in the loop.

What is apparent is that BN seems to be making headway in the battle for young minds. What the opposition currently lacks are convincing youth leaders. It is overly dependent on NGOs to engage this key demographic.

The jury is still out on whether BN Youth Lab is more than a publicity exercise. What is clear is that the youth carry not just the hopes of the nation, but also the future of the political landscape.


Erna Mahyuni is a writer and BN Youth Lab permanent member. Courtesy of FMT

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