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The role youths play in the global arena

Ong Ye Kung

The role youths play in the global arena

Editor's note: Decision Makers is a global platform for decision makers to share their insights on events shaping today's world. Ong Ye Kung is Singapore's Minister for Health. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Late last year, I was invited to speak on the topic of youth at the Lianhe Zaobao Singapore-China Forum 2023 in Beijing. There was a good question and answer session at the end of the speech. 

The most pertinent question was raised by a young Chinese student at the end. He said that for his generation, young people had to cope with a lot of stresses in life, and from time to time, they needed to vent, including attending parties and celebrations. Yet when they did so, they were often criticized, for being influenced by the West. What would be the view of a Minister from Singapore, which straddles the East and West, and through a national effort, transformed itself from Third World to First World in one generation? 

I explained that depending on our respective cultures and the point in history, the balance between individualism and national objectives could be different. In general, Asian countries have a stronger emphasis on the "big me," compared to Western developed countries, where individual expression and the "small me" is an inalienable right.

The answer to this question was in fact the core theme of my speech that day. Youths from all over the world and across history have always been idealistic, and possessed a strong desire for individual expression. Yet the collection of their individual desires is what shapes the future, and what makes them the architects of the world that is yet to come.

Humankind has witnessed this at various inflexion points in history. In more recent times, in the United States after World War II, large numbers of youths, returning from war, leveraged technological advancement and investments in education to drive industrial growth and scientific and technological breakthroughs. In post-independence Singapore, an entire nation comprising mostly young people, putting aside their differences, came together under strong leadership to survive and thrive. In China, since the 1970s, reform and opening-up have encouraged youths to partake and drive economic activity, resulting in more than 40 years of unprecedented growth with a profound impact on the global geopolitical landscape.

City view of Singapore. /CFP
City view of Singapore. /CFP

City view of Singapore. /CFP

I believe today's youths are again at such a historical inflexion point. However, they are different from previous generations in a few important aspects. They are a post Internet generation. They are therefore digital natives. Regardless of where they live, they are connected and aware of what is going on in the world. Because of that, they see wider perspectives, care about larger issues that go beyond national boundaries, and drive conversations in complex topics, ranging from climate change and geopolitical conflicts to social inequality and mental health. At the same time, they live in a globalized and hyper-competitive world, and having a good education is no longer enough to secure a good future to acquire all the material possessions they desire in life. 

But what will not change is that their collective individual desires and contributions will determine our future. The "big me" and "small me" do not often come into conflict. In fact, they reinforce each other. A national imperative can inspire and move individuals, and the effort of each helps fulfil large goals. 

As much as competition in the job market is intense, causing some youths in Singapore to "quit quietly" and those in China to "lie flat," it is my firm belief barring any geopolitical mishaps, that the future can be bright in an unprecedented way. The world has never been as connected as before, a world order even as it is imperfect is in place, with unthinkable technology at our disposal.

We are at the cusp of a new reality in the history of humanity. It will be a globalized, connected and multi-polar world, with the U.S. still likely the leading superpower in the world, China as the other key strategic and economic anchor, along with other major players like the European Union, India and Japan. The global economic centre of gravity will shift towards Asia in what has been coined the "Asian Century." Economies will be tightly integrated with vibrant cultural and talent exchanges, and there will be strong linkages with countries outside of Asia.

Every generation needs to do what it must, and realizing this vision will be the crowning achievement of this generation of youths. To achieve this, I suggest youths of today consider the following, which are not against their individual desires.

First, more so than before, do not lose your sense of curiosity and the appetite to continuously learn. Technology is changing rapidly. The industrial revolution was a blue-collar revolution, and technology today is driving a white-collar revolution. We must adapt and learn, while retaining the human touch, to ride this wave of change.

Second, even as youths embrace the world, we must hold steadfast to our own cultural identity. Culture is profound and deep, and determines our confidence as a people. We should not conflate them with the majority of practices, trends, fashion, and entertainment that exist on the veneer of society. The oldest and richest cultures of the world – Chinese, Indian, Arabian – were never static. By embracing and processing foreign cultural influences, we keep our local cultures rich and dynamic, our ideas fresh and forward looking, and our people confident and secure.

Third, youths should go forth and work on challenges that excite them, make decisions with the hand that they are dealt with, and not be paralyzed by choice. Instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along, we can choose to make the best of what is before us.

Finally, youths need to continue to be global cultural ambassadors. Reach out to other youths in the world, learn about their language, culture, and life. Youths in China are already highly bilingual or even trilingual. I think you will discover more similarities than differences. By better understanding the world and its people, we maximize our chance of a peaceful global environment, the opportunities that will open to us, and successfully deliver today's generational mission.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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