Youth Diplomacy in a New Age | Photo Credit: iStock

Political Apathy Amidst the Mechanisms of Youth Diplomacy

Some tend to shy away when it comes to politics, but what is politics? Why is political apathy so concerning and how big of an impact can be created when youths are politically interested anyway? Sherry from the IAS Gazette explores political apathy and its consequences, especially with the prevalence of youth diplomacy in the global landscape.

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Some tend to shy away when it comes to politics, and on that note, I guess some of you are on the verge of exiting this page, but please, hear me out.

I would first like to clarify that the politics I’m referring to are issues that concern domestic, national, regional or international interests and not your typical work-life “politics”. Yes, I’m referring to what some of you may consider the “dry”, “boring” political issues regarding laws, elections, the economy, diplomacy tools, societal issues and wars that “don’t concern you”. If that describes you, it’s an indication that you may be considered politically apathetic. But what does it actually mean, and why is there a need to care anyway?

“This Doesn’t Concern Me”— Political Apathy Explained 

Political apathy refers to the disengagement and disinterest in political issues. Politically apathetic people likely have no interest, want, or need to be involved, which some argue is a privileged action. 

According to the Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) Electoral Knowledge Network, a project launched at the United Nations in 1998 to provide information on electoral processes, there are a few explanations as to why political apathy occurs. Most of them stem from the thought(s) that: 

  • Personal security and livelihood wouldn’t be directly affected. This is especially observed in developed countries, where the majority of the population have access to basic human rights. As long as the most pressing issue (in their opinion) is being dealt with, there is no need or willingness to go beyond that in advocacy. In other words, the more comfortable people are with the state of their lives, the less they desire to engage in political issues that seem distant. Why care about the refugee crisis when it’s not even happening in my country? 
  • No difference or strong enough impact would be made even with participation. Taken rather literally, it is sometimes difficult to see how one’s seemingly tiny action could even play a part in the bigger picture; say, efforts in tackling climate change, or efforts to eradicate racial discrimination. There could also be “sticky” institutions that have been established that seem impossible to change, discouraging people from challenging them, especially when the very mechanisms of society rely on them. Moreover, due to the negativity instinct, which is the tendency to notice more bad than good, people may feel a sense of helplessness when it comes to solving or attempting to address political issues that “can’t get worse” than what’s already happening.
  • It is unconventional to be politically inclined. According to Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzer, the former of whom conducted the World Values Survey (WVS), traditional societies are likely to have systematic exclusion due to societal and cultural constraints. People from traditional societies are observed to believe in values that often coincide with obeying authority, and rarely challenge what’s in place. Another aspect of this is how easily we succumb to the herd instinct or social proof. This has to do with the cognitive thinking that one is behaving correctly when they follow the majority. Thus, going against what the majority believe in becomes less conventional.
  • Personal political opinions don’t matter in a group of experts. A classic groupthink trap— the fear of voicing one’s own opinions when encountered with others who have expertise regarding the issue. The behaviour of not wanting to engage in the situation thinking there is a lack of knowledge, and thus leaving it to the “more knowledgeable” people.

So, how does Singapore fare with regard to political apathy? According to the WVS report released by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), political interest is low among Singaporeans. Only 37.2 per cent said that they were either somewhat or very interested in politics. Moreover, politics was ranked last when compared to family, friends, work, leisure, wealth and religion.

But narrowing the subject to youths aged 16 to 24 globally, which of these reasons best explains why some of us are politically disconnected? In terms of literally participating in political processes like electoral elections, some surveys have shown that youths generally do not engage in mainstream politics such as engaging in electoral processes due to a lack of information and knowledge on politics. Nonetheless, political apathy in youths can be due to one or a combination of the points mentioned earlier.

Consequences of Political Apathy in Youths 

The main problem is when youths think that political issues don’t concern them. For one, not prioritising politics could lead to a lack of effort in reading up or having discussions about political issues. This could lead to a lack of awareness or insufficient understanding of the policies or issues that affect them and those around them; be it directly or indirectly. Tying this back to the pointers earlier on, there may be a lack of confidence in one’s opinion, making them not want to engage in politics. “Essentially, [individuals] get caught up in a vicious circle, which further lowers their overall interest in politics,” concluded Dr Teo Kay Kee, a postdoctoral fellow at IPS Social Lab of the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

This lack of understanding and awareness could then lead to more concerning outcomes such as uninformed voter decisions being made, or pushing for problematic policies. Moreover, being unaware of political issues, or how some issues can be politicised is quite alarming, as we are actually political actors ourselves, whether or not we engage in politics. In fact, how we respond to politics may be part of the whole political issue, and we may be contributing to aspects of it while being oblivious to it.

As with the instance of the Myanmar crisis that emerged earlier this year, many urged the United Nations (UN) to step in, and there was an immense pressure for ASEAN member states to enact upon the human rights violations and chaos occurring in Southeast Asia’s backyard. There seems to be a lack of information and knowledge about the mechanisms here. First, the UN is not a global government. It cannot dictate states. Secondly, ASEAN is built upon the core principle of non-interventionism. Meaning, one state is not supposed to interfere with how another state is run. Thus, there is a limit as to what could have been done, implying that some pleas and instances of political engagement of fighting for Myanmar weren’t quite effective, possibly due to the lack of understanding of regional and international laws and rules. 

Situations are a lot more complex than meets the eye, and the connections and links between issues and how they can affect every individual are exactly like constellations. If one is politically unaware of the issues happening around them, one may not even be aware of how they are indirectly participating in the political issue itself. 

The Opposite

Being politically engaged is thus necessary in today’s age. It’s about being able to discern for oneself what the political mechanisms are, and how they can affect people. By simply being aware of how interconnected political issues can be, and how something that seems so distant can end up affecting you in some way or another already counts. In fact, being politically aware is being politically engaged, and can even drive one to become more politically involved, since the knowledge gained can help one form more comprehensive opinions and take more appropriate actions. 

So how does one become political? 

Think again, politics isn’t just about the technicalities. It can be broadly defined. As American political scientist Harold Lasswell nicely encapsulates, “Politics is who gets what, when and how.” When you think of it, I’m sure you have opinions about racism, income inequality, education or workplace culture. These are politics. 

A good starting point would be to educate oneself on domestic politics. Income inequality, racial and cultural gaps, the education system, democracy, foreign policies, corrupt governments, you name it. Every state has a unique set of domestic affairs that can and should be understood as deeply as possible, in order to see how political issues that seem so distant are actually so connected to you. 

I’m sure some of you are aware of occurrences of mistreatment of migrant workers in Singapore. There are several non-governmental organisations like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) that aim to provide help to this group of people. Public support for migrant workers fuels their work. What you advocate on social media, what you talk about with your friends about migrant workers, how you treat migrant workers, all count. When one gets involved, the issue becomes politicised. Ultimately, it likely leads to reforms by the government or political actors. For example, some of you may be familiar with the unfortunate incidents regarding the “transporting” of migrant workers on the back of lorries. Those who were involved, be it through conversations, raising awareness on social media or signing petitions, sparked change. The momentum was used, and a start-up launched a platform to book minibuses for migrant workers. Aespada aims to cater to clients who face restrictive budgets for proper transportation. This is politics. 

Now using a broader level of analysis, youths globally can securitise a political issue. The Black Lives Matter protests show how issues in one country can ignite global support and momentum in terms of urgency and importance of solving the issue. The protests took to social media and ultimately engaged people on an international scale with regards to human rights, equality, systemic racism, prejudice and discrimination. Youths can define what matters to them in terms of peace and security, and involve themselves to bring an issue to attention. 

Black Lives Matter Activism On Digital Platforms | Credit: Issue Voter

Southeast Asia’s youth population already comprises over 213 million young people below 35 years old. Imagine the impact all youths can have if they were to be politically engaged. It takes one to create a massive ripple effect to make a difference in the world. By being a political actor, youths can collectively securitise political issues that they hold dear to them on the international stage. Moreover, youths can work with youths in other states to collaborate on addressing political issues, and states can also engage with youths. That’s where youth diplomacy comes into play.

Youth Diplomacy—Making Change 

Collective Action of Youths | Credit: International Youth Coalition 

According to Mr Zaim Mohzani, Director of Government, Diplomatic and Youth Engagement, KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific, public diplomacy occurs when a state engages with people of another state. Youth diplomacy is thus, a state engaging youths of another state. 

According to the published United Nations (UN) Youth Strategy, youths are essential assets worth investing in, and it is highly important to educate them in the field of diplomacy as it is believed to be one of the main means of achieving global peace. In terms of youth diplomacy, some states have already begun programmes to engage with youths, educating them and providing them with the tools and support to facilitate diplomacy, or issues relating to security. The reason why states place emphasis on youth diplomacy is that it can contribute to their soft power as well. 

Considering how 99.6 per cent of Southeast Asian youths use social media every month, states can make use of technology to accomplish their objectives in raising publicity for their youth diplomacy programmes or engaging youths of other states with regards to politics. Essentially, politics can leverage the digital realm’s extensive reach by planting itself in its network. Youth diplomacy is thus more important than ever, and youths need to be aware of how they’re likely a part of it, or how they can be a part of it. 

According to Mr Simon Kemp, CEO & Founder of Kepios, youths use a wide variety of social media platforms averaging roughly seven and a half platforms per user per month compared to the global average of 6.3 platforms. States or state-managed programmes can thus reach almost all youths of any given social media platform on at least one other social media platform, considering the overlaps these platforms provide. In fact, the Global Web Index (GWI) indicates that more than a quarter of youths on the internet across Southeast Asia said Facebook is their favourite social media platform. With it becoming a metaverse, states’ ability to engage with youths with regards to educating them becomes much more prevalent. 

However, besides the Singapore International Foundation’s state-backed annual ASEAN Youth Fellowship, there is little youth engagement by states and ASEAN in Southeast Asia, which Zaim considers a “lost opportunity” in strengthening the region’s influence. Meanwhile, other states have been actively involved in engaging youths globally. Take for example the US’ soft power approach through its public and youth diplomacy in SouthEast Asia—the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP). The programme invites current and emerging foreign leaders to experience how politics in the US work, and facilitate the forging of lasting relationships with American counterparts. Such state-managed programmes aim to  “cast the host country in the best possible light in the minds of a foreign audience,” according to the American Foreign Service Association. Another objective is sharing knowledge so that participants can apply it back in their home countries. Moreover, the US has also conducted programmes in person, such as former President Obama visiting many countries and directly engaging with communities to shape public opinion. From this, we can see how impactful youth diplomacy is, and how states can make use of youth diplomacy to secure political agenda, especially when it comes to global peace and security. But what exactly can states do to enhance this?

Zaim suggests that states can adopt a policy framework for youth diplomacy, starting from a process of exploration, to development, and lastly growth. Exploration would be an early stage of building youth diplomacy, where a state can focus on: supporting youth diplomacy groups through sponsorships, encouraging youth participation in international organisations and establishing a youth advisory council to the ministry of foreign affairs. Development would be an enhancement of support from the state, where exchange programmes, workshops, festivals or competitions regarding youth diplomacy can be created. Growth would be the last stage of the process, where states implement annual scholarships, regional engagement programmes or appoint regional youth envoys and ambassadors to solidify youth diplomacy in its foreign policy strategy, and pave the way for further developments. 

In addition, according to Nicholas J. Cull’s “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories”,  youths should be treated as equal stakeholders in decision-making processes and should be included in policymaking processes in order to fully unleash the power of youth diplomacy. This is where the whole idea of being aware of political issues is important because youths are chosen and targeted in states’ pursuit of establishing youth diplomacy, meaning they should be extra vigilant about the political mechanisms at play in order to see the bigger picture of their participation, or how they can be part of it even when they’re not engaging in political issues. 

Understanding that the political landscape is a turbulent and complex one, youth diplomacy can be a means to enhance state influence globally, with the potential of becoming a focus for many developed states. Knowing that states have this ability to engage youths in advocating for certain interests, it is, therefore, crucial to be politically inclined and be aware of how political issues can affect various individuals globally. Youths are believed to be key players in establishing future global peace and security. When empowered with knowledge and the awareness of how they can “control” politics, the intensity of the impact youths can make can possibly achieve breakthroughs.  

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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