MySay: Young and restless

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 1, 2019 - April 07, 2019.
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This piece is inspired by the host’s comment on The EdgeTV #JustSaying segment titled Generation Misunderstood aired on Astro Awani on Dec 19 last year. After intelligently and succinctly outlining the woes of youths in Malaysia, she ended with a poignant plea from youths: “Please don’t hate us”. What led to these pithy but profoundly effective words?

She had earlier shown us that many people, presumably older folk, tend to stereotype youths, in particular those living in the Klang Valley, as unthinking spendthrifts lepaking (hanging out) in Starbucks or Coffee Bean sipping RM16 lattes or shopping for RM500 sneakers. However, these pictures only apply to some youths, certainly not to all since no group is monolithic. Youths differ according to gender, race and social class. Not many can afford to savour expensive, aromatic coffee.

The host of #JustSaying — Adela Megan Willy — convinced me of the hardship of many young people in the Klang Valley, earning very small salaries and paying astronomical sums for food and lodging. Some have paltry savings (these are the ones who may have had to skip a meal or two), some have no savings at all and a desperate few have to seek financial assistance from their loved ones. The cost of living has gone up so much while remuneration, especially starting salaries, have not. It is not Starbucks but the neighbourhood teh tarik stall that is a regular haunt for numerous cash-strapped young people — that is, provided the price of capati and teh masala does not keep going up.

Many young people have migrated from outlying towns to Kuala Lumpur to chase the Malaysian Dream. Yes, we have our own version of the American Dream and I shall give it a slogan: “Everyone can be an entrepreneur”. Many young people today believe in this dream: “Work for a few years, save and then we can be a start-up company owner mah. Be your own boss, good what.”

But is this true? Society should value innovation and ambition, so start-ups that are sound should be supported, but it will not be easy. As a middle-aged friend of mine put it, “Not everyone can be a Mark Zuckerberg” nor should they want to. It is not merely a matter of self-owned businesses or being an employee. It is a matter of fair opportunity and salaries for our youth.

The salaries of young people who have worked very hard for graduate or professional degrees should be commensurate with their efforts and must be recalibrated to take in the rising cost of living. Not only is it a matter of material need, there is mental and emotional satisfaction as well as we want to be fairly compensated and clearly appreciated. Youth is a season of hope and idealism but it is also a time of risky emotional roller-coasters. Do we want to engender a feeling of disillusionment among our young? In some economically challenged countries, for example, Greece, an entire generation may be lost to disappointment, disenchantment and depression.

Some of us who are senior citizens have forgotten, or choose not to recall, our own turbulent emotions when we were in our 20s and 30s. I say to Adela whose plea on Astro Awani was, “Please don’t hate us”, older folk will try to come alongside young people and help, not “hate” them. First and foremost, older folk must learn to listen. By this, I mean genuinely and empathetically listening, where we do not butt in with endless suggestions. Allow the young people to speak their minds in safety with no quick dismissal or instant judgement. Hard as it may be to do, seniors should note that time does not stand still. What worked for us when we were young may not work in quite the same way today. Change is the only constant in life, so we should listen patiently in order to comprehend the current needs of the younger generation. They inhabit a far more complex world than we did in our youth. The surest way to get a young person to switch off instantly is to state portentously, “You know, during our youth, we never did that sort of thing.” Much more mutually productive dialogue will emerge from listening patiently and compassionately.

In his classic tale of estrangement between father and son in Death of A Salesman, playwright Arthur Miller explores how his protagonist Willy Loman blindly, almost ruthlessly, forces on his son, Biff, the ideals of the American Dream. Biff must be financially successful as well as immensely popular in order to live out his father’s hopes. Biff must shine in his career so as to fulfil the golden promise that good looks and great athletic prowess in high school would ensure. In a climactic moment of honest revelation, Biff tells his father, “Why am I trying to be what I don’t want to be when all I want is out there waiting for me the minute I know who I am?”

Does Biff sound too romantic given my earlier comments on the big challenges facing young people in our country today? Perhaps, but his plea for a return to the authentic rings true. It is a plea from the young, which many parents have chosen not to hear. Are there enough channels in our society for the youth to follow diverse career paths, and not merely the standard doctor, lawyer, engineer or investment banker routes?

Are our tertiary institutions and training programmes varied enough to offer a wide range of career choices? Or, have many of our young people been forced to be square pegs in round holes? Are we so hung up on the 4.0 tech needs that we cannot see beyond nano tech, artificial intelligence, drones, and so on? Granted, a highly digitalised world opens up many frontier challenges as well as novel opportunities for the young, so they must be prepared. Nonetheless, the domain of the arts, the realm of emotions are equally crucial to nurturing rounded young people.

I return to the words of Adela on #JustSaying. She reminds us that our young people are not mere materialistic money-minded automatons. Sure, they want a comfortable life but they are far from apathetic where civil society and the political domain are concerned. In an insightful article written before the 14th general election, Dr Francis Loh of Aliran reminds us that, “The youth are an important part of the political ferment that is occurring. Malaysian youth are not the problem. They are part of the solution.”

Our youth continue to engage in arts and the theatre; they participate in community betterment projects as NGO members or volunteers. These activities provide opportunities for multiracial exchanges engendering respect and tolerance. I dare say many of our youth are disgusted and appalled by the racist remarks some politicians are still making for political mileage.

Far from hating the young, we look to them with hope and we want to ensure that they have a fair deal in life. We welcome their continued critical vigilance in safeguarding democratic spaces and justice. I agree with our youthful Minister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq, who tells young people, “Always be sceptical, always be critical.” In this way, youths will keep us older folk on our toes.

Dr Wong Soak Koon is a long-time Literature teacher

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