Second Sphere: Youth empowerment must be real

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FOR advocates of youth empowerment, including me, the speeches by Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak and youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin at the recent Umno general assembly, which highlighted the importance of the rejuvenation of the political party, were indeed refreshing.

But this is not the first time that Umno’s leaders have spoken about the party’s rejuvenation. They have debated it many times in the past. Hence, for some, it is like déjà vu. If rejuvenation does not happen again, after all that debate, it will also feel like déjà vu again.

To what extent the renewed intention to rejuvenate the part will be realised depends on the support of all. Umno should not rely only on the two leaders. Also, it should not be limited just to the party, but should involve other aspects related to youth, for example, all government agencies (not only the Ministry of Youth and Sports), the whole university/school administration (not merely the student affairs division), business and civil society.

This is because politics and related fields are complementary to each other. Together, they form the ecosystem that is conducive to real rejuvenation. It is difficult to realise the goal of rejuvenation if it is implemented merely as a political step. And even if the goal may be achieved, it will not be as successful as it could be if it were implemented on a wider basis.

On the contrary, there is a better chance of achieving the desired outcome if the implementation is done in an already available multi-disciplinary framework via youth empowerment.  

Here, youth empowerment is defined as “enabling the youth to think and act on their own on everything that concerns them, their environment and their future”.

This framework can only be established if we subscribe to the accepted world view of youth empowerment, which is to “uphold” and not to “control” them.

In a “control” environment, most of the discussion on youth will centre on them as the beneficiaries of development, the problems they face or the fact that they are not ready to take on more responsibility. Issues about them being dissenters and a group that is easily manipulated often dominate discussions too.

But in an “uphold” environment, the scope of discussion is wider: their part in development, how they have influence on many policies, their spirit of entrepreneurship and ability to grasp new technologies, as well as their role as partners-in-leadership.

Youth empowerment is something to be practised genuinely and at all times. It should not be something seasonal, to be promoted when an election is near or because some individuals champion it. It should be practised because there is awareness by all.

Youth empowerment must be properly understood. This is to avoid confusion about its meaning. The following are seven such "confusions":
1.  When we give youth authority over certain tasks, many criticise the move as merely cosmetic and call it dumping without real authority.
2.  Appointing youth as representatives of authorities is often seen as just a delegation of duties.
3.  When handing over powers to youth without limitations or real responsibilities, some consider it anarchy.
4.  Inviting youth to assist in making decisions is just participatory management.
5.  Authorities using youth to develop a programme or objective without them having an understanding what they are participating in, to some, is considered manipulation.
6. Involving youth in programmes but preventing them from making decisions is tokenism.
7. Including youth simply to project a false image that a programme is a youth programme is insincerity and mere window dressing.

Youth empowerment must go hand-in-hand with five other concepts:
1. They want their voices heard, their roles recognised and their issues addressed in youth-centred ways.
2. They want to be leaders to their younger generation and to their generation as well as to be partners-in-leadership with today’s authorities.
3. That they, not others, choose who should represent them to meetings and programmes.
4. They want to be fully involved in meetings and programmes as stakeholders, agenda setters and programme designers. They want to be given sufficient time and space to present their ideas.
5. That their ideas are duly accepted and included in the final decision.

If we can succeed in youth empowerment to the fullest, then we will be able to give meaning to what both Najib and Khairy were clarifying: that rejuvenation is not just about positions, designations and being election candidates.

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO, Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), and former deputy minister of Higher Education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 15 - 21, 2014.