Last week, I had the privilege to be invited to speak at the ASEAN-India Youth Dialogue (virtual) by the India Foundation - an independent research centre focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities of the Indian polity. Since 2017, the India Foundation has been organising the India-ASEAN Youth Summit with support from the Ministry of External Affairs, India.
As the world’s largest democracy, India understands the importance of youth as integral soft power players in India’s diplomatic relationship with Southeast Asia. India’s intention to involve youth in their outward looking Act-East policy should be commended.
As the voice of Malaysian youth at the dialogue, I spoke on Malaysia’s responses to COVID-19 and the role of youth in a pandemic. I have also reflected on ways to move forward from a Malaysian youth's perspective and an ASEAN youth’s perspective.
Health responses led by a public servant
While the effort and leadership from the Malaysian Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah in leading the health responses to COVID-19 has been recognised and commended locally and internationally, credit should be given to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet for putting the trust on a health expert and public servant to lead this response.
It’s not common for a bureaucrat and public servant to be a spokesperson for any government ministry in Malaysia. Dr Noor Hisham has demonstrated the importance of a competent public servant who has the technical expertise to tackle important issues and challenges faced by the nation.
The importance of having a non-political leadership in the midst of political instability is vital in addressing a global health pandemic.
Better understanding of the role of government
Tackling and addressing COVID-19 requires significant coordination and efforts of all layers of government. One of the positive aspects of this pandemic is that citizens of Malaysia, especially the youth, would now have a clearer understanding on the roles of the federal, state and local governments.
There has never been a time where ordinary citizens would have to follow the updates and SOP announcements by the government almost on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Under an evolving COVID-19 situation, the ability of every citizen to follow and cooperate with the government policies will determine the success in addressing the health challenges.
Economic implications on youth
There have been a number of stimulus packages announced by the government since March 2020. The recent one – PENJANA – has a particular focus on youth in the area of skills development.
Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) has been a key area of focus for Malaysia and the rest of the ASEAN region for many years. However, the pandemic has indicated the need for nations to reflect on the future skills required in the workforce post-COVID-19.
While the Ministry of Human Resources is the primary ministry in charge of TVET, the roles of the Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Youth and Sports are vital in the enhancement of Malaysia’s TVET.
The issue of TVET being part of multiple ministries’ portfolio needs to be addressed. It’s time for a Ministerial Coordinating Council consisting of experts from government, business, training institutions and, more importantly, youth representatives to be set up to lead the national direction in skills development.
Role of youth and in volunteerism
A number of active youth groups were seen providing support and aid to families in need. Volunteerism is no doubt being embedded in Malaysia’s culture.
At a crucial time such as this, the grassroots movement and community contribution need to be acknowledged and youth who have played a part in contributing should be commended.
Reflections and moving forward
This pandemic has amplified the need to embrace change and, more importantly, to embrace the digital world. The future of the world is a blended world between online and offline. The question is whether society is ready to embrace this change?
The fact is there are a number of new skills the youth of today and tomorrow need to equip themselves with in order to survive and thrive in today’s society. One of the skills would be critical thinking skills. We live in a world where information is easily accessible anywhere and anytime. In fact, we are overloaded with information through WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms almost every second and minute. The question is whether citizens, especially youth of today, have the ability to question the source and accuracy of information presented to them?
If the world is moving towards a borderless society, it’s important for all of us, including the policy makers to prepare the youth for the future. To achieve that, the government and businesses need to work with youth closer than ever as strategic partners in shaping the future of the nation. Youth need to start taking ownership of their future if they haven’t really done so.
Thomson Ch’ng is an award-winning Malaysian youth and world-renowned youth figure. He has held leadership positions at the ASEAN Youth Organisation (AYO) and is currently a youth coordinator at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).