[The following is my complete reply to an interview request from the Straits Time in August 2009. I have no idea whether they published my opinions and if not, it is all right. I still appreciate that they pushed me to think of what I am doing days and nights and put them into some writing that tries to make a bit sense to general readers.]
The first thing we have to realize is that youth today lives on new media such as cellphones, facebook, youtube, twitter, etc. By saying “live on”, I mean they not only use new media as sources of information, which is a role that traditional media often play, but also make things happen in the sphere of new media platforms. It is no longer clear that whether activism refers to online or offline activities. Both could be considered as actions that citizens can take towards certain ends. For example, a protest in the speakers’ corner is treated as political activism. Now you can sign an online petition on the same issue and it could be treated as activism as well. Since new media become an integral part of youth’s life, it is natural that they get engaged in various activities through new media. If everyone of your friends is on Facebook and joins a group, it is very likely that you will join the group as well.
In a global context, living on new media or living with new media has been well documented in the US (see Mimi Ito’s report “Living and learning with new media”) and the UK (see Sonia Livingstone’s book “Young people and new media”).
Second, a traditional theory considers three factors as crucial to participation in activism: 1. The opportunities – new media provide many opportunities to get to know about various causes (e.g., google) and to really contribute to such causes (e.g., online donation). But we also have to acknowledge that many governments, including Singapore, now try to open more channels for youth to be active. Governments in the US and the UK are often concerned about the relatively lower rate among youth in terms of participating in traditional forms of political activities (e.g., voting). They want to engage youth in ways that are consistent with their life style. New media is one key component of their life style. A good example is how Obama tried to reach youth by youtube videos. The Singapore government recently further opened up space for civil society to initiate social changes. Some social service groups are encouraged and supported by the government. This means the opportunities are more available and visible than before. 2. The motivations – as I mentioned before, the motivations of getting involved in activism may be higher if most of people in your social networks are doing that. Social media such as facebook and twitter give users a very good tool to monitor the activities going on within their social networks. Such tools are often strong enough to organize collective actions, too. Both factors may contribute to higher efficacy and interest, which are important motivations that influence participation. 3. The ability – the tool function of new media should not be ignored because it empowers youth to make a difference. For instance, making an online video that favors a cause and getting tons of audiences viewing it are differences that youth can clearly see.
Third, the global trend of new media activism can influence local youth. The Iran Revolution on twitter, the Obama campaign on the internet, the blog influence on Malaysian elections, and so on. These are all good examples that may inspire local youth.
In short, Singapore youth now has the ability to make a difference in the social sphere. Whether they can make a difference to policy-making, it depends on both the government’s degree of acceptance (which seems increasing) and the motivation of a big enough crowd who is dedicated to the cause.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.