The year was 1986. Singapore was gearing up for its 21st birthday. A new era had begun. The Old Guard was withdrawing from the front-line after many years of hard work and tremendous sacrifice. The torch was being passed to a younger generation of leaders. A vision for the turn of the century – Vision 1999 – was conceived and put forth to the nation as a series goals reflecting the aspirations of many Singaporeans. Despite being in the midst of an economic recession, the long-term outlook was positive and Vision’99 sounded realistic and within reach.
However, some serious thought was needed on the subject of continued rejuvenation. Although the transition period of the 1980’s was proceeding smoothly, would this necessarily be the case in years to come? Would today’s youth turn out to be tomorrow’s leaders? Would they still be able to muster up that fighting spirit and experience that feeling of, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew put it, ‘fire in the belly’? Indeed, aside from the question of future leadership, would today’s youth even exhibit enough interest to involve themselves with the nation’s well-being? Or would they, in the face of growing affluence and stability, allow themselves to become engulfed in apathy and let ‘others’ concern themselves with the fate of Singapore?
And what of the future of the Party itself? Would the People’s Action Party run out of steam and fizzle out, as a result of national disinterest?
These questions, which centred on the nation and Party’s survival led to the setting up a Youth Wing within the People’s Action Party.
The conception of the Youth Wing broke cover in March 1986. Mr Goh Chok Tong, First Deputy Prime Minister, addressed the question of how to convince more Singaporeans to join the Party. His answer was as revealing as it was inspiring:
“We should never use material rewards to attract new members. That will be attracting the wrong kind of members. But we can get them to understand that if they do not actively support and improve on the system, it must collapse through metal fatigue or corrosion. In other words, give them a mission and a sense of purpose. We can find a mechanism to give them access to the political leadership, and influence over national policies. Give them the satisfaction that they are playing a part in shaping the destiny of the country.”
Mr Goh certainly had Singaporeans, especially younger Singaporeans in mind when he spoke of the need to give them a ‘mission’ and a ’sense of purpose’, as well as a ‘mechanism’ to give them access to the leadership.
“I have discussed the idea of setting up a PAP Youth Wing with the other members of the HQ Executive Committee. They have agreed that we should set one up. All members of the Party who are 35 years of age and under will be regrouped … into the Youth Wing … Youths generally have different interests, and perhaps, even different aspirations from those of older Party members. Regrouping them under a Youth Wing will allow us to cater to their separate interests,” said Mr Goh.
Mr Goh asked Mr Lee Hsien Loong to chair a new Youth Committee, which would immediately look into the setting up of the proposed Youth Wing and draft its objectives. Mr Wong Kang Seng, Mr Yeo Cheow Tong and Mr Lee Boon Yang were included in the committee.
The Chairman of the new Youth Committee, BG Lee, pointed out that the overall objective of forming the Youth Wing was to bring some of the new generation of voters into the Party. The Youth Wing would not merely be looking for a large number of people, but rather for individuals who would be interested and willing to commit themselves to participate. The Party wanted young people involved in grassroots as well as Party activities, and to be openly identified with the PAP. BG Lee put it very concisely:
‘The idea is to let them have a better feel of the political issues at stake, to know what it really means to govern a country.’
Within the next few months things moved. The idea of a Youth Wing was transformed into reality. Addressing a group of PAP Suburban Central District activists on 24 May 1986, he said that all branches had been urged to recruit 40 to 50 youth members over the course of the coming year. He also discussed the three main reasons for the formation of Youth Wing.
First, young people turning 21 formed an important segment of the electorate. He said:
‘If the PAP is going to represent the population of Singapore, not just a part of it but all of it, then we must have a reasonable number of the PAP membership who are young. We have to bring them in, identify with them, and represent them.’
Mr Lee also made it clear that it had always been the policy of the PAP to attract Singaporeans who wanted to work for the good of nation. Youth’s experiences and aspirations are different from those of older citizens, so it was desirable to make ‘common cause’ with them:
“Among the youth, we think, there are a lot of people idealistic, patriotic, nationalistic, keen to work for the nation. We should give them an opportunity, a way in which they can serve the nation. And the way is to join the Youth Wing, be with the Party, to work from within.”
The third reason is to ensure the continuity of government policies:
‘By bringing in people of common mind, we can keep the PAP as the sole, the only main political party in Singapore. So when the people think about the government of Singapore, if they think about the future of Singapore, then they will think about the PAP.’
Indeed, Mr Lee highlighted the dangers ahead if the Party did not work actively to involve the nation’s youth. Young people recruited into the new Youth Wing would find they had a tailor-made mechanism through which to voice different opinions and be heard. Without such a mechanism, young citizens might grow frustrated with individual policies over the course of time. And rather than working with the PAP to let their views be heard, they might be tempted to vote for opposition candidates instead, even though they might actually agree with the PAP’s fundamentals. And if enough young people felt that way, the PAP government could ultimately be brought down.
The Youth Wing would meet to discuss issues and consider resolutions, to come up with ideas and to put up persuasive cases. Resolutions and recommendations made by Youth Wing groups would in turn be put to the Party leaders, and by doing so, Youth Wing members would in fact be able to influence policies. The Party, as a result, would grow stronger, and most importantly, be fully representative of the people of Singapore.
The Youth Wing was fast taking shape by July 1986. Party activists, consisting of professionals and blue-collar workers alike, were made chairmen of Branch Youth Wings all over Singapore. Many of these chairmen came equipped with years of experience in leadership positions, both within the Party and outside.
Seven Youth District Committees were also formed, initially with an MP as Chairman for each committee. The intention was that the chairing MP’s would help the Party identify potential youth leaders, who would subsequently take over as chairmen themselves.
The Youth Wing’s purpose and scope of activity would be multi-faceted. As a political organisation, its first priority would be political work, specifically in the form of political discussions and education. It would not however be limiting itself to the political realm, but to other areas of human activity. It would carry out community service projects, both to attract more young people, and to present the Party as having not only rational policies but also as a humane organisation. It would also involve itself in social, recreational and cultural events such as mass functions and week-end camps. Such activities would he geared to draw members more closely together and project the Youth Wing’s image as lively and active.
The Youth Wing first National Convention at the Singapore Conference Hall on 19-20 September 1987 was a significant milestone. City East District Youth Wing was given the massive job of organising the Convention under the chairmanship of Mr Othman Haron Eusofe, MP for Geylang Serai. Youth Wing chairmen, were asked to think through subjects to be discussed. Five workshops were conducted to discuss topics of national importance and delegates actively participated in the deliberations.
In 1993, the seven-year old PAP Youth Wing underwent a major transformation. It was renamed as the Young PAP and it would have a logo of its own. The age-limit for members was raised from 35 to 40. Its organisational structure and programmes were revamped to enhance its appeal to a new generation of young Singaporeans.
The search for new members intensified, with a two-prong strategy aimed at the Branch and national level. Each Branch redoubled its efforts to recruit at the grassroots level. At the national level, Young PAP reached out and recruited from every batch of graduates from the universities and polytechnics. HQ Branch was set up to induct new members who have yet to decide which branches they wish to be in.
On April 25 1993, BG (NS) George Yeo, Chairman, Young PAP, addressed Party Activities on the mission of the Young PAP. The following are the excerpts of his speech.
“The Youth Wing has been renamed Young PAP (YP) and its membership age limit is now raised from 35 to 40 years. This has to be because many of our Youth Wing leaders are at their most productive in their mid-30s. If we do not raise the age limit, a lot of our members, Mr Lim Hng Kiang and myself included, would have to step aside.
For the PAP, which consists of people like you and me, to take that lead, there must be among us a sense of what the issues are and how to present them in a simple and acceptable way to the population so that they will support us.
It will have two prongs. One prong is directed at the Party Branches. We need to bring in more young members. To increase their sense of involvement, elections will be held to elect Branch and District YP representatives. Details of election procedures will be worked out over the next few months and will be implemented next year.
The other prong is directed at graduates from the universities and polytechnics. It is very that important while we get the Branches energised, we should also try to bring in as many graduates from the polytechnics and universities as possible because eventually they will be 40 per cent of our population…We will reach out to all professions so that all segments of our society are represented. In sharpening our appeal to graduates and professionals, we should not become monolingual and just English-speaking. We should never lose touch with the Chinese, Malay and Indian-speaking, or with young Singaporeans who may not be proficient in English. We must never lose touch with them because they must be part of our broad consensus and base of support.
If we want to attract younger Singaporeans, we have to adjust accordingly and not hope that the market will adjust to us. No political party can say that. We can help shape the market but we must also respond to the market.
We have also defined more clearly the mission of the Young PAP and a new logo to be used in conjunction with the Party logo.
The mission of the Young PAP is to help the PAP maintain its position as the mainstream political party of Singapore, by expressing the aspirations of young Singaporeans; and by recruiting supporters, members and leaders for the Party from among young Singaporeans.
The YP exists as a supplement to the main party and our job is to help the Party remain the mainstream party of Singapore in the next lap. We can do this by keeping our ears close to the ground and taking note of how views, aspirations and tastes have changed. We must adjust our position and give feedback to the main Party so that the main policies can be better presented. We must also help the Party renew itself at all levels by recruiting supporters, affiliate members, members and leaders. Because every generation is different, the mainstream position of the Party must change with the times. By bringing in each new generation, we will keep the PAP well centred in the political life of Singapore.
The logo has both formal and informal elements. The colours are our Party colours. The capital letters, YP, are in red and the base is a calligraphic YP in blue. From another perspective, the YP is riding on waves of support looking a little windswept. The YP logo should be used in conjunction with our Party logo. Having a separate logo for the YP reflects our identity as a distinct group within the PAP.
We must plan long-term for the Party because without the Party, everything else is not possible. Of course, politics is full of surprises and no amount of planning can anticipate the unforeseen.”