On Youth Politics with Mr Shaik Irfan – KSInsights Apr 2024

Published on 07 May 2024

Could you start by introducing yourself and sharing a bit about your journey? What motivates your interest in youth politics?

My name is Shaik Irfan, and I’m currently an undergraduate studying Governance and Public Policy. Right now, I’m taking up the role of a Programme Associate at INITIATE.MY, where I’m directly involved in preventing and countering violent extremism while also advocating for freedom of religious belief. It might sound surprising, but my interest in politics really sparked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in 2020, I was one of the students taking my SPM exams, that year was often referred to as the ‘pro-max’ batch. Government policies like the MCO directly affected me, as they did everyone else in the country. This period became a turning point, raising my awareness of political issues as I, along with many other students, felt the real-world consequences of government decisions. The experience ignited a passion in me to learn more, and I started consuming more information about current affairs. I even ventured into the political side of social media, particularly Twitter, where I actively participated in discussions about policy. However, as I engaged with others online, I started noticing a gap in awareness – many of my peers simply weren’t interested or informed about these important topics. This realization solidified my belief that young people have a crucial role to play. We are the future, and our voices matter in shaping policy and driving positive change. Hence, I began spreading awareness and promoting political literacy among my peers, as I believe that an informed and engaged youth is essential for a healthy and thriving democracy.

From your perspective, what are the primary reasons behind the growing leftist sentiments among young people today? How do these sentiments manifest within the youth leadership or political activities you’re involved with?

In my experience, young people today are becoming increasingly drawn to leftist ideals for a few key reasons. Firstly, with constant global connectivity, we’re bombarded with information about the world’s issues and conflicts. This exposure makes us less likely to accept the status quo or shy away from challenging traditional, conservative norms. We’re also not afraid to tackle taboo topics. Secondly, a lot of the problems facing our generation, like climate change and the crippling cost of housing, seem directly linked to the current capitalist system. It’s hard to ignore that connection.

These sentiments definitely translate into the activities and goals of the youth organization I engaged with. Our focus is very much on promoting sustainability, inclusivity, and embracing diversity. We believe these elements are crucial for building a better future. We see a clear link between these goals and leftist principles, and we’re not afraid to advocate for them.

How do socio-economic factors contribute to the leftist leanings among youth? Can you discuss specific events or trends that have significantly influenced this political orientation?

Socioeconomic background undoubtedly plays a significant role in shaping a person’s political leanings. Take my own journey, for example. Growing up in a more urban and Malay-centric community, I was exposed to a certain set of social norms and stereotypes, particularly around race and wealth. Moving to a suburban middle school was a turning point. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by friends from diverse backgrounds. This experience shattered the preconceived notions I had held. I saw firsthand that stereotypes like “all Chinese are rich” simply weren’t true. Instead, I witnessed the struggles faced by many of my classmates, especially those from lower-income families, regardless of race. The lack of access to quality education and opportunities for those without the resources for private universities became painfully obvious when some friends didn’t even qualify for public institutions, despite scoring straight A’s. Witnessing these inequalities sparked a class consciousness within me, leading me to explore leftist ideologies that placed a strong emphasis on social justice and equal opportunity. This personal experience highlights how socioeconomic factors, particularly issues of access and disparity, can significantly influence young people towards leftist political perspectives.

What role do you believe think tanks and youth leadership networks play in nurturing and guiding the political sentiments and activism of young people, especially regarding leftist Ideologies?

In my view, think tanks and youth leadership networks are essential for nurturing and guiding the political activism and ideologies of young people, particularly those leaning left. These organizations play a crucial role in youth capacity building. Think tanks take the lead in researching and publishing policy briefs on issues that resonate deeply with young people, like social and economic justice, systemic reforms, and environmental sustainability. This research provides a strong foundation of knowledge for young people interested in these areas. But it doesn’t stop there. Think tanks and youth networks also function as platforms for young people to gain in-depth knowledge through workshops, forums, and roundtables. These events not only educate but also foster discussion and debate, allowing young voices to be heard on specific issues.

Youth leadership networks take it a step further by creating a supportive environment for passionate young people. They connect young activists with like-minded individuals, fostering collaboration through resource-sharing and mentorship programs. This nurturing space allows young people to learn from experienced activists and strategize ways to effectively channel their energy and idealism into meaningful action. By providing these resources and guidance, think tanks and youth leadership networks empower young people to become informed and engaged participants in shaping a more just and equitable future.

What are the most significant challenges and criticisms faced by young people with leftist leanings in their pursuit of political engagement and activism? How do you address these challenges within your role?

One of the biggest hurdles is the stereotype that we’re naive idealists with no real-world experience. This dismissal undermines our voices and capabilities. Another common criticism is that our rejection of traditional values paints us as morally corrupt, making some folks unwilling to engage with us or take our causes seriously.

So, how do I address these challenges in my role? Firstly, I believe in the power of knowledge. Within my work, I emphasize the importance of an in-depth understanding of the issues we tackle. Whether it’s through research or workshops, I strive to equip young people with the knowledge and data they need to back up their arguments. A well-informed voice is a powerful voice.

Secondly, building resilience is key. Criticism, even from within leftist circles with their emphasis on political correctness, is inevitable. I encourage open and respectful dialogue within our organization but also emphasize the importance of developing a thick skin. Being passionate doesn’t mean being thin-skinned.

Ultimately, the best way to counter these criticisms is by demonstrating our knowledge, commitment, and effectiveness. When we engage in thoughtful discussions, propose well-researched solutions, and achieve positive change, we slowly dismantle these stereotypes. That’s the power of action.

Looking forward, what do you believe are the future prospects for leftist sentiments among youth? How might these political leanings influence policy-making and societal changes in the coming years?

Looking ahead, I see leftist sentiments among young people continuing to gain traction, but with some nuances. While it’s likely these ideologies will have a strong foothold within the youth demographic, their influence on the broader population might be slower to take root.

We were able to witness this in the recent 15th General Election’s “Green Wave” phenomenon, driven by young first-time voters. Increased youth participation in national politics is undoubtedly a positive step for a healthy democracy. However, a significant challenge remains – young people’s susceptibility to populist rhetoric, particularly from right-wing politicians.

We saw this play out recently during GE15. Echoes of racial and anti-minority rhetoric, reminiscent of the 13th May incident, resurfaced among some youth on social media platforms like TikTok. This highlights the risk of populist narratives potentially hindering progressive policy agendas. If young people are swayed by divisive rhetoric, it could translate to less support for progressive bills, leading to policies that don’t fully align with their core values.

Therefore, it’s crucial to bridge this gap by promoting critical thinking and media literacy among young people. We need to empower them to analyze information independently and discern genuine solutions from populist sound bites. Only then can their growing political voice truly translate into positive societal changes that champion social justice, environmental sustainability, and inclusivity.

Can you share successful strategies for engaging and mobilizing young people with leftist sentiments? How do these strategies foster constructive political dialogue and action?

As I mentioned before, it is important to cultivate a healthy environment for youth with the passion to bring changes. Young people need a platform to explore their ideas and concerns without judgment. This can be achieved through public workshops, forums, and online communities hosted by youth networks, student associations, or even NGOs. These spaces equip young people with the resources and skills they need to thrive, such as critical thinking and political literacy.

Youth networks and think tanks also play a vital role in nurturing leadership potential. Mentorship programs, leadership training sessions, and fellowship opportunities equip young people with the tools and confidence to become effective advocates. Think tanks, for example, can offer fellowships that provide hands-on experience in policy analysis, honing young people’s technical skills while allowing them to contribute to meaningful research projects.

By focusing on these strategies, we can empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to not just be passionate, but to be strategic and impactful in their activism. This will foster constructive dialogue as these well-informed young people are better equipped to engage in respectful discussions, challenge the status quo with well-researched arguments, and propose practical solutions.

Finally, what advice would you give to young individuals who are beginning to explore their political beliefs and are interested in leftist ideologies? How can they effectively contribute to the political discourse and action in their communities?

For young individuals just starting to explore their political beliefs, particularly with an interest in leftist ideologies, my advice is this: embrace curiosity! Don’t shy away from asking questions, even the tough ones. Approach taboo topics with an open mind, and delve into different political ideologies. This is a journey of self-discovery that will solidify your principles and shape your worldview.

The world is vast and diverse. Don’t confine yourself to one echo chamber. Actively seek out people from different backgrounds and experiences. Join organizations that align with your values. This exposure will broaden your perspective and equip you with a richer understanding of the world’s complexities.

Remember, change rarely happens overnight. It’s a gradual process that starts with small steps. Begin by focusing on your local community, whether it’s your neighbourhood or campus. Identify an issue that resonates with you and engage with others to find solutions. Serving your local community is a stepping stone to serving your nation.


07 May 2024