At every stage of his or her life, the Malaysian youth is encouraged to be dismissive towards the realm of politics and public policy. In our formative schooling years, blind submission to authority is standardized; the idea that students may play a part in determining the policies governing their schools is so radical that it is deemed subversive. Politics, which ought to carry the meaning of the science of governing, has become synonymous with corruption and partisanship. Most of our university students and brightest scholars are continuously pressured to moderate their views and stifle dissent. The result of this is a generation which has learnt to focus all of our talents and ambitions to the private sector, leaving the public sphere of governance as an abstract, tainted ideal. Even our base instinct to help our fellow humans and communities is channelled towards private charities and individual good works, instead of changing public policies which has the best chance of making sustainable differences.
In light of this depressing state of affairs, the Malaysian Public Policy Competition (MPPC) represents a refreshing oasis in the dessert of activities usually available to students. For the past two years, this student-led initiative has brought together hundreds of youth to debate and discuss policy ideas alongside esteemed politicians, journalists, academics and others. I participated in both of the previous competitions, and there are a few reasons why I feel that the MPPC presents a unique opportunity for Malaysian students with an interest in the governmental policies of our country. Firstly, it is participatory. When it comes to politics or public policy events, Malaysian students are accustomed to jotting down notes in a crowded hall listening to someone lecture. Participation is limited to a few questions at the end of the speech, if any at all. In giving students a platform to criticise the status quo, articulate ideas and answer objections before a audience full of peers and influential figures, the MPPC allows for a radical departure from the norm. These opportunities may continue well after the event, as my teammates and I were invited for a luncheon with the then Deputy Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, as well as present our ideas at Putrajaya after we won runner-up position in last year’s competition.
Secondly, it is relevant. Most case study competitions or debates revolve around abstract ideas or scenarios, which may make for compelling arguments but little realism. The MPPC focuses on one carefully selected theme each year, involving an issue which is both urgent and vital to the nation, such as corruption or education. This allows participants to make presentations on topics which they are genuinely passionate about, and partake in a national conversation which desperately needs to be had. While I and my teammates continued to discuss the merits of certain policies to improve the lives of indigenous people well into the early morning, it became apparent that this was not mere preparation for a presentation for the sake of the competition, but each of us was trying to seek solutions to a problem which was real and disturbing. Of course, simply talking about an issue does not lead to meaningful change, and the policies mooted during the competition may never be implemented. But to paraphrase Karl Marx, first you understand the world, and then you change it. Having delivered a presentation on progressive educational policies for minority groups during MPPC 2012, I find myself about to work at a high needs school as a teacher upon graduation. I believe that MPPC will continue to be a stepping stone for others to seek to mould society around them to their ideals.
Most importantly, MPPC enables you to network and meet people who may change your worldview. The competition necessitates team-work and cooperation between participants, a situation which allows for plenty of interaction and bonding. A young idealistic girl with dreams of being a journalist, a pair of siblings with a passion for the rights of the Orang Asli, were among the many people I’ve met and felt inspired by in the previous years. The presence of many distinguished leaders from both public and private sectors also allows for eye-opening conversations. I recall chatting with the CEO of Teach for Malaysia, Dzameer Dzulkifli, who urged me to put aside misgivings about my own inadequacies as a teacher, and apply for the Teach for Malaysia Fellowship. One year on, I applied and secured a Fellowship with his organization.
The likes of MPPC have no precedence in Malaysia, and I feel fortunate to have partaken in it twice. The organization is superb, prizes are tempting, and the community of youth is invigorating. This year, I urge you to spend a weekend immersed in intelligent conversation, passionate debate and incessant learning by applying for MPPC 2013.
– Jonathan Yong
Teach for Malaysia