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Impact 0281: Cultivating harmony in diversity

Micheal Zhou · 1 December 2021
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Michael Zhou, 25, has been helping youth raise greater political and cultural awareness while also championing active citizenry. He was the 46th President of the National University of Singapore Students’ Political Association (NUSPA) and currently sits on the REACH Supervisory Panel as a Youth Member representing National University of Singapore (NUS).

Question: Tell us more about what you do!

As President of NUSPA, I have the opportunity to work with amazing people to experiment with innovative ways to better engage Singaporean youth on political matters. One way was to help youth find and project their voice on important issues affecting our society through publication and writing. 

For example, I founded The Convergence in 2019, a NUSPA publication writing on policy issues and current affairs relating to Singapore and the region. And recently, in conjunction with NUSPA’s 45th anniversary, the association published a book titled “On the Road: A Collection of Articles and Essays from NUSPA Publications”, allowing readers to better understand the changing contours of youth discourse on key social and political issues affecting Singapore across generations in the past forty years. 

I am also passionate about raising cultural awareness and encouraging greater cultural interactions among our youth. I thought: What could be a better way than doing it yourself? 

So, as part of the Hari Raya Puasa celebrations, I visited the Malay Heritage Centre and Sultan Mosque with my friends to learn more about the Malay culture and heritage. Later, we even did a photoshoot in the Malay traditional costumes!

Indeed, I believe engaging in cultural activities and wearing one another’s traditional costumes are helpful steps towards helping us build a strong understanding and connection with one another’s cultures.

Question: What inspires or motivates you to do this?

NUSPA has had a long tradition of engaging youth through publications and writing initiatives that date back to the early 1980s. I was greatly inspired by the great work done by previous generations of NUSPA members and felt that we should revive that tradition. Thus, creating The Convergence and publishing the book were efforts to help NUSPA reconnect with its heritage and also to add value to our engagement with students. 

Speaking about my passion for raising cultural awareness, it all began in primary school. Back in those days, we didn’t have smartphones, iPads, or Netflix. We played a lot more with friends. I am not trying to make generalising statements here. Still, there were just so many more opportunities for me to interact with friends from different racial and cultural backgrounds at a more personal level. Take playing football at the void deck or playing block catching, for example. Such fun daily activities bonded us together and instilled a deep appreciation for cultural diversity and differences. 

Of course, we are living in a very different world today. Expecting people to go back in time and do the same things is not practical. But challenges relating to maintaining racial harmony and cultural diversity in Singapore will not go away over time. That behoves us to continue thinking critically about these issues and, more importantly, find innovative ways to get Singaporeans of all colours together to talk, interact, and understand each other. 

Question: Have you faced any challenges so far? And how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge I faced as NUSPA President was to unite and rally everyone in the association with a common shared purpose. Often, the diversity of personalities and broad scope of projects make alignment difficult. To overcome this challenge, I launched the “Build Our Singapore (BOS) 2025 Campaign” to create an overarching strategic direction that guided all NUSPA projects of the 46th Management Committee. 

As for raising cultural awareness, there is always the concern that wearing another’s traditional costume or engaging in a particular cultural activity might be misinterpreted or called out as cultural misappropriation. In my case, I took great care to ensure that I did not cross the line. 

For example, wearing traditional costumes and engaging in cultural activities should be genuine and treated with respect. You should not make fun out of it or be frivolous. Small things, like a remark or a social media post, can have serious consequences.

Question: If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow youth, what would it be?

We live in a world full of opportunities and challenges. Sometimes, it is hard to differentiate between them. But when you are set to do something that you feel strong for, do it. If you achieve great results, wonderful. If not, take it as a great learning lesson that you can draw upon in your next endeavour. Do what you believe in, and believe in what you do! 

Question: What are your hopes or plans for the future? What do you want to see or perhaps do?

I hope to have more opportunities to be involved in social integration work, contributing towards integrating new citizens and foreigners into our society. As a global country, social integration will always be a key challenge and remains a work-in-progress. Of course, in the foreseeable future, I wish to see Singapore as an inclusive and harmonious society, a proud home for all Singaporeans, and a happy place for foreigners who settle here.

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