Asia Thinkers interview young people from Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore on what issues they find important and what challenges they face striving for change.

The Asian region has been experiencing rapid development in its social and economic spheres over the course of recent decades; nevertheless, significant numbers of youth across the region face a variety of obstacles in their access to employment, education, health care, and other resources. There is often the challenge of young people trying to make their voices heard with media frequently portraying young people, especially those who are activists for social change, as troublemakers. Half the world’s population is under the age of 30, yet their voices are often excluded from decisions that will affect them. Representing a new generation of hope, millennials having a strong desire to be a part of the change.


Asia thinkers spoke with Sonya, a University graduate and artist to ask what social issues were impacting her and what changes she would like to see taking place.

As a Singaporean who came from a background where both parents worked and there was never enough money, I struggled to achieve, and my parents had high expectations for my future. But I feel I don’t need to be very rich as long as I have enough to get by for myself and my family, and I continue to have my own time. I feel Singapore is a materialistic driven society with the government putting too much emphasis on economic growth and continuing to drive us to materialistic goals rather than focus on the quality of life. Because of this, I see other issues developing in my generation such as mental health problems, drugs and also a lack of ambition amongst my friends.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

It’s interesting, as whilst COVID-19 has caused me financial hardship and I have had to rely on family support, it has also given me time to reflect on what is important in life and to value family and friendships. I also feel it is important for our government to take a bigger role in social issues and not just focus on economic development. COVID-19 has highlighted Singapore’s mental health problems and this becomes a bigger issue when people are locked down for long periods. One of my friends recently took her own life after suffering from depression; she had spoken to me about the strain of being cooped up at home and a poor relationship with her parents. Mental health was an issue before COVID-19 and requires our society to evaluate its values concerning a better work-life balance.

Of all the issues, what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by the government?

My deepest concern has been the Singaporean culture of valuing education and economic success above all else which I believe this has resulted in mental health issues across our community. Whilst the government has been proactive in engaging in dialogue on mental health and increasing their involvement through education and mental health programmes- they are dealing with symptoms and not the cause. This will require a radical change in values not just from the government but also our older generation.

Asia Thinkers spoke with Alex, a teacher and climate change activist to ask what environmental issues were impacting him and what changes he would like to see taking place.

My main concern is global climate change, as this affects not only Singapore’s future, but has a global impact. It was a programme by David Attenborough called “A life on our planet” which made me realise if we were going to have to change and prevent global warming, we all need to make a stand. In Singapore, the government has said that they are taking steps to prevent climate change and announced targets to slow down emissions by 2030, but if you calculate it, our emissions will still be higher than what they are today. We have to look harder at what significant changes can be made. I believe that while more Singaporeans are aware of climate change, their level of understanding is still superficial and that habits are not changing fast enough to make a significant difference. This applies to all levels of society with our emphasis on efficiency and convenience and not environmental considerations e.g. our preference of using plastic bags when shopping.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

The lockdown required whilst being difficult to manage has given me time to think and research the impact of climate change especially in Singapore. I have become more concerned by the impact climate change will have on Singapore which will see extreme weather with hot dry periods and then heavy rain accompanied by rising sea levels in the next few years.

In regards to climate change, what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by the government?

A lot of friends I know have started to protect the environment by raising awareness, engaging in activism and promoting lifestyle changes.

Young Singaporeans know that their generation and their children will bear the brunt of the consequence’s decades from now. I am also aware that individual action may have a limited impact and that the public has to pressure government and businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. There is a need for the government to engage the public directly, especially youths on climate change issues — given their keen interest and passion and also encouraging NGOs and corporations to inspire communities to make a change. This means more programs in schools and companies to encourage student and employee awareness helping them understand what can be done to limit environmental damage, but to understand at home that “climate change is not just about plastic bags”.

Photo: Environmental protest in Singapore


Asia Thinkers spoke with Atiya, a millennial and Educator working with Karen Hill Tribe Youth Education in Chiang Rai and asked her what social issues were having the greatest impact on their lives and what they wanted to change. 

Obtaining an education is a challenge amongst all Karen youth and although government programmes have increased education opportunities, due to poverty and the lack of education opportunities there is no guarantee of a job or career; therefore they seem to have no goal in life and turn to drinking, gambling, substance abuse, partying and prostitution. Even if education is available many families cannot afford to send their children to school without government or NGO support.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

The province where I work has had no new cases since April but COVID-19 has affected many aspects of life as there is less work available with virtually no tourists and many people returning home from the cities. Even initiatives by NGOs to increase family income during harvest break by applying local knowledge to develop products such as bags and wallets have stopped due to a lack of tourist demand. The resulting lack of income and the impact of government lockdowns due to COVID-19 has resulted in many children being kept at home to work in the fields who may not return to school.

In regards to developing education opportunities amongst the Karen youth, what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by the government?

My main concern is that Karen youths, and those from rural backgrounds, will not get adequate education and access to employment opportunities. The government must continue to expand its education programmes, especially amongst the rural poor. I think of this crisis as an opportunity for the Ministry of Education to speed up education reform in rural areas by using education technology to promote “technology-enabled learning”, which has been used extensively during the lockdown, although rural youths had difficulties in accessing online education. Technology can be easily expanded to provide better education and employment opportunities.

Asia Thinkers spoke with Mia, a Bangkok university student and social activist and asked her about what social issues were having the greatest impact on her life and what she wanted to change. 

I have never been a politically motivated person until this year. I knew about the youth protests in HK but never thought I would be involved in such events. But early this year during the COVID-19 lockdowns, many of my friends were talking about the “free youth movement” on social media.

In July as we emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown and we started demonstrating at our university along with other students from across Thailand. We were demanding change and a new constitution. As a kid, they told us to love [the king] so I did, then I went onto social media and learned about things that changed my mind. Ultimately I would like to see until the top-down ruling establishment made up of the monarchy, military and wealthy political elites reformed.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

The protests began in July but before that, we would get together and discuss our dissatisfaction with the political situation. We had a lot of free time to meet and decided that this should be the time to join the free youth movement and protest, especially when we heard that a well-known critic of the government living in Cambodia “Wanchalearm Satsaksit” had been kidnapped we were sure the government was behind it.

In regards to the political protests, what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by the government?

My deepest concern is that I maybe get arrested for my beliefs and sent to jail, but I feel that we are gaining public support and that things may change. The free youth movement is demanding a few things from the government. A key demand is that the PM Prayuth should resign. The government needs to listen and take action and show us that there is a will to change and listen to the people. If nothing is done my biggest fear is that this could become a continuing conflict that will damage Thai society.

Photo: Thai student protest

Hong Kong

Asia Thinkers spoke with Winnie Chiu, a Graduate Veterinary nurse and asked what social issues were impacting her and what changes she would like to see taking place.

My main concern is the cost of living in HK which is affecting the cost of renting housing. As a fresh graduate, my salary does not allow me to live on my own so I have no choice but to live with my parents. I can’t afford to live anywhere else! Living with my family in public housing means there is often tension and conflict. I am not optimistic that the housing situation will change any time soon, and I do not feel that I will ever be in a position where I can rent or buy my property – it is almost certain that housing prices will rise faster than my income ever will. In the meantime   I do not have much of a choice than to live with our parents which makes other aspects of my personal life also very difficult. Unless I find a partner or get married, my solo income is not enough to support day-to-day outgoings.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

We are lucky in Hong Kong in that we have not had a strict lockdown like some western countries but we have had to abide by strict government rules and social distancing measures. Living in such close confinement with my family I feel stressed at the possibility of passing the virus on to my home, including my grandparents; but it is not realistic to stay at home all of the time, especially as I need to work. A few months ago when rules were very tight and I was still studying, I felt quite desperate and depressed because of the situation. I had no privacy to do my online learning and listen to my lectures and it felt very claustrophobic. At one point, we had no access to new masks and we were extremely concerned about preserving the masks that we had left. Each time we went out, we wasted a mask so it was difficult to justify leaving the house. I never used to think much about HK society being more concerned with getting an education and working but during the lockdown, I realised living conditions are important and the government needs to provide affordable housing.

Of all the issues what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by Government?

I want the government to recognise the need for low-cost housing. There is currently a public housing option and a subsidy scheme but it is not easy to qualify. There is a serious shortage of government housing and when I checked there were 68,000 applicants on the waiting list, so it can take more than five years to get a rental flat. I read that the government is planning to supply more public flats but the media says it may not be enough as more people are signing up each year. I hope that the government can recognise the growing need for independent housing from fresh graduates who are not able to support themselves due to high rent prices and not just assume that we can live with our family.

Asia Thinkers spoke with Raymond Chan, a coffee shop owner from Shatin and asked what social issues were impacting him and what changes would he like to see taking place.

The most recent and pressing issue for me is Hong Kong democracy. I openly support the concept of a democratically run Hong Kong but must state that I never supported any of the violence that was involved during the protests. I feel that my future is uncertain with the implementation of the new security laws from China and I feel that my basic freedoms may be taken from me. I have considered leaving, but I do not have citizenship in other countries and unfortunately during the current pandemic, I would not even be eligible for a working visa in the west. It is the uncertainty of how the law will be enforced which troubles me the most.

How has COVID-19 affected your views for change in society?

My business has suffered greatly since COVID-19. I already had to close my shop several times due to government restrictions but luckily my landlord agreed to reduce my rent so I feel somewhat relieved, especially as we are not getting the same intake of customers as before the virus. People are still concerned about being in unnecessary places, I have to rely on local, loyal customers. One good outcome, however, has been that protests have stopped and things are slowly becoming more stable. It has given the government time to focus on the handling of the virus rather than having divided attention on two separate issues. I continue to wonder once the virus is no longer a pressing issue, could the protests start up again, and will society in Hong Kong be the same as it once was? The outcome is concerning.

Of all the issues, what is your deepest concern and how can it be supported by the government?

Like I mentioned previously, my deepest concern is the implementation of the new security laws. Nobody can be sure of how these rulings are going to affect Hong Kong as the government has been extremely vague about how the new rules will change day-to-day life. They also need to be clearer about how and when these rules will be implemented; if we can’t live freely I will consider much more closely the opportunities to immigrate to the UK, assuming that the virus situation is under control.

Photo: HK Housing


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