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18-year-old student leader co-develops policies with S’pore Govt, positive about igniting change

Uni student with passion for environment takes first steps into policy-making journey

The urgency of sustainability and environmental issues, such as global warming and climate change, has gripped the world’s attention for years.

While some choose indifference, others, like 18-year-old Salwa Sanaullah Khan, are ignited by a desire to make a difference.

The profound impact of food waste left an indelible mark on Salwa during her secondary school years. Learning that Singapore’s food waste “could feed another country” was a wake-up call, she shared in an interview with MS News.

Indeed, the figures paint a grim picture — according to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore churned out a formidable 813,000 tonnes of food waste in 2022 alone.

Sobering statistics like this propelled Salwa into action, and well, let’s just say she’s doing way more than just making sure she cleans off her plate after every meal.

Handpicked by teachers to join student leadership programme

In 2022, Salwa was handpicked by her teachers at Madrasah Al-Arabiah Al-Islamiah to participate in the National Youth Council (NYC)’s Our Singapore Leadership Programme (OSLP) for Secondary 4 students.

Image courtesy of Salwa Sanaullah Khan

It was an honour for the then-16-year-old, who was touched that they would consider her instead of the head prefect, which was usually the case.

However, Salwa’s selection wasn’t out of the blue.

Once a self-proclaimed shy kid, she eventually blossomed into an outgoing extravert and took the reins as a student leader at her madrasah, spearheading projects such as sign language workshops.

“I did ask my teachers why they chose me, and they said they saw the leadership potential in me,” she said.

Image courtesy of National Youth Council

As The Straits Times (ST) explained, OSLP was launched in 2017 to empower youths like Salwa to flex their leadership muscles, dive into pressing national issues, and brainstorm solutions alongside their peers.

The programme, Salwa recalled, was jam-packed from AM to PM, with exciting visits to iconic spots such as the National Museum of Singapore and the National Stadium.

Image courtesy of Salwa Sanaullah Khan

Through these activities, participants delved into various topics, ranging from sustainability to workplace equality to racial harmony.

It wasn’t just an educational and eye-opening experience. Salwa shared that she had a blast and forged numerous friendships along the way.

Opportunity to explore policy-making with youth panels

After getting her first taste of civic engagement, Salwa was hungry for more.

An excellent opportunity arose when NYC invited her to join its inaugural youth panels, a collaborative platform for young Singaporeans to partner with the Government to co-create policies.

Despite admitting that she never gave much thought to the intricacies of policy-making or envisioned herself partaking in such endeavours, the teen was intrigued.

“I’d never imagined there’d be a chance for youths to work directly with government officials, especially without prior experience,” she remarked.

A total of four youth panels were established to explore different topics:

  • #LifeHacks – financial security
  • #JobHacks – careers and lifelong learning
  • #TechHacks – digital well-being
  • #GreenHacks – environment and sustainability

Naturally, Salwa joined the #GreenHacks panel, which had its kick-off meeting last November.

Image courtesy of National Youth Council

Since then, the members have met monthly to research and discuss their chosen policy area and develop potential recommendations. These recommendations will be refined and submitted to the relevant government agencies at the end of the year for their consideration.

According to NYC, some of these policy recommendations may be tabled in Parliament or addressed by the Government via other channels, such as written responses.

Salwa shared that her panel’s problem statement focuses on recycling, specifically how to improve the blue bin infrastructure to encourage people to recycle correctly and more frequently.

Source: Aluminium Leader, for illustration purposes only

“We’re looking at recycling contamination, which means that trash is thrown into the recycling bins,” she said. “The rate is quite high, so our main objective is to reduce waste generated by Singaporean consumers and increase recycling rates at the same time.”

At the moment, Salwa and her team are still in the brainstorming phase. The next step would involve them coming up with a concrete plan for their policy recommendations.

Encourages others who want to speak up to ‘just go for it’

Like many of her peers, Salwa is still contemplating her career path post-graduation.

She’s currently in her first year of studying for a Computer Science degree — a major she chose due to her love of coding and mathematics — at Kaplan.

At first glance, it sounds completely unrelated to her enthusiasm for environmental advocacy. However, Salwa envisions a future where she can integrate these interests, for instance, by developing an app or software that facilitates sustainable practices among the public.

She’s even able to draw intriguing parallels between information technology (IT) and policy-making.

“When developing IT programs, there’s a whole process of understanding what the user wants and creating it for them, which sounds a bit similar [to policy-making], right?” she mused. “So I guess that’s how I can apply that knowledge.”

As for her advice to other young folks who may have a cause they’re passionate about but are hesitant to speak up or join programmes like the youth panels, Salwa had this to say:

Don’t be shy. Just go for it.

“You need to figure out why you are scared,” she continued. “Are you afraid of interacting with new people? Or are you worried that you don’t know enough?”

For Salwa, her initial apprehension stemmed from the latter, but she overcame it by recognising that there would always be someone willing to help, such as NYC.

“If you’re new to something, people will understand and they will help you out,” she said. “It’s better than being someone who thinks they know everything!”

Youth panels allow participants to better understand government’s perspective

Besides helping participants take that first step into policy-making, the panels provide the Government with a clearer picture of youths’ thoughts and experiences, which can aid in crafting more effective policies and programmes.

At the same time, participants can also gain valuable insight into the Government’s perspective and reasoning behind certain decisions.

This, Salwa noted, was one of her biggest takeaways from being part of the youth panels.

She brought up the plastic bag charge at supermarkets as an example. While the move sparked some backlash, it successfully reduced plastic bag consumption, helping her understand why it was necessary.

Source: patpitchaya on Canva, for illustration purposes only

“I think it’s really cool that the Government is making efforts to work with youths to co-create policies,” Salwa enthused. “It’s a great initiative because young people have many unique ideas based on their own experiences that they’re eager to share.”

“Plus, they get to understand the Government’s perspective, too, so it’s a collaborative effort with open-mindedness from both sides.”

Salwa added that the youth panels offer a direct line for young Singaporeans to communicate with experts and professionals. This goes beyond simply giving feedback after policies have already been implemented, where changes are less likely and slower to occur.

Because of this, she is confident that she is closer to her goal of seeing more people adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle, “where recycling, using reusable items, and many more become a second nature for all Singaporeans”.

Youth panels provide opportunity to co-develop policies with Singapore Government

A poll conducted by NYC and the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth (MCCY) revealed that only 23% of youths feel they have the ability to influence the Government’s policies and programs.

Additionally, only 43% of respondents believe that their views are valued during the development and implementation of these policies.

MCCY and NYC introduced the youth panels in response to young Singaporeans’ desire for greater involvement. This programme also demonstrates the Government’s commitment to partnering with youths in co-creating policy recommendations that matter to them.

To learn more about the youth panels, visit the website here and follow NYC on Instagram or Facebook for all the latest updates.

Salwa’s journey into policy-making is more than a personal achievement — it’s a spark of inspiration for other young individuals.

Her story proves that age and experience — or lack thereof — shouldn’t hold one back from making a real difference, and her message is clear: every young person has the potential to contribute to society.

This article was brought to you in collaboration with the National Youth Council.

Featured image by MS News. Photography by Emmanuele Loza.

Tammi Tan

Tammi loves the colour pink but wears a lot of black. She can often be found enjoying tiny house tours on YouTube or rewatching Christopher Nolan and Marvel films.

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