At an age when his peers are mostly preoccupied with studies or having fun, Zack Yeo Jun Zhang, a 19-year-old student from Singapore Polytechnic, likes interacting with people, organising events and promoting racial harmony.
Zack’s interest in different cultures goes back to his kindergarten days. His best friends then were a Filipino girl and a few Malay classmates who shared with him how their festivals and games were different from his.
Growing up, Zack’s curiosity led him to question the meanings behind traditions and rituals. He used to question his parents on practices like “Why do Chinese burn joss sticks”, but could not get satisfactory answers. Gradually, he began to understand why.
“Many practices are passed down from generation to generation, but the intent and meanings were lost along the way. When we try to dig into the reasons, the common refrain is ‘My grandmother said so’. As a result, we feel disconnected to the practices and may even find them bothersome,” he concluded. He had to find his own answers.
From CampTeen to Camp Ignite
This brought him to CampTeen, an annual residential camp organised by OnePeople.sg bringing together youths from secondary schools, madrasahs, and international schools to bond and learn about social harmony. It turned out to be one of his most memorable camping experiences.
He recalled, “I got to grow as a person, interact with youths from all over Singapore and learn so much about other races and cultures. Through the camp, I know more about my own culture too.”
CampTeen brought him to places like the Peranakan Museum, the Khadijah Mosque and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. The visits taught him the differences between the Chinese and Nyonya, how Muslims pray and why no footwear is allowed in mosques, and the differences between Buddhist and Hindu vegetarians, among other things.
After the camp, Zack stayed on as a volunteer with OnePeople.sg because he wanted to keep learning. As part of a team of youth volunteers, he helped come up with ideas that contribute to racial harmony in Singapore. One of their star projects is Camp Ignite, a two-day camp led by youth volunteers for Lower Secondary students.
Zack, who is now Chairperson of the Youth Advocate Executive Committee under OnePeople.sg, is confident that Camp Ignite has made an impact on its participants, many of whom continue as volunteers after each camp.
“Some of them had minimal contact and interactions with people from other races previously. They were amazed and in awe of all the cultures they were exposed to. That’s the purpose of the camp: to open eyes, mind and heart,” he said, hopeful that the participants will in turn “ignite” others in their school.
Besides Camp Ignite, Zack and the OnePeople.sg Youth Advocates organise other events such as Rafusicul (“Racial.Fusion.Culture”), a singing and dancing contest to promote racial harmony. Teens formed inter-racial groups to participate, performed songs or dances from another race, and one team even creatively combined dance elements from different cultures into one performance. Besides Rafusicul, the Youth Advocates also support national-level initiatives like the Orange Ribbon Run.
Teens can be social influencers
Zack, who likes to spend his time fruitfully, certainly has his hands full juggling studies and volunteer work. In school, Zack has course mates from different races and countries. The group is comfortable with each other despite their different cultural backgrounds.
But not all his peers think as deeply about issues related to social harmony. When misunderstandings happen, people are quick to revert to negative stereotypical views of other races and cultures.
Once, a friend of Zack’s posted an entry on social media expressing his unhappiness at his Malay next-door neighbour. His friend’s dog had just passed away and his neighbour asked him not to get another so that her grandchildren would not accidentally touch one. The post attracted comments criticising his neighbour.
Zack explained to him why Muslims do not touch dogs and that they had to go through a special process of washing their hands with sand should there be contact. Hence, his neighbour was only trying to protect her young grandchildren.
His friend removed the entry and apologised to his neighbour. But it is not easy to erase negative feelings like one can easily delete a social media entry. Still, if used positively, social media can also be a powerful influence, especially on the technology-savvy younger generation.
“We should always think before saying anything negative about other cultures or even our own. Different people have different ways of leading their lives, and let’s respect that,” said Zack.
“Singaporeans should be proud of our ability to live in harmony despite our diversity. And we should never take it for granted – it takes a lot to build up harmony. Youths, as future leaders of the country have the power to change things. But first, we need to be well-informed and understand other communities better.”
In Zack’s words, it would mean getting deep into “why” to better understand and appreciate “what” and “how”.
Watch an interview with Zack below: