This is What Youth Leadership Looks Like

“A leader is one that knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
– John C. Maxwell

Leadership is an important means to create trust and assurances in any organisation and to inspire a positive atmosphere for success. According to Stephen Covey, the definition of leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

Leadership is not only individual but collective. As we move to the uncertain future, it is certain that the youths of today will be responsible for all aspects of society tomorrow. We need to develop competencies in youths to be leaders so that the community and larger society are guaranteed a bright future through impactful programmes and social innovations.

Without youth leadership, there will not be successful succession planning for the next leaders to pass the baton of the community. We have to start them young by empowering them with decision-making skills, leading ground-up initiatives, and inspiring them to contribute time, energy, and ideas – with much guidance and mentorship.

The concept of youth leadership is neither new nor obsolete. In fact, youth leadership programmes have become niche in many organisations – UN agencies and Kofi Annan Foundation receive international demands for their programmes, and our very own National Youth Council and ASEAN Youth Organization have unique programmes that draw interest locally and regionally.

Youth leadership is important on three levels[1]:

1) Development of the Self
As a developing youth, youth leadership starts with self-leadership. This relates to being able to have autonomous thinking, self-confidence, and independent decision-making. Furthermore, self-leadership is also the ability to exercise a deferred sense of fulfillment in view that it would yield more gains later.

2) Development of the Identity
Group leadership follows self-leadership. This is where youths begin leading societies in school or programmes in organisations, to begin their journey in learning how to persuade and influence others, and finding their fit in the community. In the development of that identity, the youth would then be in the position to positively influence their peers.

3) Development of the Community
Group leadership advances into community leadership. This is where we begin the real work of training future leaders to lead our country. Simply put, this is the country’s succession planning. This in turn will be a continuous repeated process of developing further future leaders.

The youth leaders’ impact is massive; the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Arab States alone has over 20,000 youths through five cycles. Outward Bound Singapore made it a step further – they groom 45,000 youths each year[2].

Notwithstanding their engagement impact, it is time to give the notion of youth leadership serious focus. To do so, we need to ensure youths are given the space for youth-initiated partnership, youth leadership, and organising and governing[3]. They are, after all, our future.

Source: YPC Hub[4]
Young leaders know how to motivate and impassion others to achieve goals and put out high levels of effort and production. Young leaders experiment more and are open to taking risks and trying new things.

But there are many misconceptions or myths about what constitutes good young leaders. For those whose personalities don’t quite fit into the misconceptions of a leader, they may miss out on great opportunities for more rewarding and greater accomplishments.

Myth #1:
Leaders are born

Being able to effectively lead, inspire and effect change in a group of people involves an intricate set of talents, most of which are imbued though lived experiences, self-improvement, learning, un-learning and re-learning.

Myth #2:
Leaders are those who hold the leadership position

Leadership is a responsibility (amanah) and not a title. Leadership is not about possessing authority and power, but more about their character. It is a skill, not a role.

Myth #3:
Leadership is an ability given only to a few

Positive influence is what it means to lead. It is possible to define leadership, teach it and apply it. While a natural inclination could be helpful, having knowledge and applying the skills are still key.

Myth #4:
Leaders are charismatic

Some are, most aren’t. Charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around; those who are good at it are granted a certain amount of respect or even awe by their followers, which increases the bond of attraction between them.

Myth #5:
Only aged people can be leaders
Influence over others is the key to effective leadership, and age has nothing to do with it. Young leaders deserve to be defined by many other attributes, not just their age.

Once these myths are cleared away, the question becomes not one of how to become a leader, but rather how to improve one’s effectiveness at leadership.

Since the 1990s, the old-age support ratio has steadily declined from a comforting ratio of 10 adults to 1 senior citizen to a worrying 4 adults to 1 senior citizen today, illustrating the increasing weight on our youths. Today’s youths will face caretaker challenges that we have not seen before.

This phenomenon is not specific to Singapore. In 2020, 33.8% of populations in developed economies are under 30 (UN Conference on Trade and Development), indicating that developed economies are facing a shrinking youth population with increased life expectancy.

The community plays an instrumental role in helping our youths be ready for the unique challenges that await them.

In the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore, youth leaders from across Malay/Muslim Organisations (MMOs) have been carefully identified and selected to participate in the Tunas Bersama M3 programme[6], with the aim to nurture the next generation of MMO leaders by equipping them with knowledge, skills, and networks to lead the community and their organisations. These leaders, aged 45 and below, includes representatives from AMP Singapore, Malay Youth Literary Association (4PM), Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), Muhammadiyah Association, Perdaus, Indian Muslim Professionals (IM PROF), Lembaga Biasiswa Kenangan Maulud (LBKM), Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI), Al-Falah Mosque, PERGAS, and many others.

Specially-curated programmes within Tunas include networking sessions, fire side chats with thought leaders and industry heavyweights, and capacity-building sessions on governance and leadership.

For young leaders, it is important to not only hold office in an organisation, but to attend trainings on communication skills, group facilitation, and internal leadership as above. This approach allows for practice, reflection, and application of learning, which is an example of using the experiential learning model to teach leadership skills. It is a process where, over time, youths learn the ability to inspire change within themselves and their communities while building social capital.

According to Stephen R. Covey, there are four essential roles of a leader[7]:

1) Inspire Trust by being models of character and competence
Trust starts with a leader’s own character and competence – the credibility that allows leaders to intentionally build a culture of trust.

2) Create Vision by rallying their teams around an important purpose
Effective leaders create a shared vision and strategy, and communicate them so powerfully that others join them on the journey.

3) Execute Strategy through consistent, focused discipline and alignment
Leaders must not only think big, but also execute their vision and strategy all the way through to completion with and through others.

4) Coach Potential by unleashing the untapped talent and potential of their team
Effective leaders develop the leadership potential in others and improve performance through consistent feedback and coaching.

Further to the first role of inspiring trust, we also need to curate opportunities for youths to lead committees or even organisation boards with senior leaders to guide them forward. With the trust given, their voice carries weight, and they will behave differently, think differently, and will be a step closer to being the leaders they want to be.

An illustrative example is the Malay Youth Literary Association better known as 4PM, an acronym for Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. It is a non-profit social service organisation that aims to empower youths to lead a full life through various aspects of a holistic education. With education as a cornerstone, 4PM is also committed to supporting the social and welfare needs of the Malay-Muslim community and the wider Singapore society.

It is the oldest Malay youth organisation in Singapore founded in 1948. Youths are elected as Board members regularly. Currently, the average age of the 4PM Board is 28 years old. All the board members have, prior to their induction, contributed actively to various 4PM programmes and services.

Through internal mentoring, each junior board member (Jawatankuasa Pentadbir or JKP) is paired and mentored by a senior JKP, with gradual exposure to networking, communications, stakeholder engagement, and even programme management. This intentional move is to recognise and groom youths’ capability while ensuring that the board remains effective and impactful.

All programmes at 4PM are specially curated with the EDGES framework – Experience, Develop, Grow, Enrich and Sustain.

The 4PM Debate Academy or Akademi Bahas 4PM is one such example. The logo of Akademi Bahas itself embodies that spirit of learning and contributing – the life cycle of a 4PM debater.

Logo of 4PM Debate Academy

Akademi Bahas is an initiative that showcases and completes the life cycle of a debater. The intended debater’s life cycle is how one is exposed to the culture of critical thought through a debate competition either at the secondary or tertiary level, and thereafter to contribute as a mentor in their schools, or become part of the organising committee of Bahas 4PM debate series. Once the participants enter university or become professionals, they will be encouraged to become an adjudicator for the competitions. Many are also encouraged to organise or participate in regional-level debates (Bahas Muhibbah). Instilling in the hearts of the youths the mentality of giving back completes the S pillar of the 4PM framework.

As the Malay saying goes, “Tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lekang dek panas”, which refers to an unchanging custom or something that remains intact. Bahas 4PM has been serving the Malay-speaking community for 70 years, not only in Singapore but in the whole Malay-speaking world or Nusantara.

Bahas Muhibbah 2020 organised by 4PM Debate Academy among three countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia 

However, the onus is on us to be genuinely open to their ideas and interpretation of the organisation’s vision and its programmes. As a key catalyst of action and innovation, youth buy-in is crucial and they must see and feel that they own a stake in the progress of the work.

Lastly, we need to rewrite our narratives and reposition youths as central to organisation plans, national strategies and goals. We then become the sober, sagely Sherpa, whose successes rest on the youths scaling their next peak.

The Singapore’s Social Compact[8] is an exciting platform where youths can be the central actor. They are active agents that already contribute to family resilience, community cohesion, and informed policymaking, and can be crucial cross-linkers across the focus areas for synergised progress.

Fundamentally, it is about how today’s youths can start addressing tomorrow’s Four Horsemen[9], and start designing and leading initiatives towards nurturing an inspiring nation by 2065. Nevertheless, some would argue – convincingly – that the weight of these responsibilities is immense, and it would be remiss of the seniors to just pass it off to the youths. We agree.

But youth leadership is not about them commanding the ship while we rest in blissful retirement. We need to deliver our responsibility in a different form: nurturing youths’ ingenuity, capability and their hopes for the future. It is an experiential and reflective experience for them.

This may also be key to keeping older workers in jobs for longer and improve the caregiving landscape in the long run. As noted by Institute of Policy Studies’ Christopher Gee[10], we need to shift to a more dynamic, adaptive model of living that is less determined by one’s age. Reflecting further, we realise that this progressive model would empower both the elderly and youths together, where their abilities are seen in totality and appreciated beyond their ages.

Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts, but rather keeping a team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it – especially when stakes are high, and expectations are aplenty. Effective leadership is the key to others’ success, and the ability to step aside and let them shine as future generations reap the positive effects and benefits.

Youth leadership is also about long-term succession planning, empowering youths through realistic challenges with the nurturing guidance of mentors. When someone believes in us and guides us, we become a better version of ourselves. All it takes is for us to choose to believe in the youths, and their journeys will begin. Our futures are in their good hands.

To the youths, our inspiring late Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had an important message: “To the young and to the not-so-old, I say, look at the horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it.”[11]

Let’s do this together. ⬛

1 Brioso Jr., S. L. Why is youth leadership important? 2020, August 27. Retrieved from:
2 Cheng, K. Every student to experience OBS camp by 2020. TODAY. 2016, March 30. Retrieved from:
3 Chang, D. Defining Youth Leadership: The Youth Engagement Ladder. YPC Hub. October 2019. Retrieved from:
4 Ibid
5 See: Sharma, S. Debunking top myths about young leadership. ETHRWorld. 2022, June 24. Available at:; see also: Bush, P. M. 8 myths of leadership (by a STEM leader). Elsevier. 2013, April 23. Available at:
6 Baharudin, H. Malay/Muslims in S’pore must strengthen partnerships to support each other: Masagos. The Straits Times. 2021, May 21. Available at:
7 FranklinCovey. The 4 Essential Roles of Leadership. n.d. Retrieved from:
8 Ministry of Social and Family Development. Singapore’s Social Compact. December 2020. Available at:
9 See: Wu, I. K. Has Ravi Menon Gone Rogue? Or Do His IPS-Nathan Lectures Signal a New Direction? Rice Media. 2021, July 29. Retrieved from:
10 DukeNUS Medical School. A ‘silver tsunami’ looms. What can Singapore do about it? (Straits Times Premium). 2021, June 27. Available at:
11 Lee Kuan Yew – Follow the Rainbow. YouTube, uploaded by Kumaran, P. 2015, March 28. Available at:


Nassar Mohamad Zain is the President of Malay Youth Literary Association (4PM). He leads a dynamic team of young board members and management, that empowers youths to renew and deliver community programmes. He is part of the pilot Tunas Bersama M3 programme, and also a Director at the Board of Yayasan MENDAKI. He balances these with a thriving project management career in real estate development.

Muhammad Ashik Mohamed Daud is the Vice President of 4PM and Head of 4PM Debate Academy (Akademi Bahas 4PM), which celebrates the 70th anniversary of Malay Language national debate in 2022.

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