Heated debate erupts online over lowering voting age to 18 in Singapore

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On 29 January, a panel on “Youth and Politics” was held at the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) flagship Singapore Perspectives 2024 conference on the theme of youth.

Among the discussion at the panel, is the most concerning issue about should the voting age in Singapore be lowered so youths can be more politically engaged.

“Matter of time before the voting age is lowered to 18”

One of the three panellists,  Elvin Ong, an assistant political science professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the status quo of Singaporeans only being allowed to vote at age 21 could lead to some dissatisfaction due to lack of political representation

Ong said that based on a 2020 World Values survey and IPS survey, youths aged 21 to 35 were the least satisfied with the political and electoral system, compared to other age groups.

He also noted that within this age group, the 21-25 group was the most left-leaning, followed by the 26-30 group and the 31-35 group.

Ong hypothesised that this could be because youths are unhappy with the lack of political attention to youth issues, and believed that Lowering the voting age to 18 could give youths a larger share of the voting electorate and give them a stronger voice in Parliament.

The second panellist, Mustafa Izzuddin, a Fellow at NUS’s Residential College 4 and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at NUS College, echoed Ong’s sentiments, opined that “It’s only a matter of time before the voting age is lowered to 18.”

He believed that the lowering of the voting age was inevitable given the Singapore Cabinet’s transition from the 3G to 4G leadership team, and with the trend of parliamentarians getting younger.

He cited some advantages of lowering the voting age, such as strengthening social cohesion, increasing participation, and enhancing good governance.

However, he added as a caveat that studies should be undertaken beforehand to gauge the appetite towards such a measure.

Zaobao associate editor challenges lowering voting age

However, Ng Soon Kiat, an associate editor from Lianhe Zaobao, challenged the proposal to lower the voting age, considering it a “red herring” and emphasizing the need to view it within the broader context of political maturity.

He suggested that voting age should be considered not only in terms of liability but also maturity, specifically political maturity.

Mr Ng argued that a politically mature electorate is characterized by being not emotional, not short-term, and not myopic, traits that are sometimes negatively ascribed to youth, such as being labelled as YOLO, “lying flat,” or part of the strawberry generation.

He highlighted that these negative labels are not enduring traits and can change. Mr Ng proposed that political maturity can be cultivated through education, including communication of facts about how the political system and Constitution work.

He suggested starting this education before the age of 18 and provided examples, such as students watching parliamentary proceedings in class and encouraging youth participation in online discussions facilitated by content creators in collaboration with youth organizations.

Is 18-year-old youth “politically mature enough” to vote?

Mothership, a Singapore media outlet, posted on Instagram, reporting the opinions of three panellists and questioning netizens’ views on whether 18-year-olds should be allowed to vote.

The topic certainly sparked a heated discussion. While some argued that 18-year-olds are not politically mature enough to vote, others challenged the notion, highlighting at 18, individuals have legal obligations, such as joining national services and even carrying weapons to fulfil their duty to protect the country.

Yet, they are deemed “not mature enough” to vote and express their opinions on the country’s policies.

Opposing comments asserted that lowering the voting age is inappropriate, contending that youth cannot be expected to educate themselves about economics and politics at their age.

A comment suggests that the proposed change could be a convenient move for the ruling party, taking advantage of the fresh influence of social studies propaganda in the minds of youngsters, who may be unaware of the practicalities of being a taxpayer.

Interestingly, a self-claimed 16-year-old user admitted a lack of knowledge about politics, attributing it to being sheltered in school. The user expressed a preference for keeping the voting age at 21, stating that it allows more time to experience the real world and understand Singaporean politics, ensuring an informed decision when casting votes.

Despite acknowledging a limited exposure to politics, it remains unclear if the user realized his participation in a significant policy discussion as he shared opinion on the matter.

Another comment argued that age isn’t the determining factor, suggesting that age restrictions are a way to generalize the maturity of a particular age group, such as teenagers or young adults.

“If you think 18 aren’t mature, I know someone who is 25-30 and ain’t mature enough.”

A comment proposes that lowering the voting age allows a broader segment of the population to participate and voice their opinions.

From the perspective of what a democracy ideally represents, the comment raises the question: “in terms of what a democracy is supposed to be, isnt this a good thing?”

Meanwhile, there are also arguments suggesting addressing other crucial electoral rights issues, including the first-past-the-post system, which he deems needs fixing.

He believed that this adjustment would ensure that the percentage of votes won accurately reflects the percentage of seats held, ultimately fixing representation.

He highlighted the example of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which secured 61% of the votes in 2020 but ended up with 83 out of 93 seats, accounting for 89.3% of Parliament.

Global comparison

Certain netizens have made a compelling comparison, emphasizing that despite concerns about the maturity of 18-year-olds, the global standard for voting age is set at 18.

Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand all have a legal voting age of 18.

In 2015, Japan’s legislature amended The Public Office Election Law, lowering the voting age from 20 to 18.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s neighbouring country, Malaysia, officially lowered the legal voting age to 18 in 2021.

This change, gazetted in 2021, made 1.4 million voters aged between 18 to 20 eligible to vote in the past 15th General Election held in November 2022.

WP MP calls for lowering voting age to 18

During a Parliamentary session in February 2023, Ms Sylvia Lim, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC has called for the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years to empower younger Singaporeans to have a say at national elections.

The government’s argument for maintaining the voting age at 21 was summarized by Ms Lim into three points: the need for “experience and maturity,” the involvement of the President’s election with custodial and veto powers, and the availability of other platforms for youths aged 18 to 21 to express their views.

Government’s argument to keep voting age at 21 years old “inadequate”

Ms Lim argued that the reasons provided by the government for keeping the voting age at 21 years are inadequate.

She questioned the government’s rationale that only at 21 does a person come of age to make adult decisions and engage in activities that involve significant personal responsibility.

“Boys are enlisted into National Service by 18 years, required to carry weapons and vow to defend Singapore with their lives. As far as taking significant personal responsibility for actions is concerned – today, if a young person above 18 commits a capital crime, he is liable to suffer capital punishment and be hanged. ”

Evasive response to call for lowering the voting age

In response, Minister Chan Chun Sing, who was answering on behalf of the Prime Minister, acknowledged that a number of countries have lowered their voting age.

However, Mr Chan said some of the countries regret doing so when the political outcomes were not as they had expected.

Mr Chan emphasizes the ongoing challenges for any democracy, focusing on the delivery of good governance and government.

“The key to that lies in two things. First, how do we have good people with the right values and right capabilities standing to serve? Second, how do we encourage every voter to not just think about his or her individual interests for the here and now, but also for the interests, the wider interests of our society and future generations?”

Ms Lim followed up with a clarification to Mr Chan’s reply, where she highlighted that some countries link the age of conscription to the voting age, citing the example of the US in the 1960s when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 because teenagers were being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.

She asked Minister Chan to explain, “why [Singaporean youths] are old enough to fight and defend Singapore with their lives, but they’re not old enough to vote?”

Mr Chan replied, “If I may just remind the House if you look at the rights and responsibilities of all our people from the age of 16 until 21, there is a gradation of skills at different ages; they have different rights and different responsibilities,”

He then concluded his response by referring Ms Lim to his earlier parliamentary reply in 2019.

However, if one were to look at the response in 2019, it is no different from what he had just said to Ms Lim during the debate.

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