COMMENT: Lower Singapore's voting age to 18? Please don’t

Members of the newly-launched Progress Singapore Party (PSP) attend a press conference for the media in Singapore, July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Feline Lim
PSP members, including Michelle Lee (right) at a press conference in Singapore on 26 July 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim)

By Sean Lim

When I was 17, my friends and I had to choose which junior college (JC) to go to after our ‘O’ Level results were released. Rather than selecting a school based on its merits, many of us decided that we should just go to whichever JC most of our friends would end up in.

Going with the herd is not a very wise choice. If we could not even make an informed choice in our own education journey, how do you think we would decide if given a say in the direction our country is heeding?

I am referring to the Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) proposal to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, brought up by its Central Executive Committee member Ms Michelle Lee, during the party’s public launch on Saturday (3 Aug) at Swissotel Merchant Court hotel.

On 15 July 2019, Malaysia lowered its voting age from 21 to 18. In the ASEAN bloc, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have a minimum voting age of 18 while Indonesians get to vote at 17.

Ms Lee, 42, thinks Singapore is already behind the times. She said: “Young people are the future of this country and should have a say in what they want that future to be.” At 18, she added, they will have “very clear opinions on what they want to see in Singapore”.

Ms Lee, who unsuccessfully contested in Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency in the 2011 General Election under the Singapore Democratic Party’s banner, is a political returnee. The former management consultant and investment banker quit the SDP and left for Hong Kong after the election. She returned three years ago and is now pursuing a masters in counselling.

Some of my peers may disagree with me, but I do not think our 18-year-olds are ready to mark that cross on the ballot paper. And I am saying this as a millennial who was 18 not too long ago and for whom the coming general election would be his first as an eligible voter.

After the PSP’s launch, I did an informal poll on my Instagram, asking my followers if they thought they would be ready to vote at age 18. Of 40 respondents ranging from 14 to 26 years of age, 80 per cent, or 30 of them, said no.

Well-read, but well-informed?

If we want our youths to vote at 18, surely they must be well-informed first. A recent survey by The Straits Times and Singapore University of Social Sciences found out that among more than 1,000 19-year-olds, more than half of them read newspapers, online or print versions.

So the results are not bad, but they do not say if they read about local developments, economic or political news or prefer lighter reading lighter fare like entertainment news. At age 18, you worry about further studies or doing National Service. Your views are shaped by your social circle, and they would be about your age, too. News is not on their radar screen.

I venture to say that in my chats with them, most teenagers do not know what is going on around them or what politics is all about. One of them said she will go with the flow and choose the political party that is more popular among those in her social circle, if she had to vote. It’s the way of the herd again.

No skin in the game

I am a 24-year-old undergraduate who is well-informed on socio-political affairs. Yet, I still struggle to grapple with the intricacies of VERS, SERS, stamp duty, Medishield, among others. I am sure I am not alone. These issues do not resonate with most young adults, much less 18 year olds.

Older adults have a stake in them because their lives are directly affected. Younger ones have the privilege of watching things happen, or having the older folk do the brain work for them.

They don’t have to purchase a flat, pay for healthcare out of their own pockets or search for a job yet. They might have a lot to say about the education system because they are its products. But beyond what is “personal’’ to them, I doubt if they would view education the way a parent would.

PSP wants the voting age lowered because, said its chief Tan Cheng Bock, “it will mean more to (the young people) if they are a part of our democratic process’’. That might be so. But he must have also calculated that having more young voters is also good for the opposition because they tend to be trendily anti-Establishment, at least more so than the older folk.

The ruling People’s Action Party might even say that untethered by duties, they would be less responsible with their vote. The late Lee Kuan Yew even mooted the idea of giving adults with children two votes instead of one, because they would be voting not just for themselves and not just for the short-term.

Going by a rough gauge of 35,000 to 40,000 per cohort, that would mean at least 110,000 new voters below age 21. And we’re not counting those who are more than 21 now, but were under-aged at the last general election.

Then again, young people might prove to be just the opposite of what the opposition wants, because they are still locked in the school system or entering a regimented arena, both of which advance politically correct narratives.

Dr Tan also said at the launch, “At 18, Singaporeans are old enough to drive; girls enter university, and boys enter into national service (NS). Since they have the duty to defend our country, 18-year-olds should also have a right to elect their leaders.”

Driving, entering university and serving in the military – these are milestones at age 18, but also just the start of being aware of the rest of the world. PSP expects boys who’ve barely started NS and girls who’ve never had a drop of alcohol to be voters.

For myself and those in my cohort, it is only after completing the two years of NS that we have a stronger idea on what nationhood is and what it means to defend our country. It is only after NS – after going through and seeing so much – that one has the maturity to see what is in Singapore’s best interests. Young people have to “get out there’’ and study or work so that their world view isn’t shaped only by their immediate concerns, their friends and social media.

What I found peculiar was how the audience, more grey-headed than full-headed, applauded the suggestion. The PSP was making this pitch to those who were barely present at the launch – and who were probably engaged in more youthful pursuits on a Saturday.

But I might be jumping the gun. The launch was a lively affair with interactive polls, video and live-streaming on Facebook, which Dr Tan acknowledged were ideas executed by young people who had approached him. Maybe the medium succeeded in reaching the millennials among the combined 40,000 views on the live stream – by The Online Citizen, The Independent Singapore and the PSP. Maybe they will start thinking about the vote. Maybe.

PSP might get its answer today (5 Aug) when Parliament sits. Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak is asking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong if the voting age will be reviewed, the consideration for retaining the current voting age of 21 and the increase in voters if voting age is lowered to 18.

I am all for young people having a stake in the country to foster a sense of belonging, but seriously – let us keep the minimum voting age at 21 for now.

If I had to vote in the last GE, I would have probably gone along with my friends and done whatever was fashionable, because I wouldn’t have known any better.

The writer is a 24 year old undergraduate studying political science at the National University of Singapore.

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