COMMENT: The dilemmas of a first-time voter

As part of her job, Lauren Ong followed some political parties on their walkabouts and door-to-door visits. (Photo: Lauren Ong for Yahoo News Singapore)
As part of her job, Lauren Ong followed some political parties on their walkabouts and door-to-door visits. (Photo: Lauren Ong for Yahoo News Singapore)

by Lauren Ong

Like many who have just graduated against a backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, I head to the polls for the first time this year with concerns like jobs, political stability and the economy at the top of my mind.

A quick study of the manifestos of the various parties show clearly that some parties’ plans are more relevant to me than others. For instance, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 100,000 jobs and traineeship opportunities sound really good to me. But some of my older relatives would benefit from the unemployment benefits and retrenchment insurance that other parties are proposing.

This was one of my first thoughts when I looked at the various policies and deliberated their consequent tradeoffs: Do I base my vote on what would benefit me, or do I vote for my loved ones or the “greater good”?

For a first-time voter like me, trying to decide who to vote for is like walking into a bustling shopping mall, where store owners (or candidates) are at the shopfronts enthusiastically vying for my attention. It is extremely overwhelming.

And as we are in the middle of a pandemic, what some parties seem to be selling in GE2020 are packaged into doomsday kits – and its parts are not sold separately.

Do I vote for diversity of views in Parliament?

There has been much talk from both the PAP and opposition about the risk of a freak election. To the ruling party, it is when they are unable to secure enough seats to form the government. For the opposition, it’s an opposition wipeout.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his lunchtime rally on Monday (6 July), asked Singaporeans to give PAP a strong mandate, for the party to steer our country forward as we navigate a post-COVID world. But to give them a strong mandate – however you define strong – runs the risk of having zero elected opposition voices in Parliament. I don’t think this is the desired outcome for a democracy.

Over the years, opposition voices have raised crucial points in parliament like on the Oxley Road dispute in 2017, for instance. Although the party whip was lifted then, it would still have been hard for Members of Parliament from the ruling party to debate freely about the issue .

Another issue is the power that the opposition has, in reality, to make a tangible difference in Parliament. It is highly unlikely that the opposition will form the government.

Just a day after Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a televised debate on 1 July that the government does not have a target for a 10 million population in Singapore, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) claimed “victory” in a press release. The SDP said it has achieved one of its goals, outlined in its “4Yes1No” manifesto, even before entering Parliament.

Is this what the opposition means by providing checks and balance in Parliament?

Do I vote to go against the GRC system?

There has also been some talk on my social media feeds on how we should vote in order to “remove” the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system. One of the criticisms of the GRC system is that it allows untested candidates to ride on the success and credibility of political stalwarts into Parliament. This seems to be the dilemma facing East Coast GRC residents on Polling Day – do they vote for a team led by Prime Minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat or the opposition?

We also witnessed new PAP candidate Ivan Lim bow out in the face of online criticism on his character and track record. He was set to contest as part of the party’s Jurong GRC team, which is helmed by the well-loved Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugraratnam.

As Yahoo News Singapore journalist Nicholas Yong writes, “Singaporean voters living in GRCs are more than familiar with the eternal dilemma: ‘I like Minister X, but I don’t really like or know the rest of his team’.”

Opinions online suggest that by successfully voting against the heavyweight minister and his team (Heng and his team), it could generate enough incentive for the ruling party to review the GRC system.

Nevertheless, we should also note that all the 4G leaders who hold key ministerial positions came in through GRCs and in a crisis that needs the best on its team, do we deny the PAP?

Do I vote based on issues that matter to me?

As a young voter, the typical bread and butter issues like housing, Central Provident Fund minimum sum and GST hike do not appeal greatly to me.

I’m 22 and I don’t really dwell too much on my CPF monies or buying a house for my non-existent husband and kids. Don’t get me wrong, these are important issues but they just don’t have my attention.

Instead, what keeps me on the edge of my seat are issues like climate change, LGBTQ rights and quality of life concerns like mental health. But it seems to me that political parties are more invested in material concerns and if I factor in the values or ideals that I would like the country to move towards, there seems to be no one I can vote for.

Over the past few days, there have been resources shared online detailing how much a politician has spoken up for LGBTQ issues and scorecards that rate parties on their climate change policies. These are talking points that are important to me and for many other young voters.

It might be narrow-minded to assess political parties based on their stance or promises on these seemingly singular issues. Making an informed choice would be aggregating all the concerns and deliberating which decision brings about the best doomsday kit.

When I spoke to former nominated member of parliament and political commentator Viswa Sadasivan for an article about young voters, he said that while the young might be concerned about certain issues and are upset about unfairness in politics, pragmatism tends to trump these concerns at the ballot box.

I guess I’ll find out for myself on 10 July.

Lauren Ong is a freelance writer who recently graduated with a degree in Psychology from the National University of Singapore. The views expressed are her own.

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