GE2020: Climate change, LGBTQ issues matter to young voters, but not game-changing, say analysts

SINGAPORE - JULY 08:  East Coast Group Representation Constituency People's Action Party candidate and Singapore Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat (R), interacts with a resident during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on July 8, 2020 in Singapore. Singapore will go to the polls on July 10 as the ruling party, the People's Action Party, seeks a fresh mandate amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As of July 7, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country stands at 45,140.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
East Coast Group Representation Constituency People's Action Party candidate and Singapore Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat (R), interacts with a resident during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

by Lauren Ong

SINGAPORE — When Singaporeans go to the polls on 10 July, a sizeable number will be made up of voters born between 1981 and February 1999.

This includes the oldest among Generation Z – according to popular stereotypes, the generation of digital natives with short attention spans and the more environmentally aware – who will be heading to the polls for the first time.

Along with millennials, these young voters will make up a significant segment of the electorate, generating enough clout to compete with that of the older generation. According to the latest data from the Department of Statistics, those aged 20 to 44 make up some 42 per cent of Singapore citizens. Thus, how young voters perceive and react to the incumbent and opposition holds significant weight.

But are political parties speaking to young voters?

Experts told Yahoo News Singapore that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced young voters to confront issues such as the economic downturn – the first for most of them – and the unprecedented health crisis.

In fact, some analysts say, the coronavirus will likely impact young voters even more than older ones. “They (first-time voters) only know of a first-world Singapore and a life of relative affluence,” said Singapore Management University’s associate professor of law Eugene Tan. “So what people, especially young Singaporeans, make of the crisis we are in could influence how they view life, society and (the) government.”

Associate professor Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore’s political science department said, “COVID-19 may be the greatest political teacher ever in Singapore’s history.”

On the other hand, public policy and global affairs don Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Nanyang Technological University said that rather than age, “class interest would probably be a more useful lens to put on when looking at the youth”.

“Would a 24 year old living in a landed property have the same concerns as a 24 year old living in a two or three-room flat?”

However, some observers feel those factors ultimately won’t matter. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan said, “None of the young people will be looking to any of the opposition parties for a solution. Some would argue that regardless of whatever happens, the PAP is going to become government, so why would the young people vote for (the opposition), because they will not be (the) government anyway.”

He has been speaking to people from all walks of life as part of his Inconvenient Questions video discussion series, done in collaboration with National University of Singapore Society (NUSS). “Talking to young people, they want the government to feel adequate and strong.”

‘Post-material’ issues

Yahoo News Singapore also spoke to 10 young voters who have different economic and educational backgrounds. Some are still students while others have been working for at least two years.

Most of them say that while parties they will vote for should have robust plans to steer Singapore post-COVID-19, these plans are not exactly “vote-grabbers”.

For instance, Sng Jia Hui, 23, said that political parties will catch his attention if they decide to reveal plans to mitigate the impact of climate change in Singapore.

Founder of Heckin’ Unicorn Teo Yu Sheng, 29, said that aside from issues like climate action, he also cares for issues of equality and inclusivity such as LGBTQ rights, and quality of life concerns like mental health and social mobility.

Associate professor Eugene Tan said these “post-material” concerns of young voters “are important and should not be traded off against economic ones”. He added that parties have been paying attention.

PAP’s youth wing put out a position paper on climate change in February. On the same day, the Young Democrats from the Singapore Democratic Party launched its climate policy paper in a YouTube live stream. The manifestos put out by WP, SPP and Reform Party (RP) have also included efforts to combat climate change, while Red Dot United (RDU) and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) only made some mention of the environment and the rest did not.

However, other issues such as LGBTQ rights and mental health had little to no mention in the parties’ manifestos.

Sadasivan added that young people are also concerned about fairness in politics. “There’s definitely a stronger reaction from younger people when the opposition is being treated badly, unfairly,” he said.

Nonetheless, he does not think that how they perceive fairness, or whether parties talk about “post-material” issues, will be a decisive factor in voting. “Our young people are by and large driven by pragmatism... and that pragmatism is about making sure that the government is strong enough to be able to get the economy back on its feet, which will translate to them getting a job and having a future.”

Medium of communication matters

The experts note that the medium of communication also plays a part in attracting young eyeballs, especially since political campaigns are now venturing into cyberspace.

Public relations executive Joel Lim, 27, said that “while the pandemic has expedited digitalisation, a truly savvy political party would have already understood the importance of a digital campaign”.

However, as he points out in his Instagram stories, not all parties have been presenting a strong political campaign. On SDP’s first campaign video, he said they were “scripted and unnatural... and is not memorable”.

In contrast, he said WP’s video introducing its candidates and volunteers was well-produced and a “fantastic follow up to the teaser”. He said the choice of music and astute storyboarding are reasons for its success.

Prof Walid highlighted the need to engage with them young voters on a human level.” “And sometimes a Tik Tok video is the way to do it,” he said.

Interestingly, third-party content seems to be forming a big part of the young voter’s political diet on social media.

First-time voter and student Damian Lim, 22, said that on social media, he sees about 10 per cent of content coming directly from political parties. The other 90 per cent entails memes, posts or resources that organisations like Sayoni and SG Climate Rally have put out. These are typically shared by his friends and influencers he follows.

“Usually (the accounts I follow) just talk about the candidates. It can be critical sometimes, but others highlight noteworthy candidates like Jamus Lim,” he said.

At the end of the day, regardless who wins or loses in the election, AP Tan said that he hopes GE2020 will offer a “reality check” and demonstrate that Singaporeans, regardless of their age or background, should take a greater interest in politics and government.

“It is about being informed and having a considered opinion on issues of the day,” he said. “Good governance is not merely about strong institutions and good leaders but, equally important, about an engaged citizenry.”

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