This article by Sean Lim in Yahoo argues against lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, as suggested most recently by Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Michelle Lee at the Progress Singapore Party’s launch over the weekend.
The issue of lowering the voting age has been brought up in Parliament several times over the years, from as early as 1968 to the most recent in 2016.
WP’s Sylvia Lim has raised the issue at least 3 times in Parliament – in 2007, 2009, and 2016. Each time, her suggestion was rejected.
The most comprehensive reason given for the rejection was from former DPM and Minister for Law, S Jayakumar, in 2007, in response to Ms Lim’s query on whether the govt would consider lowering the age requirement.
Prof Jayakumar said:
“Sir, if we set the age below 21, many would still be studying and, in the case of males, would still be doing National Service, or they would have just started work. The current age of 21 means that the voter would have finished National Service and many others would have had some working experience. I think they would then be in a better position to make careful assessments, considered judgments about the quality of the candidates and of other many national issues involved when it comes to forming a judgment and choice involved in casting votes.”
His explanation would be repeated by other ministers whenever the topic was raised, except that in those subsequent replies – by Prof Ho Peng Kee in 2009, and Chan Chun Sing in 2016 – the word “maturity” was used.
In 2009, Prof Ho said, in response to Ms Lim:
“[There] is taking into account the age, and linking the age to the question of maturity of a person before the law says he can do something… As voting is a very important matter that involves choice and choice that only an individual can make personally, there is a need for a voter to have the necessary maturity to decide for himself or herself.”
In 2016, replying on behalf of the PM, Chan Chun Sing said:
“Voting in elections is a very serious matter… This is a choice that a voter needs to have the necessary maturity to make. These reasons for keeping the minimum voting age at 21 remain valid today, and we have no plans to review it.”
So, the crux of it is the maturity of the voter.
It is the same reason used by Sean Lim to argue against lowering the voting age to 18.
But that is a very subjective thing, this “maturity”.
It is subjective because even (some) adults were considered not mature enough to be trusted with voting wisely, or that their one vote should carry so much weight.
This was the reason given by Lee Kuan Yew when he suggested that people aged between 35 and 60 and who are with children be given two votes, instead of one.
“Their contributions to the economy and to society is greatest at this stage of life,” he said. “Also they need to vote for themselves and also for their children (who) have an interest that needs to be protected.”
He explained further:
“Once past 60, their children would have grown up, and would vote for themselves. Then the parents should drop back to one vote. But during those critical years, 35-60, people who carry twice as much responsibility should have two votes. This will make for a more viable system and a more stable society.”
Implicit in that idea of Lee Kuan Yew is that adults (either married or not who have no children) should be given only one vote.
In short, some adults are more trustworthy than others, and having children is that defining distinction which qualifies you for an extra vote.
Lee Kuan Yew’s idea, which first surfaced in 1994, was shot down and never taken up. Not yet, anyway.
The underlying thread in the ministers’ reason for not lowering the voting age, and the late Mr Lee’s two-votes idea, is maturity (or sense of responsibility, if you will).
But such a reason is subjective, as mentioned earlier.
Being an adult does not necessarily make you more mature. Just look around you – even school principals and teachers are sexually abusing their charges, and most crimes are committed by adults (I stand corrected, of course). I mean, just go watch all those videos on Youtube of adults arguing and even fighting in the MRT train, at void decks, in the markets and everywhere else!
In fact, Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah even scolded them (earlier this year in Parliament no less!) “si gui kiah” (ingrates) for supposedly being ungrateful to the government for all the goodies announced in the Budget!
I am sure all of us know of at least one or two adults who are utterly irresponsible, even when caring for their children or family.
Let me now come to Sean Lim’s argument – that young people (below 18) are not mature enough because they have not had enough life experience. This is certainly true, although there are young people whose life experiences surpass that of some adults. But that is another argument for another day.
What I personally observed, from my own personal experience in speaking to friends, strangers and walking the grounds, in both 2006, 2011 and 2015, during the election periods is this: when voters have a chance to vote, they pay more attention to the issues being raised by the political parties. They become more interested, they consider the issues, the arguments, they even look up the issues and read more about them.
Let me explain from the personal experience of the last 3 elections.
For many elections after our Independence, the political opposition was so decimated that they could hardly pool together enough resources to contest even half the slate up for grabs. This resulted later in what was called “the by-election effect” – where the ruling (PAP) won the election by default simply because it was the only party which could field candidates in all contested constituencies on Nomination Day. The opposition would then contest the limited seats that they were able to field candidates in.
This scenario lasted several general elections, and it was not uncommon to hear people (voters) saying they had never voted in their lives, even though they were in their mid-40s, 50s or even 60s.
This was a period where you would hear the phrase “apathetic Singaporean” being bandied about. Even the PAP became concerned that Singaporeans were not interested in national issues!
Why be interested when you have no say in them? (This is a key point, as we shall see later.)
Things started to change in 2006 – when the Workers’ Party led the opposition in contesting more seats, and even fielded a young team in Ang Mo Kio GRC. I had volunteered with the team, and went campaigning alongside the WP candidates throughout the election period.
What I experienced was how voters, who had been nonchalant in past elections, became more interested – for the simple reason that they had to vote that election. (Election is compulsory in Singapore, by the way.)
Having to vote made people/voters more interested, more aware, of issues.
This was borne out in 2011, which saw the most number of seats contested post-Independence.
Tanjong Pagar GRC was the only uncontested constituency, but not because the opposition could not field candidates there. It was a walkover because of some technical issues which saw the opposition team disqualified from contesting.
82 out of 87 seats were contested in 2011.
That election turned out to be a watershed – with the PAP losing a GRC for the first time, and seeing its overall vote fall to its lowest, post-Independence.
But it was during the election period which underlines the point I am trying to make: Singaporeans watched the news – whether mainstream or alternative online – and became interested in what the parties were offering and saying. Rallies broke records for its attendances, and the entire country was immersed in debate like never before.
Many young people were seen at rallies, many of them attending these political events for the first time.
Because they had to cast their vote at the end of the 9 days of campaigning by the parties. There was such a buzz that even after the elections, opposition parties’ headquarters were swarmed with members of the public (including young Singaporeans) who wanted more.
If you want young people to be interested in national issues, to be informed so that they can make good decisions, to be mature, then let them participate in the democratic process.
There is no better way than to give them the vote.
And when we trust them with such responsibilities – as we indeed do when we put our young men into National Service and give them important responsibilities as commanders, in charge of the lives of sections and platoons and companies of men – we will see them take those responsibilities seriously.
Indeed, we expect these same young people to go to war, to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield, to lead fellow young men into the fires of hell (as it were), at the drop of a hat if our country should be involved in such conflicts – but we are telling them they are not mature enough to cast the vote?
And should we also not treat our young women the same?
The surest way to keep them from being responsible is to keep telling them that they are not mature enough.
About 86% of the countries in the world have a voting age of 18.
Singapore is the exception rather than the rule.
It is about time we changed it, especially when our younger people will bear a heavier burden as our nation ages. Shouldn’t they have more say in how their leaders shape the future, a future which they will have to play a bigger part in? Is there therefore a better argument than this? Why should they not have a say in how their future should be?
After all, did not Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong praise our young for their maturity not too long ago?
Here was what he said: