Lower voting age to 18 before next election

Singapore is part of a small and shrinking club of stragglers that still require their citizens to be 21 to vote. For the vast majority of democracies in the world, the voting age is 18. I hope the government can revisit this issue and do the right thing for Singapore by reducing the voting age to 18 before the next election.

During the Parliamentary debates in the UK House of Commons on 4 November 2009, a backbencher MP asked Prime Minister Gordon Brown if the British government would consider a proposal from the Youth Parliament to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. PM Brown replied that he was personally in favour of lowering it to 16.

The UK is not the only country that is considering lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. Austria and Brazil have already lowered their voting age to 16. For the vast majority of democracies in the world, the voting age is 18. Singapore is part of a small and shrinking club of stragglers that still require their citizens to be 21 to vote. These include Cameroon, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Gabon, Malaysia and Oman — all bastions of freedom and democracy!

It truly baffles me why we are so behind the rest of the world.

In January 2009, Non-constituency MP and Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim asked in Parliament whether the voting age could be lowered from 21 to 18. Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee said that the current approach is “pragmatic and sensible”. He added that Singapore takes elections very seriously and “there is need for a voter to have the necessary maturity”. A 21-year-old, he said, would often be working or pursuing tertiary studies, which would put him in a better position than an 18-year-old to assess election candidates and the national issues at stake.

I cannot accept the argument that a working person would be in a better position to assess election candidates than an 18-year-old JC or poly student, or full-time NSman (NSF). But even if a 21-year-old is more mature, who is to say that an 18-year-old is not competent enough to assess candidates and understand national issues, and therefore should not be given the vote?

In Singapore, we can try 16-year-olds in court as adults, give 18-year-old soldiers assault rifles and teach them to kill people, and allow them to drink alcohol and watch strip shows. 18-year-olds are considered mature enough to start a company and invest in stocks, but not mature enough to vote. This policy is clearly inconsistent.

I would attribute the PAP government’s reluctance to reduce the voting age to two factors: Political self interest and inertia. Political self-interest because they know that 18 to 21-year-olds are much more likely to vote for change than older voters. Inertia because they know they can just refuse to do it and not suffer any consequences, since this is not a bread and butter issue.

Lowering the voting age will have many positive effects on society. It will immediately expand the number of voters and give more Singaporeans the responsibility to directly decide on their country’s future. Along with this greater stake in the nation, we will see more young people getting interested in politics and national issues at a younger age, which they will likely carry on into adulthood. Most importantly for 18 to 21-year-olds, it will force political parties to look more seriously into the issues that affect their lives, because they will need to be courted for votes.

We need more political parties, civil society activists and youths will take up this issue. I hope the government can revisit this issue and do the right thing for Singapore by reducing the voting age to 18 before the next election.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

12 thoughts on “Lower voting age to 18 before next election”

  1. A very good proposal and timely too.

    Your reasonings are sound and logical. At the age of 18, many would be studying or completing their A levels or polytechnic education. They should be in a good position to make responsible decisions.

    I would even propose for the age to be reduced to 17, because at 17 they would have completed their secondary 4 education, and waiting to be called up for National Service.

  2. It is clear that no such thing would happen because the vast majority of the guys at 18yo would be very pissed of with having to waste their lives away in NS for two years and would vote for the opposition. The PAP would rather give them a few more years to cool down after NS before allowing them to vote.

  3. Lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 did not make any change in the United States. That voting bloc simply does not vote in numbers significant enough to affect elections. The PAP could give two votes to all 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds on the island, and it would make no difference.

  4. Anon – Interesting I didn’t think of that. See my answer to Ryan below.

    fievel – THanks. :)

    Alfonso – I agree with you that 17 would be appropriate too. But I’m also realistic enough to know that getting them to reduce it to 18 (in line with 90% of the democratic world) would be hard enough, so we’ll take things step by step.

    Ryan – I wouldn’t assume that all 18 year old males would be pissed at NS and vote for the opposition. I think most Singaporeans, myself included, accept the necessity of NS even if we may grumble a lot about it. Fyi the opposition (at least the WP) also supports NS, so it isn’t really an election issue.

    Absalom – Singapore is different from the US in that voting is compulsory here. So if 18, 19 and 20-year olds were enfranchised, they would ALL have to vote.

  5. Hi Gerald, hope you and your family are well. Glad to see you’re still writing.

    Another possible reason for the government not wanting to lower the voting age to 18: a fear of campus politicization, especially at Polytechnic level.

    After the Tan Wah Piow NUS activism era, my impression is that some of the edgier student politics occured in Singapore Poly. A few representatives of the SP union were locked up in the late 80s Marxist conspiracy. My little theory.

    If anyone cares enough about this issue to campaign actively for it, I think a slogan juxtaposing the duties of NS vs the lack of a right to vote would be quite effective. “Old enough to go to War, not old enough to vote”.

  6. Just to provide more food for thought, conscription has been a political issue in other countries.

    From wikipedia “During the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon campaigned on a promise to end the draft”

    If the opposition wants to make an issue of it, it will be quite easy as extensive research has already been done on the economic costs of conscription.

  7. ZX – Nice to hear from you. Hope you are doing well. I don’t think the govt needs to fear campus politicisation. Uni students are mostly of voting age (at least the guys, who are the ones most politically active), but you hardly see any politicisation. Polys? I really don’t think so.

    Actually if you think about it, voting and fighting a war are quite unrelated. It makes for good sound bites when you juxtapose them (which I did) but in reality, 18 year olds should be allowed to vote because they are old enough and mature enough, not because they are men of war.

    Anon – I think it may be possible for the oppo to argue for shorten NS (say from 2 years to 1.5 years for non-officers), but it won’t be right, nor politically astute to argue for the complete end to conscription. For Nixon, it was about stopping the draft so that young men will stop being sent to their death to fight in some civil war on the other side of the globe.

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