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.