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!

Continue reading “Lower voting age to 18 before next election”

More S’pore teens engaging in risky sexual behaviour

Singapore‘s Department of STI Control has reported that the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teenagers is set to hit another high this year. According to a Sunday Times report today, the reported figures grew from 238 in 2002, to 678 in 2005, to 775 in 2006 and is likely to have hit 815 in 2007. In the 1980s and 1990s, numbers hovered around just 250 cases a year.

Teenage pregnancy figures also increased from 731 in 2003 to 838 in 2006.

Youth counsellor Haji Md Yusof Ismail from Ain Society observed that teenage sex in recent years has evolved from sex with single partners for love, to sex with multiple partners to fulfill purely physical desires.

The Internet has been blamed for the increase in sexual activity among teens.

While it cannot be denied that Internet pornography and chatrooms played a part in this shift in behaviour, it is foolish to pin the Net as the primary culprit. We need to question why teenagers are increasingly seeking love and acceptance through engaging in sexual activity at such a young age.

It’s not about banning kids from using the Internet. Neither would pummeling them with lessons about values and morality help much. Scaring them with “gross” pictures of infected genitals will be as effective as anti-smoking ads — if these kids don’t love themselves, why would they care what harm they are doing against their bodies.

Perhaps if we dive into the mind of teenagers who engage in this sort of behaviour, we would find that many do this because they lack the self-confidence to say “no”. They may think that having sex is a way to gain love, affirmation and acceptance from peers, because they feel they don’t get it from their parents, siblings, teachers and society in general.

I feel this is an issue that needs to be tackled at its roots. Heal the heart and soul of these hurting youngsters, and their outward behaviour will fall in place. It will take a concerted effort of parents, religious organisations, social service organisations, schools and the government to turn this worrying trend around.

But no need in our society is more pressing than protecting the destiny of our young people.


Original article:

The Sunday Times, 6 Apr 08

Teen sex infections likely to hit new high
Most teenage boys get gonorrhoea and girls chlamydia, and some having sex at 12

By Teo Cheng Wee

The number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teenagers is set to hit another high this year, said the Department of STI Control (DSC).

The figure had been steadily increasing in recent years. Starting from a low of 238 cases reported to the department in 2002, it grew to 678 cases in 2005, 775 in 2006 and 657 in the first nine months of last year .

Although the full figures for last year are not available yet, DSC clinic head Tan Hiok Hee estimated that numbers had grown by another 3 to 5 per cent. This means the final tally would be in the region of 800 to 815.

In comparison, STI figures for the general population have stayed relatively constant at around 11,000 from 2004 to 2006.

Dr Tan pointed out that the last time teenage STI rates were this high was in the late 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, numbers declined and hovered around 250 cases a year.

‘But after 2002, the numbers have really increased,’ he said.

Teenage pregnancy figures – which have increased from 731 in 2003 to 838 in 2006 – are another indicator that more young people are having unprotected sex.

Such statistics have led to teenage STI being identified as a ‘pressing matter’ by a Health Ministry committee on adolescent health issues. Dr Tan, who sits on the committee, said the panel recently completed its report and is due to submit it to the ministry.

The top two STIs reported here are chlamydia for girls and gonorrhoea for boys. The two infections account for more than half of all STIs in teenagers. These are also the most common STIs in adults.

Last year, the youngest patients who sought help at the DSC clinic in Kelantan Lane were three 14-year-old girls, for gonorrhoea and chlamydia. Some of these youth were already sexually active at the age of 12.

Most of the time, teenagers either visit the clinic alone or with their friends. They usually come forward because they are showing symptoms like a discharge, sores or painful blisters.

Girls are more likely to be infected, with the number of girls being twice that of the boys.

Dr Tan explained that this is because girls usually attain sexual maturity earlier and are more susceptible to certain infections such as chlamydia.

Girls also tend to have older partners, who are more sexually experienced and tend to have more partners as well.

The reactions of parents and teens, upon finding out that the latter have STI, have been varied, said Dr Tan.

He recounted one 15-year-old boy with gonorrhoea who visited the clinic with his mother. She scolded him in the consultation room, pulled his ear and said he deserved the pain he was in because of his immoral behaviour.

On the other hand, the mother of a 16-year-old boy with anal warts had a frank discussion with her son on STIs and risky activities and stayed calm and non-judgmental, he recalled.

Youth counsellors and doctors point to the influence of cyberspace as one possible cause for the trend, noting that the increasing numbers have coincided with the advent of the Internet.

With pornography readily available online, teens not only get more used to the idea of sex, but they also learn at a young age how to do it.

Said youth counsellor Haji Md Yusof Ismail, who works at voluntary welfare organisation Ain Society: ‘They are also thinking: If celebrities like Edison Chen are doing it, why can’t we?’

Some teenagers also contracted STIs after they hooked up with strangers on online chatrooms and forums.

Haji Yusof observed that teenage sex in recent years has evolved from sex with single partners for love, to sex with multiple partners for pure physical needs.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children’s Society, has also noticed a mindset shift in teenagers in the last five years.

‘Gone are the days when virginity is pure. It is now cool to have sex,’ she said. ‘When they have unprotected sex, they don’t see it as risky behaviour – they think it’s natural and pure.’

When contacted, the Ministry of Education told The Sunday Times that it is already involving the home, school and community to tackle the problem, including training teachers to engage better with both students and parents on the subject of sex.

Haji Yusof said: ‘It’s a challenging problem, no doubt, and I feel that it’s an uphill task battling changing societal norms. But there is no magic pill. We have to continue working hard to solve the problem.’

That’s not the way to build confidence in youths

I was disappointed to read about the school principal (of a mission school, no less) telling her Sec 5 students that they might as well apply now for places in ITE because as they were unlikely to do well in the ‘O’ levels at the end of the year. However, I was even more disappointed to read Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew’s reaction to the public uproar about the principal.

In the Straits Times report, Principal’s ‘wake-up call’ to Sec 5 students had to be ‘conveyed’, RAdm Lui was quoted as saying, “Principals need to do their job to convey this message to the students and teachers to do their part to challenge them, set high goals and to help them achieve these goals.”

The principal was clearly in the wrong and it would have been better to just admit it and move on.

What is the point of telling Sec 5 students at the beginning of the school year that basically you all cannot make it and better give up? So what if statistically 40% of them end up not making it to poly, as RAdm Lui said. That shouldn’t stop them from trying their level best in their O levels at the end of the year to overcome the odds.

If they don’t do well enough to qualify for poly, then they can go to ITE after that. No shame in having tried but “failed”. But was the principal expecting them to quit Sec 5 and go straight to ITE?

For RAdm Lui to come in and say that the principal was just challenging her students to “set high goals” is to completely overlook the fact that she had just implied that they should set lower goals for themselves.

I’m all for not mollycoddling our youths. Discipline them when they misbehave. But insulting their intellectual abilities is the wrong way to spur them on to achieve greater heights. That approach to motivation is so ‘yesterday’.


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Show that disgusting anti-smoking ad on Prime Time!

I’m not an avid TV-watcher, but the Health Promotion Board (HPB)’s latest anti-smoking ad has got to be the most disgusting and shocking one I have ever seen — and I applaud HPB for it!

This ad has caused unease among some parents of young children who are concerned that their kids’ delicate psyches would be damaged by the graphic image of a mouth cancer sufferer. One mother complained that her nine-year old daughter (that’s a primary 4 student, not a toddler!) was so traumatised by the commercial that she had a nightmare that night, waking up at 3am screaming for her daddy. Others had complained that screening the ad during dinner time turned them off from their food.

In response to public complaints, HPB has revised its advertising timing and channels “to minimise causing any alarm to young children”, according to its CEO Lam Pin Woon. The ad will now be aired only after 8pm.

I’m glad that it will still be aired early enough for most children to watch during “Prime Time” TV programmes. In my opinion, it is children and young teens who should be the target of anti-smoking ads, not older teens or adults. Trying to get an older smoker to quit is almost as hard as getting him to change his religion — it is possible, but not easy. If, however, such ads can sear in impressionable young minds the shocking consequences of smoking, it will forever be a subconscious deterrent to even pick up the habit, regardless of peer pressure when they hit adolescence.

I don’t know what the statistics are showing, but I seem to notice many more teenagers smoking nowadays. I believe teens are not ignorant of the health risks when they take up smoking. But if it is a choice between looking cool in front of your friends, or suffering some disease when you are 60, teens who are already suffering from self-esteem issues would likely choose to light up.

Thus, the thrust of the anti-smoking message to teens should not be to focus solely on the health risks, but to work with families, youth organisations, religious organisations and other social service organisations to raise the self-worth of teens. If they really loved themselves, do you think they would pick up a habit that is not only destructive to their health, but damages their image as well?

This might appear to go beyond the responsibility of HPB, but what is the use of tackling superficial issues alone without tackling the root problems? A multi-agency approach is therefore necessary to lower the smoking rate among our young.


Update: This is Health Promotion Board’s reply to my feedback:

Dear Gerald

Thank you for your support and feedback. Since the launch of our Campaign, HPB has seen a 5-fold increase in the number of calls to QuitLine from smokers desiring to quit smoking. We have also received many compliments from smokers and non-smokers alike. Nonetheless, we give all feedback due consideration. In addition to re-scheduling our advertisement to run after 8pm, we will! also preface it with a warning.

2 This TV advertisement is the first phase of our 3-month long smoking control campaign and presents a fatal and debilitating consequence of smoking to motivate smokers to quit and encourage non-smokers to urge their loved ones to stop smoking. The second phase of our campaign adopts an encouraging tone to urge smokers to quit and non-smokers to support their efforts.

3 The reality is that 1 in 2 smokers will die from smoking-related diseases. Each smoker will on average die 13 to 14 years earlier than non-smokers. Disability, disfigurement and early death due to smoking are very real. As you have correctly pointed out, we need to use a multi-pronged strategy which starts with our children. We are engaing schools, youth organisations, family service centres and other like-minded organisations to help our youth lead a smoke free life. Our National Smoking Control Programme also includes mass media campaigns, public education, provision of smoking cessation services, legislation and tobacco taxation. These strategies has helped Singapore lower its smo= ng prevalence rate from 20% in 1984 to 12.6% in 2004, one of the lowest smoking prevalence rate in the world. We hope to continue to help more smokers quit the habit.

4 A survey conducted by HPB, also showed that the median age of children picking up smoking is about 12 years. Thus we hope that parents can also take this opportunity to educate their children on the fatal consequences of smoking as well.


Mr Norman Chong | Manager | Smoking Control, Adult Health Division | Health Promotion Board |

Reaching out to our youths

Last weekend as I was collecting my mail at my void deck, a youth about 17 years old with arms covered with tattoos and a cigarette between his fingers came around the corner and ejected a wad of spit on the floor just a few feet from me. I looked at him and told him in the most civil tone I could manage at that point, “Excuse me, please don’t spit on the floor”.

He sheepishly replied, “Sorry…I didn’t see you there”, as he attempted to “clean up” his mess by using his foot to spread the sputum over the tiling.

“Even if you didn’t see me, you shouldn’t spit, what. This is our flat”, I attempted to reason with him, before getting my letters from the mailbox.

My new acquaintance happened to be taking the lift up to his flat together with me. He asked me, “Which floor?” while still holding that glowing cigarette. Although I was tempted to point out that he should not be smoking in the lift, I thought it best to let it go. Besides, by him offering to help me press the lift button, it was at least an indication that I didn’t just make an enemy out of my neighbour (he lives one floor below me).

As I got back to my flat, there were two issues that troubled me. The first was why Singapore youths continue to be so inconsiderate and exhibit anti-social behaviour like spitting in public places, smoking in lifts, not giving up their seats on the MRT to pregnant women and the elderly, etc. The second was what it would take to reach out to “at risk” youths like my young neighbour.

I think the two issues are related, and by addressing the second problem, the first will naturally be solved to a great extent too.

In the course of my volunteer work with youths in the past 6 years, I have learned that a key reason why many kids veer off the straight and narrow path is because many of them lack self esteem and affirmation in life.

My young neighbour has probably heard more than his fair share of negative words from his parents, teachers and perhaps even law enforcement officers for his anti-social behaviour. Unfortunately, I just added to his “honour roll” of reprimands in his life.

My objective in telling him off was simply to try to get him to feel a bit more “ownership” over our block of flats. However I can’t help but wonder if he thought I was some educated guy who looks down on “bad kids” like him. That was certainly not my intention. I regret that I didn’t attempt to make some small talk with him as we were in the lift, just to dispel any preconceived notions he had about me.

I think one way to reach out to youths is for more of us “older youths” make a greater effort to befriend them and mentor them. This is obviously not easy, given the social and “cultural” gap between us. But once they see that an adult is willing to take the time to listen to them as they talk about their hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments, they are much less likely to try to find their identity and sense of self-worth in their peers, many of whom are probably negative influences on them.

There are several voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) in Singapore which help bridge this gap by providing a framework for young professionals to befriend and mentor teenagers. Two volunteer programmes that my wife and I have been involved in the past few years are the Friends of Children programme by Life Community Services Society, and the Trybe programme by Save the Children Singapore Ltd.

Friends of Children is a befrienders programme matching volunteers with children whose parents are incarcerated (i.e. in jail). Volunteers commit to meeting their assigned child at least once a month for informal mentorship. Trybe runs motivational courses for secondary schools, Institutes of Technical Education and even reformative training centres (juvenile prisons) with a message telling them that they can achieve their dreams if they believe in themselves. Trybe also runs a “Life Coaching” programme, which is a teen’s equivalent of coaching for corporate executives. The volunteers attempt to impart positive values in their mentees through regular, structured lessons conducted for groups of 3 to 6 teens over a period of one year.

Youth crime thankfully saw a slight decline last year after more than 5 years of exponential increase. However the task ahead to reach “at risk” youths in Singapore continues to be mammoth — and growing. Nevertheless, as touchingly illustrated in the Starfish story, we can all make a difference, one life at a time. On my part, I hope that when run into my young neighbour again, I’ll pluck up the courage to give him a nice smile and hopefully chat with him on the way up to our respective floors — just to let him know that he matters too.