Tuesday, September 1, 2015

#GE2015 - Why can’t Singapore trust its youngsters?

It’s election time in Singapore! Most of my friends in Singapore (1992 born) shall be getting only their first opportunity ever to vote in a General Election unlike my Indian buddies who have already voted in a General Election as well as several state elections.

Though in the words of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, (Harry) Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has moved ‘From third world to the first’, Singapore still maintains its colonial hangover of having a minimum voting age of 21 though Britain and most of the rest of the world has already reduced the voting age to 18 if not lower.

Along with Singapore, the other members of the group of countries with a high voting age are, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Tonga and Tokelau! Is this really the group of countries that Singapore wants to identify with? (Yes, neighbouring Malaysia also retains a high voting age of 21 but just because they have a colonial hangover doesn’t mean that Singapore should too. And this applies to not just the voting age but other issues such as 377A, preventive detention and judicial caning too.)

Most Commonwealth countries, and western democracies have reduced the voting age to 18 during the 1960s and 1970s. Even in Singapore’s own backyard, all ASEAN countries apart from Singapore and Malaysia allow their citizens to vote at atleast 18 years of age. Japan, one of the last developed countries also holding on to a high voting age, just recently amended its law and has reduced the voting age to 18 this year. 

“Old enough to fight, old enough to vote”

In the United States and Great Britain, one of the most prominent arguments for lowering of the age of voting was that anyone who was considered old enough to fight and die for the nation, should be considered old enough to take part in the nation’s decision making processes. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the American forces in Europe during the Second World War and then became the President of the United States himself stated that he believed that those who were old enough to be conscripted should be considered old enough to vote. The logic behind this argument is a fairly straightforward one, if someone is going to be sent to war, he should have a say in choosing the leaders who make those decisions regarding going to war (or not). More simplistically, if you can trust someone with handling lethal weapons (and multimillion dollars worth military technology and platforms such as fighter planes, radars and submarines), you should be able to trust them to make a simple choice for their leaders at the polling booth.

Even at the worst of times, United States has only had a ‘draft’ or ‘lottery’ system of conscription while Singapore has universal conscription for all men. Thus, the “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” argument applies just as much, if not more, to Singapore as it did to the United States. It is imperative that the Singaporeans conscripted into the SAF have the opportunity to vote for the leaders who make the decisions about their deployment.

Clumsy Justifications of the Ministry of Law, Singapore

At present the Singapore Ministry of Law justifies the high voting age by simply stating that Singapore does not have a single threshold age of majority for all purposes. Adulthood is attained through a gradual process, with a progressive increase in rights and responsibilities. The example given is that the right to drive is attained at 18 while voting and making a will is allowed only at 21. This is at best a description of the situation at hand and by no means is it an explanation or justification regarding why the voting age is 21.

Why does Singapore believe in a system where some rights are given at each threshold rather than all at 18? Even if it has to be a progressive system why the right to vote only at 21? Why cant it come before the right to drive? 

The letter by Ministry of Law representative (reproduced above) provides no answer to these questions, nor does it give any logical connection or showing how acquisition of certain rights makes citizens better enabled to choose their representatives at a later point in time. Did learning to drive or rather having the right to drive really make anybody better qualified to vote or choose a representative? I don’t think so. 

The letter also makes a reference to citizens having had work experience and NS experience by the age of 21 without demonstrating how exactly that makes one better able to gauge electoral candidates. The laws made by the Parliament affect all the citizens equally rather than just those who are employed, so there is hardly any natural link between employment and assessing candidates for parliamentary elections or their policies.

Just trust the teenagers

Unlike what the Ministry of Law believes, voting is simple matter. It is not some complex level of decision making requiring hyper maturity which young Singaporeans don’t have. All you have to do during an election is to choose a candidate who you think could represent you and your area (constituency) the best. You have to look out for your self interest. Looking for one’s self interest is such a basic human attribute that even children do not need to be taught. With one of the highest literacy rates in the world, Singaporean teens are definitely educated and mature enough to understand national policies and to evaluate candidates. Many of the polices are even discussed in the Social Studies (Combined Humanities) classes in Secondary Schools and General Paper Classes in the Junior Colleges. Similarly, teens are also exposed to the electoral process on a smaller level in the elections for students council / prefects et al in their schools.

Lastly, there is no right way to make a choice about whom to vote for that needs to be learnt. In a vibrant democracy, people choose whom to cast their votes for, for various different reasons. Some people cast their based on the party, some look at the candidates, policies are important for some while the manner of speaking / persona or charm maybe the key for others. None of this is wrong or right, it is just one of many ways in which to make a choice. As long as someone has basic education and ability to make simple decisions in self interest, it is enough. Some countries are now even moving to a 16 years voting age so the least Singapore can do is to trust its young men and women to vote at 18 like the rest of the world.

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