The current voting age in Singapore is 21. As a result, we belong to a very special club together with only 9 other countries in the world which have a voting age of 21 or higher. These include Tokelau, Tongo, the Solomon Islands, Saudi Arabia, Samoa, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Malaysia. Most of the remaining 186 countries in the world have a voting age of 18; many have lowered it to 16.
Singaporean males are forced to take up arms and make a commitment to die for our country… (but) cannot pick the politicians who ultimately wield the power to send them into war.
There are many good reasons why we should lower the voting age to 18. First, it is odd that 18 year old Singaporean males are forced to take up arms and make a commitment to die for our country, and yet, they cannot pick the politicians who ultimately wield the power to send them into war. Second, a lower voting age will encourage politicians to pay more attention to the interests and needs of the youth, which are important, and I believe, often neglected. Third, it will encourage more youth to be more politically involved, which in turn fosters a more vibrant democracy. Fourth, it is odd that those below 21 may pay taxes, get married and start families, but have no say in the future of the country. Fifth, it is odd that the youth, having more years ahead of them, are more invested in the future than the very elderly, and yet cannot vote.
However, these arguments, though important, are not the focus of this article. Let’s instead turn to the arguments against lowering the voting age and see if they withstand scrutiny.
1. The youth will vote poorly, or wrongly
This argument assumes that there is such thing as a ‘wrong’ vote, or a ‘poor’ vote, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. In many situations, there is simply a conflict of interest.
Take for example the choice between spending a portion of taxpayers’ money on subsidies for the elderly or on education opportunities for the youth. The elderly person might say the youth will make the ‘wrong’ decision by spending it on themselves, since the elderly need the money more. But the elderly person is being a judge in his own case. Of course he will say it is ‘wrong’, he loses out after all!
If the elderly person believes the youth ought to prioritize his interests, then it is his role, as a member of a democratic society, to convince the youth, instead of taking the fact that the youth would, in his opinion, vote ‘wrongly’ (i.e. against him) as a reason to deny them the chance to vote. That would be disingenuous and undemocratic.
If you think Donald Trump was a ‘wrong’ choice, remember that he was not elected by the youth, but by angry, disillusioned middle-aged voters
Even if we assume that it is possible to make a ‘wrong’, or ‘poor’ vote. We cannot take for granted that a 18 year-old person is more likely to get it ‘wrong’ as compared to a 68 year-old person. If you think Donald Trump was a bad or ‘wrong’ choice, remember that he was not elected by the youth, but by angry, disillusioned middle-aged voters; the same happened with Brexit.
There is another type of ‘wrong’ voting – the failure to tick the box properly. While I do not believe 18 year-olds will have problems here, there have been cases of elderly folk who have allegedly been taken advantage of by being told to put a cross beside the party they don’t want elected.
2. The youth are too inexperienced to vote
We need to stop associating ‘experience’ with age… with technology, our youth exposed to more ideas, more connected, more opinionated and more aware of social issues than many of their older counterparts.
The Ministry of Law’s position is that those between 18 and 21 are in an insufficiently satisfactory position to “assess the quality of the candidates and to make considered judgments about the national issues at stake”.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that the youth are inexperienced in the first place, or at least more inexperienced than older people. I believe we need to stop associating experience with age. The rapid technological advances of the past decades mean that young people, with their grasp of technology, are on the whole exposed to more ideas, more connected, more opinionated and more aware of social issues than many of their older counterparts.
In any case, associating experience with age in our current context is circular. If someone says: “experience only comes with age”, and also says that “people with insufficient experience should not vote”, then, since the youth are people who have not come of age, what the person is really saying that the youth should not vote simply because they are young. This is to go around in circles, and to prove what already assumed to be true right from the start.
But even if we assume that experience is tied to age, and the youth are more inexperienced, it is a logical leap to say that because they are inexperienced, they should not get a vote.
Democratic participation is about being recognized as a political equal, and having the ability to participate in society’s decision-making process to ensure one’s interests are protected, and one’s voice is heard. It is to allow a person to have a say in her future and how she is treated by society, rather than remain a passive victim of collective action. All of these have nothing to do with having life experience.
Furthermore, if experience really matters so much, why do all adults, regardless of experience, get one vote? Should the votes of elderly folk, who are more ‘experienced’, be given more weight? Putting too much focus on experience as a criteria for the right to vote leads to rather silly conclusions.
3. If we lower the voting age to 18, why not 16, or 12, or even lower?
I think it is odd to suggest that there is no substantive difference between giving 18 year-olds and 16 year-olds (or even 12 year-olds) the right to vote. I argue that there are important differences in personal development between the ages of 18 and 16 in terms of cognitive development and awareness of social issues. Furthermore, in relation to my earlier point concerning national service, men are conscripted around the age of 18, which makes that age a relevant milestone.
In any case, the same argument can be used against the other side – if the reasons for keeping the voting age above 18 are that good, why not raise the voting age to 23, or 25?
4. The youth are too easily swayed
To many adults, our youth might appear like impressionable social media addicts with pop idol obsessions. Hence, many believe that when it comes to voting, the youth will be too easily swayed. Both their premise and conclusion are not necessarily true. I think when it comes to serious and important issues, the youth are more independent-minded and intelligent than many think.
However, even if we assume that the youth are easily swayed, it is not difficult to imagine the elderly also being easily swayed by, for example, promises of handouts and subsidies. I am not saying that assisting the elderly is undesirable; it is in fact extremely important and I support such initiatives wholeheartedly. I am merely saying that the elderly are as equally susceptible to being swayed as the youth. In fact, one might even argue that critically-minded, educated youths may be harder to ‘win over’ than some elderly folk. Surely we should not deny the elderly the right to vote on this basis?
5. The youth are too unintelligent or too unwise to vote
We cannot assume that the youth are more unintelligent or too unwise because of their age. The fact that modern-day schooling standards are much higher than, for example, the 1960s, casts further doubt this assumption. Furthermore, the argument from intelligence is a problematic argument – if we deem intelligence or wisdom as a criteria for having the right to vote, then should we not give the right to vote only to intelligent, or wise people, regardless of age? This is an abhorrent thought which reeks of elitism.
6. We should not do something just because other countries have done so
This is generally true. However, when every other country has changed their policy except for us and a few others which include Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, we might want to start reconsidering our position.
One might adopt the very popular argument that: “Singapore is unique!” I find this unappealing – it must be explained, not just asserted. One possibility is to say that Singapore is ‘unique’ in the sense that our youths are less capable when it comes to voting because of the way they are brought up, but i don’t think this is true.
Another possibility is to say that this is our ‘culture’, but this is a poor argument. Just because we have been doing something for a long time does not mean we should continue doing it, especially if what we have been doing is wrong or bad, which I argue, it is.
In almost all countries, including Singapore, there are two classes of people who cannot vote: young children and the mentally insane. It is quite silly that youths between 18 and 21 should fall alongside these two categories. Having worked with youth from all walks of life, I believe that they are more intelligent, more connected and more experienced than many people think.
Interestingly, some arguments that people make against allowing 18 to 21 year olds to vote are the very same arguments people made in the 19th to early-20th century against giving women the right to vote – these include the idea that they are inexperienced, unwise, unintelligent and incapable of making ‘right’ decisions, even for themselves. This was a normal way of thinking back in those days, and societies around the world have grown to realize how wrong they were about this. I hope that we will eventually come to realize that we are making the same mistake with regard to our our 18 to 21 year-olds, and that we would look back at this period of time in our nation’s history with much regret.
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