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Singaporean youths gathered at the WP headquarters to call for a lowering of the voting age.

Youths call for right to vote at Youthquake forum

Selene Cheng

“The power of Parliament comes from the people, and the power of the people comes from our right to vote.”

The Workers’ Party Youth Wing (YPYW) launched its inaugural YouthQuake forum series today on the topic “Should Singaporean Youths be Allowed to Vote at 18?”

The public forum, targeted at youths, took place at the party’s headquarters in Syed Alwi Road.

WPYW executive committee member and chairperson of today’s forum Bernard Chen said that the YouthQuake forums aim to “promote greater awareness of youth-centric issues, to promote debate and discussion on issues that affect [youths]”.

Three youths were invited to speak – 17-year old debater Anne Tan, first-year student at Anglo-Chinese Junior College and daughter of WP executive council member Eric Tan; 20-year old full-time National Serviceman Khairulanwar Zaini, and 23-year old Choo Zheng Xi, second-year law undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and the Chief Editor of socio-political blog The Online Citizen.

Speakers generally agreed that Singaporean youths should be allowed to vote at 18, as this would engender political maturity amongst youths and give them a sense of ownership and commitment to the nation. All were confident that youths would exercise their vote responsibly.

“Head knowledge” never really quite hits the heart

First speaker Anne Tan argued that encouraging a culture that allowed vibrant socio-political discourse would make for a more resilient Singapore society, and that giving youths the right to vote would be a formal recognition of the validity of different opinions.

She also argued that if Singapore society did not encourage expression of different opinions for fear of destroying the social fabric, then perhaps the racial and religious harmony that Singapore prides itself on having was just “simply cosmetic”. Anne was of the view that Singapore should not allow the “ghosts” of the pasts – the racial and religious riots in the 60s – to haunt its collective consciousness.

Anne also gave her view on why the Government’s efforts at repoliticising Singapore youths had failed. She argued that in educating youths about national issues, there was a wrong focus on “head knowledge”.

“The thing about head knowledge is that it never really quite hits your heart,” said Anne.

She also felt that the Government’s well-intentioned policies failed because the civil servants that carried out the policies were “entrenched in a cycle of fear” over encouraging political awareness amongst their charges.

A corresponding trust from the state is needed

Second speaker Khairulanwar Zaini spoke on the rights of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) to vote if they were18, as they were contributing to the defence, and thus protection, of the state’s sovereignty:

I believe that it should be an inherent principle of democracy that we extend suffrage to those who are serving the interests on the nation, in particular for those who provide for the finances and the defence of the state.

Khairul argued that “those serving in the military should have the right to choose the authority that deploys them [for armed combat]”. Citing historical examples of other nations with compulsory conscription, and nations during wartime which had done so, he argued that since the state entrusts its National Servicemen with the heavy responsibility of bearing arms in defence of it, there should be “a corresponding trust to enfranchise [them] into the electorate”.

Additionally, Khairul also argued that citizenship meant obligations and rights, and since in doing National Service male youths at 18 are fulfilling their obligation to defend the nation, they should accordingly be awarded their full rights as citizens as well, which includes the right to vote.

Pre-empting the argument that giving 18-year old National Servicemen suffrage would be “politicising the military”, Khairul stressed that there was a difference between the “rights” of the military as an institution, and the rights of each 18-year old national serviceman. He also noted that if one felt that allowing suffrage would result in a “politicised” military, and that this was unacceptable, that would mean that regular NS men would also have to be denied the vote.

Lastly, Khairul felt that giving NSFs suffrage would give them a “sense of ownership in their country’s affairs”, imbuing them with “a sense of purpose to serve NS”.

To questions from some forum attendees on giving 18-year old females suffrage, Khairul noted that there were many different ways to contribute to the nation, and since 18-year old women also work and pay taxes, they ought to be accorded the same voting rights.

In response to another question as to whether one should allow 16-year old NSFs who were “just as good, just as well, [and] just as brave” to vote, Khairul replied that personally, he felt that the line had to be drawn somewhere, and that this was a minor issue as the number of males voluntarily conscripting themselves at 16 was very low.

Right to vote not guaranteed in law

Last speaker Choo Zheng Xi spoke on how the right to vote was not enshrined in Singapore’s Constitution, and said that Singaporeans were “not familiar with framing [the issue of suffrage] in a rights perspective, but [saw it] instead as a legal obligation”. He noted that it was more a compulsion to act, as the Parliamentary Elections Act stated that non-voters would have their names struck off the electoral register.

Citing legal precedents where the courts affirmed the right of the judiciary to invalidate law inconsistent with the Constitution, Zheng Xi argued that this meant if a law was passed, barring people below a certain intelligence level to vote, such a law could be challenged in court.

“Political engagement is about participation and taking your rights seriously,” said Zheng Xi. “The power of parliament comes from the people, and the power of the people comes from our right to vote”, he said.

Zheng Xi argued that the culture of political apathy has been actively encouraged, and that this mindset had to be changed. Without changing mindsets, changing the law in name would not change the way people think, and their valuing their vote. Nevertheless, he argued that people “[had] to start acting on being the creators of a system that [they wanted] to see, by voting at 18”.

Some forum attendees had some concerns. One asked if giving youths the right to vote at 18 would make a difference, since the current election process was flawed. Another asked if in talking about voting at 18, did one have in mind the general principle that everyone has the right to vote, or was voting rights tied to age.

Speakers were of the view that allowing people to vote at 18 was the first step towards improving the flawed election process, to increase awareness, put aside their fear, and realise that “rights aren’t necessarily confrontational and self-centered” (Zheng Xi).

On the age issue, speakers generally agreed that it was both the age 18 (the age one could get married, buy and drink alcohol legally, and get charged for murder, speakers noted) and the individual right to vote that were equally important. Forum chairperson Bernard Chen noted that a lot of countries were now considering lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, and Singapore was thus lagging behind.

Heartening attendance

The forum closed with each speaker being presented the WP’s anniversary publication as a token of appreciation. WP members The Online Citizen spoke to, including WP chairperson Sylvia Lim, were heartened to see that the forum attracted a fair number of youths among the packed room who were “interested in Singapore’s future”, and all supported the idea of youths being allowed to vote at 18.

“Leaders who youth can’t vote for today may send them to war tomorrow. Youth shouldn’t be held to a stricter standard than [that for] adults….intelligence and maturity should not be the basis upon which the right to vote [rests upon]. Lowering the voting age should be the just and fair way to make things straight,” forum chairperson Bernard Chen concluded.

Videos of the forum can be viewed here.

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