Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied): Sir, I call for the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years to empower younger Singaporeans to have a say at our National Elections.
I first raised this 16 years ago during the Committee of Supply debates. I pointed out at that time that the majority of countries have already lowered their voting ages to 18.
In response, then Law Minister Prof S Jayakumar highlighted that Malaysia’s voting age was also 21 and Japan’s was 20. Today, these two countries have also lowered their voting age to 18, Malaysia in 2019 and Japan in 2016. Therefore, today, Singapore is becoming an outlier in keeping the voting age at 21 years.
Of course, we do not need to blindly follow the policies of other countries. So, we must question the rationale for Singapore’s stand. What is so unique about our youths aged between 18 and 21 that they should not be entrusted with the vote? The answer from the Government more recently can be summarised in three points.
First, it is said that voting requires experience and maturity and only at 21 does a person come of age to make adult’s decisions and engage in activities that involve significant personal responsibility.
Secondly, voting involves the election of the President who exercises custodial and veto powers and the election of the Government.
Thirdly, youths aged 18 to 21 are able to express their views through other platforms such as in Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s Youth Action Plan.
Sir, clearly, these reasons are inadequate.
To the first point about only coming of age at 21, we already require those under 21 to engage in some very serious undertakings. Boys are enlisted into National Service by 18 years, required to carry weapons and vow to defend Singapore with their lives.
As far as taking significant personal responsibility where actions is concerned, today, if a young person above 18 commits a capital crime, he is liable to suffer capital punishment and be hanged.
Since our policies treat them as adults for these undertakings, how do we justify depriving these youth of a say at National Elections.
On the second point about voting involving the election of the President and the Government, is that not the whole point? It seems that most other countries trust their youths to vote for their president and government, but this Government does not.
As to the third point about being able to give feedback on the Government’s youth action plans, I think we can all agree that giving feedback is not the same as having your vote counted at the National Elections.
Sir, the period from 2007 to now has seen momentous change. For instance, this House changed its position on section 377A of the Penal Code and decided to repeal it, noting that half a generation has passed.
I hope the Government will be similarly open-minded about lowering the voting age as well.
The Minister for Education (Mr Chan Chun Sing): Chairman, on behalf of the Prime Minister, let me first address the cut by Ms Sylvia Lim on voting age.
This is not a new suggestion. Both sides of the House have previously raised this suggestion and our previous considerations remain valid.
A number of countries have lowered their voting age – some to increase voter turnout, and others, perhaps for perceived political advantage. We do not have the first problem and we certainly should not do it for the second reason.
Some of them regretted doing so when the political outcomes were not as they had expected, although they would not say so publicly for political reasons. Others were not clear if this had led to better governance.
The opinions of our youths are indeed important. The majority of our youths under the age of 21 are in our post-secondary institutions. We do regularly and proactively engage our youths on national issues and societal issues to take into account their views in our decision-making and policy formulation. The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, National Youth Council, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social and Family Development and other Government agencies do this on a regular basis. An example is the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development in 2021. The views surfaced in these dialogues were considered in the White Paper, which was tabled in Parliament last year.
However, if we take a step back, the evergreen challenges for any democracy is how do we deliver good governance and a good government. The key to that lies in two things.
First, how do we have good people with the right values and right capabilities to stand forth to serve? Second, how do we encourage every voter to not just think of his or her individual interests, for the here and now; but also for the wider interests of our society and future generations.
The Chairman: Ms Sylvia Lim.
Ms Sylvia Lim: Chairman, clarification for Minister Chan Chun Sing on the issue of voting age.
In other countries, we have seen that where there is military conscription, there can be a link with the age of conscription to the voting age. So, for example, in the US, we saw that in the 1960s, there was a big move to bring the voting age from 21 to 18 because teenagers were being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. The slogan at that time was “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote”.
So, I would like the Minister to explain to our youths, why they are old enough to fight and defend Singapore with their lives, but they are not old enough to vote.
Mr Chan Chun Sing: Chairman, I think the answer to Ms Sylvia Lim’s question had been given previously, but if I may just remind the House. If we look at the rights and responsibilities of all our people, from the age of 16 until 21, there is a gradation of scale. At different ages, they have different rights and different responsibilities; and Ms Lim might want to refer to our previous answer.
Prime Minister’s Office
24 February 2023