A First Time for Everything: A chat with Singapore’s Youth Voters
By Nicolette Chua and Rachel Yap
As Singapore’s next General Election (GE) draws near, a new wave of Singaporean youths aged 21 and above will be eligible to vote for the first time. In GE 2015 alone, an estimated 245,500 Singaporean youth aged 21-25 were able to cast their first votes.
The Convergence spoke to 8 youths to find out about their thoughts on being first-time voters. In this conversation, the youths candidly shared their thoughts on socio-political issues that they felt would determine their voting decisions at the polls.
Youths on being a responsible voter
In Singapore, voting is compulsory as it is both an essential democratic right of citizenship and a civic duty to choose their political leaders wisely. A majority of youths The Convergence spoke to expressed their excitement about being able to exercise this civic responsibility.
Among these enthusiastic interviewees was undergraduate Ng Chia Wee, 22. “It feels really exciting to be able to actively shape Singapore's political future at the ballot box.” This sentiment was echoed by Timothy Timuari, a 21 year-old undergraduate, “By voting wisely, I can help to elect leaders who will best represent my interests and that of society.”
However, some had their reservations. Full-time national serviceman (NSF) Samuel Goh, 22, shared that voting for the first time can feel “scary [as] we are being thrown into a situation where we have to decide the future of the country.” He further opined, “As we get older, the policies formulated by the ruling government we vote for have a more tangible impact on our livelihoods.”
Others expressed concern towards a possible freak election result. An interviewee who wished to remain anonymous, felt that a sudden turn towards opposition parties akin to GE 2011 may destabilise Singapore’s political landscape. Such concerns are not unfounded through the emergence of socio-political issues raised by the interviewees.
Domestic socio-political echoes among youths
The youths shared their strongly-held views on bread-and-butter issues. Rachel Goh, a 22 year-old undergraduate, cited that the growing income gap and rising cost of living has rendered Singapore a less conducive place for married couples to raise families.
This view is seconded by 23 year old undergraduate Gerard Berchman. Recounting a group project whereby he visited families living in rental flats, he said, “It was a culture shock. I saw homelessness, family torn apart by drugs [and] crime. I saw gangs. I wouldn’t have encountered [these] if I had not embarked on that project and subsequent ones.”
On a whole, the youths felt that the government could do more to help individuals who have fallen through the cracks. Berchman further added, “Schools, workplaces, institutions all must work together in [addressing inequality]. Talk about it, indulge in each others’ cultures, form mutual respect and rebuild harmony.”
The youths also emphasised the need to preserve Singapore’s social stability. 25 year-old post-graduate Osten Mah pointed out that a growing number of naturalised Singapore citizens may not necessarily engender social integration.
Likewise, Berchman shared his worry that weakened social ties and the loss of Singapore’s unique ‘kampung spirit’ may lead to the disintegration of racial harmony.
A study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.sg reflected these anxieties. While 90% of 4,015 respondents felt that it was “good to have people of different nationalities living in the same neighbourhood”, 67% felt that “immigrants [were] not doing enough to integrate into Singapore.”
A related issue is that of jobs and immigration. Ng said, “With an uncertain economic outlook, there will likely be increasing concern about the sufficiency of good jobs for Singaporeans.” Climate change and environmentalism, among other issues, were also raised.
Despite these challenging issues, the interviewees generally expressed confidence in the Singapore Government’s ability to navigate past them. This is because of the government’s long-standing track record of its effective provision of public goods and its zero-tolerance towards corruption, among other traits of good governance.
“So long as people are satisfied with their standard of living and that the government cares for its people, that is all that matters to me,” NSF Goh said. The youths, on a whole, expressed hope that the government would be attentive to citizens’ concerns and receptive to feedback.
Youths to meaningfully participate in important discussions
The Convergence also found that youths had varying degrees of political awareness and community involvement. Some actively discuss Singapore politics with their families and close friends. For example Ng said, “Politics, I feel, was always meant to be discussed; the sparks and insights from these discussions, even when disagreements happen are part of what makes it so interesting!”.
However, others minimally try to keep abreast of current affairs through the internet. According to the National Youth Council, 65% of youth in 2018 have been engaging in at least one civic activity, with a preference for online activities such as reposting, liking content related to a social or political issue. Some youth also volunteer in e-donations to a specific cause they believe in.
Although the growing online presence of youths appears promising in encouraging greater political participation, the passive nature of online activities has not yet transformed into broad-based, tangible involvement in the wider community. It has also led to counterproductive effects—what former American president Barack Obama called out as youths’ misguided sense of political ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’.
A space for constructive advocacy
To foster greater youth involvement in politics, the establishment of more diverse platforms and initiatives have enabled more youths with varying social stances and backgrounds to have a place to make their vision for Singapore a reality.
In Singapore, the emergence of various movements such as Pink Dot, ‘Ready4Repeal’ movement, and the Climate Rally, all advocate social causes deemed worthy by youths.
The “Ready4Repeal” movement has rallied many bold Singaporeans to fight for the removal of the 377A penal code that criminalises sex between men, advocating for equality and anti-discrimination of LGBTQ+ individuals.
The call for environmental changes have also made massive progress in the form of companies cooperating with environmentally-savvy standards as they turn to sustainable alternatives and reduce plastic waste consumption nationwide.
The surge in political and social participation in civil society appears promising, where youths are increasingly bolder in voicing out against LGBT discrimination and environmental concerns that impede Singapore’s progress to becoming a more inclusive and safe country to be in.
Governmental efforts to expand youth platforms have also burgeoned, as seen through the National Youth Council’s Youth Conversations initiative. This has enabled youths to voice out long-term problems that continue to plague Singapore, such as inequality and class division, and provide plausible ways that Singapore can help to resolve these issues. The government also solicits Singaporeans’ views through its existing feedback-collection platform, REACH (Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home).
An attempt by the local media to discuss social issues publicly is CNA’s interview of students from various backgrounds with a minister.
However, many youths continue to express their hope that more platforms can be created to discuss various controversial social issues constructively in public. As such, Berchman said, “We need more media coverage and greater educational emphasis on social issues in society. This can be done through an independently-led programme that can really dig deep into the cracks hidden in Singapore such as the unseen faces and hidden ‘plagues’ of society.”
As the interviewees have demonstrated, Singapore’s youths are undoubtedly evolving. In an increasingly interconnected world with greater privileges and access to education in Singapore, the youths are more educated and aware of the distinctions between the circumstances in Singapore and other parts of the world.
Youths are unable to do this alone. Just as two hands are needed to clap, the government’s role is important in addressing youths’ concerns and cementing their advocacy efforts. With that, the significance in voting wisely for a government that is able to bring this to light becomes self-evident.
With the upcoming General Election, only time can tell if youth political participation will actively shape or make a difference to our political scene permanently in Singapore. Regardless, first-time voters represent a collective force of change to be reckoned with.
Nicolette Chua (Associate Editor)
Nicolette Chua is a final-year Political Science student and an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She firmly believes in the power of youths' voices in steering national conversations on social issues, and seeks to marry this conviction with her love for writing and current affairs. In her free time, Nicolette she can be found with a cup of Teh C in hand while keeping herself updated on dank memes.
Rachel Yap (Editor)
Rachel is a Year 1 political science major who is currently a Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She believes in the importance of knowledge and awareness in current affairs and hopes that every contribution can be a step forward in understanding the world we live in today. When she’s not writing, she’s probably watching Netflix, speaking broken Japanese or trying to be the next Masterchef in her kitchen as she rethinks about her priorities in life.