16, 18, 21 – what’s behind an age?
Derrick A Paulo
Assistant News Editor
TWO Saturdays ago, the youth wing of the Workers’ Party revived an old debate: Should we lower the voting age from 21 to 18?
Prior to this, the issue came up for discussion last year, when Deputy Prime Minister and then-Law Minister S Jayakumar addressed such a request by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim.
The minister had set out Singapore’s approach clearly: Different laws prescribe different ages for different purposes; no single age satisfies the ability to exercise proper judgment in all aspects of life.
I was not at the Workers’ Party forum, but the question I have not seen asked is: What do our laws say about the maturity levels of the future generation of Singaporeans?
Let us start with age 16. This is the age of consent, which means the State deems it is no longer necessary to mollycoddle Singaporean youth on decisions about their bodies and the consequences that follow, such as pregnancy or parenthood.
In the United States, teenagers are deemed not mature enough to make such decisions —the age of consent is 18. (This, of course, has not stopped them partaking of the forbidden fruit.) At 16, American teens are considered merely adult enough to get a driving licence.
What is clear is, if it were believed our youth were not prepared for sex and its consequences by the time they are 16, the law would have prescribed a different age. It should come as no surprise — given the wide expanse and travelling distances in the US, where petrol is cheaper than in Singapore, clearly the priority is to enable American children to learn how to captain their own vehicle.
Singapore, a compact city with a good public transportation system, naturally does not place as much emphasis on the ability to drive. Hence, 18 is the age at which our youth are allowed to handle a car. At this age, the law also entrusts to Singapore youth the responsibility for their smoking and drinking habits — in other words, putting into their hands the decisions concerning their personal health.
For ease of comparison, in the US, sale of alcohol is restricted to ages 21 and above, and 18 and above for smoking. The latter situation, one suspects, is a result of the strength of the tobacco lobby. There is something to be said for responsible and moderate drinking, while no health benefits can be derived from smoking — but political interests sometimes overpower longer-term considerations. Where does that leave voting, and what it says about the differing levels of maturity or priorities, or about the long-term interests in various countries?
In the 21st century, where suffrage is enshrined in all but the most authoritarian of states, it is logical that the age of voting speaks volumes about each country — their values, their culture and where the balance of power lies. A look at American history would reveal a country born in the throes of the concept that there can be no taxation without representation. That may be why representation at the various levels — local, state, federal — is still a powerful ideal there, even if there has been a loss of faith in politicians, be it due to their peccadilloes or general incompetence. For America, it makes sense that the age of voting is 18.
What about Singapore? It joins the likes of Malaysia, Kuwait — which only allowed women full political rights three years ago — and strife-torn Lebanon as one of the few countries left in the world to insist on a voting age of 21. Is there something that these countries share as a common bind? It would be hard — and wrong — to generalise.
As far as Singapore is concerned, voting in elections is a very serious matter, premised as it is on citizens making reasonably mature decisions on national issues. That we have set 21 as the age to vote means that the three years of life experience after turning 18 are crucial for enabling our youth to be in a better position to exercise their vote.
For Singapore males, a good part of those three years would have been invariably spent in National Service. Their female counterparts, though, could have traversed various paths — from joining the labour force to pursuing studies here or abroad.
With a growing number of youth going overseas for these three years, would it not be best to engage them on national matters while they are here, in our schools — the common space all Singaporeans share — before they go their separate ways?
In short, there are questions to be answered before we even start considering what the voting age should be. Above all, are we doing enough in our schools to prepare our youth to make all-important political judgments?
If our youth are not ready to vote by the age of 18, clearly the answer is no.