SEPTEMBER 13 — Lowering the minimum voting age is not enough to ensure informed youth political participation. Young voters need political education and practice opportunities to understand and internalise principles of democracy. This was a key finding in Asia Centre’s latest report “Youth and Disinformation in Malaysia: Strengthening Electoral Integrity”.

Asia Centre, a research institute in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, notes in its report that the minimum voting age across the world ranges from 16 to 25 years old. However, 95 per cent of countries set the voting age at 18 or younger.

In South-east Asia, the minimum voting age ranges between 17-21. Indonesia and Timor-Leste specify the minimum voting age at 17. Other South-east Asia countries that include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have the minimum voting age at 18, even if the electoral processes in Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam do not adhere to international standards for democratic elections. Only, Singapore maintains the age at 21, the highest minimum voting age in the region.

The minimum voting age was mostly inscribed into the constitutions and electoral laws of South-east Asian countries in the year these documents were adopted as law. In the case of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia the relevant laws were amended to lower the minimum age.

Thailand lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 years old in Article 109 (2) of the Constitution amendment (No. 5), B.E. 2538 (1995). In recent times, the rise of youth political activism in the country has ignited a discussion over lowering the voting age from 18 to 15. This proposal is supported on the ground that youth at 15 years old are liable for criminal punishment and are employable.

The move to lower the voting age to 15 is not unusual. In the Philippines, in June 2022, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) of Philippines promulgated Resolution No. 10798 allowing Filipino citizens at least 15 but not more than 30 years of age to register as Sangguniang Kabataan voters. The Sangguniang Kabataan is a council representing youth in every barangay (the smallest administrative division) of the Philippines.

In Indonesia, the Law no. 23 was introduced in 2003 to allow citizens at 17 years of age to vote for the President and Vice President. Later, in 2008, the Law no. 10/2008 was proclaimed to allow citizens who reach the age of 17 years to vote for the Members of the People’s Representative Council, Regional Representatives Council, and Regional People’s Representative Council.

Voters cast their ballot at the SMK Sri Muar polling station in Muar, Johor March 12, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Voters cast their ballot at the SMK Sri Muar polling station in Muar, Johor March 12, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara

For Malaysia, the Undi18 (Vote18) movement began in 2016 to campaign for lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. After facing many rejections and challenges, in July 2019, the Undi 18 Bill which lowered the minimum age to 18 was eventually passed by the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament. The Bill became the first constitutional amendment receiving support from both sides of the political aisle and finally took effect on 15 December 2021.

Singapore remains among only seven countries in the world where the voting age is 21 or older.

In 2015, the Workers’ Party (WP) proposed in its manifesto to lower the voting age to 18. The rationale provided was that this move would encourage youth political participation, bring the country in line with major countries and be consistent with other local laws setting 18 as the benchmark age. In 2019, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) publicly proposed to lower the voting age in Singapore to 18. Reasons provided include that at this age, girls enter university and boys serve National Service. Hence, 18-year-olds should also have the right to elect their leaders.

The call for lowering the voting age to 18 received greater public attention during the Singapore 2020 General Election. The WP reintroduced the proposal in its 2020 manifesto, while the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) made a first mention in its 2020 manifesto. Two years after the 2020 general elections, on 6 September 2022, Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and also a member of PSP, rekindled the debate through his Facebook post. His much shared post labelled Singapore as an outlier among South-east Asia countries for resisting the minimum voting age at 21.

Against the backdrop of the regional benchmark, a 2022 study by the Blackbox Research Team showed that only 40 per cent of Singaporeans believed the voting age should be lowered to 18. Hence, it was not surprising that as early as 2019, in response to the PSP announcement, an undergraduate student publicly disagreed with the vote 18 proposal claiming that youth often make decisions based on their social circle and argued that the proposal is an opposition’s tactic to benefit from the youth anti-establishment vote.

Such rhetoric reinforces the view that lowering the voting age alone cannot ensure youth political engagement. Youth in South-east Asia are socialised by parents, educational and religious institutions, their peers, the media, and the influence of public institutions. Laws and administrative orders also determine whether “political” activities are allowed in schools and universities. At the community level, there are national laws that regulate the registration of political organisations and well as fund raising for such organisations. Collectively, these shape youth mindset and orientation towards political participation.

In order to break away from this grip of socialisation and legal-administrative barriers, Asia Centre’s report recommends governments should repeal laws and ministries retract administrative orders used to block youth’s political activities in schools, universities and in the community. Parents should promote and instil the values of democracy in their children from an early age so they can be inspired to pursue them. Educational establishments and public institutions should encourage the practice of democracy by introducing elections in student and community councils as well as facilitate public hearings and debates.

Lowering the minimum age to 18 and below is important. However, it should be treated only as a starting point. There is also a need to ensure the principles of democracy are taught and and practised in society to facilitate genuine political participation.

* James Gomez is regional director of the Asia Centre. This commentary is based on the centre’s latest report ‘Youth and Disinformation in Malaysia: Strengthening Electoral Integrity’ which was launched on 8 September 2022.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.