This is the second installment of a six-part series which looks at how debate topics from the 2018 Singapore Secondary School Debate Championships (SSSDC) 2018 relate to Singapore’s society today.
The debates we engage in should not end after the final bell is rung.
After the judges have rendered their verdicts, the pens & cards are packed away and the journey home begins, our minds and thoughts should still be filled with the words we spoke and heard during the hour of spirited argumentation.
Because debaters will grow up to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow. You will be our leaders, our lawyers and our social levellers. Yours will be the voice for those who have none and yours is the will that brings change to our society.
We should thus relish every opportunity to consider how the topics that we discuss in the abstract will come to have a concrete impact on the real world that we live in.
In this regard, RedDot Academy is pleased to bring you “After the Bell,” a series of reflections on how issues within our debate motions impact our own little Red Dot of Singapore.
Our guest contributor is Samuel Myat San, a debate coach and an advocate of the view that debate extends beyond competition and serves to extend our educational process. He will be reflecting on the motions used during the second round of the Singapore Secondary School Debating Championships in 2018.
This debate saw a number of teams focus on the subject matter to be included in political knowledge tests as well as the format of the tests. These are, indeed, factors which matter a great deal to the proper functioning of democracies, since ease of access to the voting process can and does affect voter turnout.
In Singapore, however, practical access to voting, in terms of voting locations, etc., has thus far, not been a major contention. At the same time, the debate provided 2 questions which relate to the future of Singapore’s democracy.
Question 1: What is the role of a political representative?
During the debate, some proposition teams argued that the most important aspect of a functioning democracy is ensuring the best policies are adopted. In this regard, the political general knowledge test was critical in ensuring that voters were aware of the policies were being proposed and the impact of the legislation likely be applied after the voting was over.
However, some opposition teams focused on the term “elections” and noted that it referred specifically to representative and indirect democracies, rather than voting per se. They argued that a political representative’s main role should be advocating for their constituents on day-to-day matters, such as securing running water and sewage. Furthermore, voters may also select candidates for their ethics and values, such as preferring a candidate without a history of adultery.
The discussion on the exact role of a chosen representative has been raised on numerous occasions in Singapore, most notably in the 2017 Presidential elections. On the one hand, Singapore clearly puts priority on electing a President with a strong ability to handle complex policy matters. This is why the stringent requirements for the post include a previous tenure as a Minister, Chief Justice, Attorney General, etc., or as the CEO of a major company with an average of $500 million in shareholders’ equity.
These requirements are deemed necessary to ensure that the President “has the technical competence and expertise to discharge the functions and exercise the powers of the Presidency appropriately and effectively.” The 2017 elections became uncontested due to the fact that other candidates were not able to fulfill these requirements.
At the same time, the ability of the President to serve as a representative figure who symbolises a particular community is also a paramount consideration. It was on this rationale that the elections were reserved for Malay candidates. Similar provisions have been exercised before in other countries, such as the former Yugoslavia rotating its presidency to different Yugoslav republics. In Singapore, this meant that candidates who were not of Malay descent were not able to take part in the elections.
The conundrum for Singapore is that these criteria can be conflicting. Having a stringent set of technical criteria can eliminate individuals who were more representative of a community while emphasising the symbolic factor can reduce technical expertise. The question for young Singaporeans is to consider which qualities matters the most in their own elected representatives and how they would shape the elections of the future.
Question 2: Who should be the voter be?
This debate also raised a pertinent issue of the types of barriers we can legitimately place on voters.
The opposition teams usually took a more expansive view, arguing that voting rights should be given as much access as possible and that anyone deemed a “legal person” should be allowed to vote. The only exemptions might be children and the intellectually disabled, due to their diminished capacity and lack of legal personhood. Others, including current or ex-convicts, would be allowed to vote and franchise would also be extended even to non-citizen residents, such as how Singaporeans living in Scotland were able to vote in their recent independence referendum.
The proposition teams took a different approach. They argued that it is natural and proper to limit franchise as votes should be well-informed decisions based on how the elected parties would impact society as a whole. As a result, individuals who may not have the best interests of society at heart or have no capacity to make that assessment can be excluded from the process. This is why it was legitimate to set age limits on voting and giving only citizens the right to vote.
Singapore requires all citizens to vote and those who fail to do so without a valid reason are removed from the register of voters. Prisoners serving their sentences are barred from voting but franchise restored after the completion of their terms. Singapore allows citizens to vote if they are overseas but only a limited number of locations are available for overseas voting.
Singapore is one of ten jurisdictions where the minimum voting age is set to 21, compared to the worldwide mean and average voting age of 18.
This has been a point of contention in some quarters, as males as young as 16 and a half can be drafted into the military, police and civil defence. Critics have pointed to the principle inconsistency of someone being old enough to die for the nation and yet being deemed too young to have a say in its defence policies. It was, in fact, this very contention over young Americans being drafted in the Vietnam War which lead to the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the lowering of the voting age there to 18.
In addition to the voting age being made higher, it has also been controversial due to the lack of a clear and consistent age being declared as the age of adulthood. Thus, a Singaporean may be conscripted into National Service at the age of 16, gain the ability to smoke and drink at 18 and then vote at 21. This is by no means, unique to Singapore, since even the USA allows one to vote at 18 and only drink alcohol at the age of 21.
Should the age of voting be lowered in the future for Singapore? Should there be a more consistent age to be declared a legal adult in Singapore? These are the questions that our debaters may well have to tackle in the future.
Do check out the other motions below: