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GE2020: Signs of young voters' crucial role in election outcome

GE2020: Signs of young voters' crucial role in election outcome
Voters at Poi Ching School polling station in Tampines on Polling Day. The swing against the PAP is seen by experts as an indication of the need to better incorporate younger perspectives.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The first signs that young voters might have been crucial in the outcome of last Friday's general election came early on Saturday morning as the results were still sinking in.

Asked at the People's Action Party's (PAP) press conference if the ruling party had lost the youth vote, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said young people have "very significantly different life aspirations and priorities". He had just seen a nearly nine-point vote swing against his party, with a record 10 opposition candidates winning seats in Parliament.

From analysts to politicians, many have since portrayed the swing against the PAP - almost every win came with a reduced share of the vote - as an indication of the need to better incorporate younger perspectives.

Former MP Inderjit Singh, in a Facebook post on Sunday, said millennials were the group who most likely voted against the PAP. He estimated that more than half of young voters had cast their ballot for the opposition.

A day earlier, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, touching on Singapore's approach to race relations, said a new framework might be needed to take into account "how (young) people feel that there's a different way of discussing these things beyond the traditional".

Yet, a poll conducted by The Straits Times in February found little hint of young voters turning away from the ruling party in the months leading up to the election, suggesting that the swing against the PAP in this age group might have been caused by events closer to Polling Day.

Voting patterns among a sample size of 400 first-time voters in February were somewhat similar to how their parents may vote. Between February and March, the poll found that bread-and-butter concerns - the cost of living, as well as job and housing prospects - dominated respondents' list of worries.

More tellingly, 36.5 per cent of them said they were inclined to vote for the PAP, more than double the 15.5 per cent who said they were leaning towards the opposition; about half were undecided.

A sample of the same voters were contacted again after Polling Day and many said they had changed their minds, and backed the opposition.

Their reasons included specific incidents that occurred during the hustings and a comparison of party manifestos, which led them to rethink what they valued and hoped to see in Singapore's future. Most said they were not voting opposition for opposition's sake.

Marketing executive Callista Khoo, a 22-year-old first-time voter, ended up voting for the Workers' Party (WP) in Marine Parade GRC despite her admiration for Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who anchors the PAP team there.


"I respect the way Mr Tan articulates his thoughts and interacts with people. Then I saw the WP candidate from my GRC recite a pantun," she said, referring to WP candidate Fadli Fawzi's speech on Nomination Day, in which he recited a Malay poem calling on his audience to "light the fires in your will".

She respected his nod to traditional Malay poetry as she felt there was a heavy emphasis on Chinese values in society here.

Ms Khoo then found Mr Fadli's Twitter account and was impressed by the newcomer's views and professionalism. She said: "I realised I needed to give WP my vote because they deserve a chance for more voices in Parliament.

"How else will voters make an informed decision about credibility if the opposition lacks the equivalent of the PAP's opportunities and platforms to prove themselves?"

Ms Zhang Feng Fang, a politics and economics undergraduate, said she was quite frustrated during the nine days of campaigning as many in her circle had swung towards the opposition. The PAP supporter said: "The opposition had a much better social media game but I also think a lot of youth had their own echo chambers for opposition online."

Ms Zhang, 22, said she did not make any public comments online in support of the PAP because she feared that she would be seen as not supportive of her friends from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

In the end, she voted for the team helmed by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC when her parents told her not to "bite the hand that feeds you".

For East Coast GRC resident Gerald Sim, 23, several events during the campaign pushed him towards the opposition.

He cited the verbal slip-up by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during his Nomination Day speech as one thing which raised doubts about whether he should be voting for the PAP leader.

The intern at a local museum also said he was put off by the PAP's demand on July 6 that the WP state its position on Sengkang GRC candidate Raeesah Khan's Facebook posts. Ms Raeesah is now under investigation for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race.

The incident, he said, was "a show of political mudslinging".


"It undermines my trust in the incumbent party even more when it resorts to delivering low blows by blowing out of proportion comments made by Ms Raeesah as a private citizen," he added.

More than 6,000 like-minded individuals joined a Facebook group called "We Stand Behind Raeesah!", while an online petition made the rounds, saying: "Let Raeesah Khan campaign in peace. Conduct any investigations after the elections." It garnered more than 19,000 signatures before Polling Day.

Young voters and observers believe the PAP's targeting of Ms Raeesah, 26, who has been an activist for the rights of the marginalised since she was 17, backfired on the party for its perceived high-handedness.

Mr G. Kiran, 25, who recently graduated from the Singapore Management University's law faculty, said: "Some young voters might have empathised with the difficult position Ms Raeesah was caught in because of the similarity in age, and the nature of social media, which has provided platforms for users to pen brief and candid thoughts.

"Younger people may have been concerned about freedom of speech and expression when the police said they were investigating her over her alleged online comments."

Others pointed out that systemic inequalities do exist in the country and that Ms Raeesah was courageous to point them out.

Apart from push factors, there were also pull factors for younger Singaporeans to vote opposition. These included the WP's proposals to tighten employment pass approvals and lower the age from 35 to 28 for singles to apply for Build-to-Order Housing Board flats.

Undergraduate Martyn Danial, 25, a Choa Chu Kang resident, said he was attracted to the WP's policies, although it did not contest in his GRC. He said: "The WP's manifesto resonated with me because it would have directly affected those around my age group who are about to join the workforce."

For Mr Sim, it was the tone of the WP team's "simple message of kindness", which he said gelled with his values. "I don't want to be extremely successful and rich while down the ladder, there are people who have difficulty putting food on the table."


Although the Elections Department does not release figures for the number of first-time voters, there were 229,900 Singapore citizens aged 20 to 24 as of June last year, according to the Government's Population in Brief report.

They likely reached the voting age between the 2015 election and this one, making up nearly 10 per cent of the 2.65 million Singaporeans eligible to vote this election.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim, in a recent interview with Bloomberg news agency, weighed in on whether the youth vote was a key factor in the swing towards the opposition.

She said that although in Sengkang, the 26 to 44 age range of the WP team matched the profile of voters there and likely contributed to her party's win in the GRC, "nationwide, I'm not able to say right now whether the younger voters tipped the balance overall".

All voters, young or old, will make their own calculations, she added.

"I don't think they will, in general, vote just as a protest, but they will also look at what is at stake, who is providing the alternative and whether they think they can accept that person as their MP," said Ms Lim.


Young voters who spoke to The Straits Times echoed this view. Many of them said their decision was never a toss-up only between who they thought could provide "jobs, jobs, jobs" - a PAP election slogan popularised by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan during a televised debate - and which party could facilitate other sociopolitical goals like greater equality.

Rather, they rejected the idea that they had to choose between economic issues and issues like social inequality, and instead, leaned towards candidates from whichever party that had plans for both areas.

Public relations trainee Yogesh Tulsi, 25, said he is anxious about jobs and getting Singapore out of its economic slump but thinks climate crisis and civil liberties are also, if not more, pressing concerns.

"Climate change is an existential problem that I want to see a lot more planning for," he said.

For some millennials, the Government's largely successful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was not enough to guarantee their votes.

Ms Nur Dyana Abu Bakar, 25, who works in the hard-hit aviation sector, said the Government has been largely efficient in handling the Covid-19 outbreak - and is glad to hear friends overseas praise Singapore for it. But issues such as the pace of development, the rising cost of living and transparency of government data are her top priorities.

She said: "We should be able to know how much of taxpayers' money is going where, or what the Government is focusing on. I don't mind higher taxes if I know that the money is going towards something good for Singapore."

However, there are young voters who agree with the PAP's focus on economic policies. Law undergraduate Clement Lim, 24, said he supported the ruling party's emphasis on jobs and skills upgrading because it is "about encouraging people to be independent and not depend on government handouts".

The PAP Youth Wing member, who volunteers in Jurong GRC, added that the PAP still has many "MPs and leaders who genuinely care about society and its people".

Mr Lim said: "I often see MPs who go the extra mile to ensure that the needs of their residents are taken care of. Regular dialogue sessions are held where ministers try to understand societal concerns, and explain the Government's approach to dealing with them."

For him, the election results meant that the PAP should rethink its strategy for engaging younger voters, rather than embark on a directional overhaul.


With restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, this election took place largely online - a milieu in which digital natives like millennials are very much at home.

The social media presence of candidates acquired greater weight, and how eloquent and presentable they were played a greater role. The personalities of individual candidates also came under more scrutiny than they would have in past hustings.


Several PAP politicians, such as Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, 51, have earned plaudits for their online outreach efforts.

Mr Tan became a local Twitter sensation earlier this year for responding or "clapping back" at a netizen who confused him with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. The netizen said: "Hello sir! I stan!" Mr Tan replied: "Hello. I Tan." Stan is slang for an overzealous fan.

Public relations and events executive Joel Lim, 27, said it was important for candidates to reach out to young voters online. He said: "A large majority of (first-time voters) are active users of digital platforms, which are also where they have their discussions with their peers and, more importantly, obtain information."

Mr Lim posted bite-size political analyses on his Instagram account and gained more than 11,000 new followers during the election campaign. The first episode of his series, called Political Prude, drew more than 10,000 views.

Opposition candidates also performed well.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, was among those whose credentials were lauded on social media by young voters, who felt opposition candidates like him were equal in calibre to those fielded by the PAP.


Others, like Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock, got young assistants to help him better tap the online psyche of millennials. The 80-year-old experimented with millennial and Gen Z slang such as "hypebeast" - a person in tune with the latest trends - and became an unlikely Instagram hit for his "hypebeast ah gong" persona.

A day before Cooling-off Day, SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan mixed jokes with appeals for more democratic rights in an interview with online personality Preeti Nair, better known as Preetipls. The video was widely circulated.

Still, it is not clear how much candidates' social media appeal translated into votes - Prof Tambyah, Dr Chee and Dr Tan all lost by narrow margins.

Also, young voters said keeping an online presence was not everything, and that on-the-ground efforts mattered.

MacPherson resident Soh Jun Ming, 27, said his MP Tin Pei Ling is popular for the effort she takes to be present on the ground.

He said: "We occasionally see her jogging around the neighbourhood to greet some of the residents, and she has also impacted the lives of several of my neighbours, especially during this trying period."

The financial consultant added: "Some of my neighbours also said it is hard to vote for opposition members if we don't see them contributing to the neighbourhood."

Ms Tin, 36, romped home to victory for the second time in the single seat, sweeping up 71.74 per cent of the votes in a contest against the People's Power Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said of the youth vote: "Whether or not they constitute a significant proportion of voters, their votes are important - more so if there's a close contest."

In West Coast GRC, the PSP lost to the PAP by just 3.4 points. If more credible opposition candidates jump into the fray, the gap may continue to narrow, and this election could be a hint of what is to come.

• Additional reporting by Olivia Ho and Clara Chong

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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