Are first-time voters ready to vote?

Updated: Mar 19

By Liang Lei


Not really. Okay, we’ll qualify this by saying that those out in the workforce are probably more ready than those who are still studying. Working youths may not read more compared to students in the same age group, but being in the workforce makes them more aware of current affairs — possibly from the pressure to sound smart in front of adults.

That’s based on 100 face-to-face surveys we conducted with first-time voters aged 21-26 (half working, half students) from September 2019 to February 2020. It’s not scientific, of course, but we thought a sampling of views would be insightful given that first-time voters formed almost 10 per cent of the electorate in the 2015 general election.

We wanted to find out what the extent of their general political engagement and knowledge was and the kinds of issues they cared about. How would all this play a part in who they vote for?

Working youths outperform students in current affairs

Ask young people who Mr Goh Chok Tong is and they would likely know he is the former Prime Minister. Fewer would be able to give his current title — Emeritus Senior Minister. Results showed working youths out-performed students when asked to identify names that made the news. Working youths got 56 per cent of all the questions right, while students got 46 per cent.

Mr Gan Kim Yong was not as well known amongst students. Only 18 per cent of them knew he was the health minister, although this might have changed with his daily appearances in the media over the Covid-19 outbreak. Interestingly, twice as many students compared to working youths knew who Mr Subhas Nair is, one-half of the sibling duo admonished last year for a music video questioning Chinese privilege. Perhaps, it had to do with the duo’s strong social media presence. Some who got the answer wrong thought we were asking about the late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who made his name defending the accused in high-profile murder cases.

Working respondents were also slightly better than students at answering questions about recent socio-political developments in Singapore. We had eight multiple-choice questions in the survey, ranging from retirement age to resale flat regulations. Working respondents got an overall score of 56.5 per cent, while students received 52.5 per cent.

Working respondents had higher average scores for five questions: The number of parties in the current Parliament (two), the current retirement age (62), whether a single person can buy a resale flat at age 25 (no), whether POFMA applies in closed messaging groups (yes) and whether youths had a higher unemployment rate in Singapore compared to older adults (yes).

Students scored better for two questions: Which in a list of four was not an extant political party (Labour party) and whether a plastic bag tax was created in Singapore last year (no).

The two groups drew on one question: Whether secondary school streaming will be abolished (yes).

The question on resale flats was the best answered with 79 out of 100 respondents getting it right, followed by the question on the abolishment of secondary school streaming, at 70. The questions worst answered were on the plastic bag tax, which only 50 respondents got right, and the retirement age, which only 16 respondents knew. Perhaps, it was a long shot to ask about the retirement age, but hey, wouldn’t you like to know how long you need to work for?

What are their sources of news?

Did our working respondents read more, given their lead in current affairs compared to the students? Not really, it seems.

We asked our respondents how often they follow the news, on a scale of “never”, “rarely”, “once in a while”, “regularly” and “all the time”.

Both working and student respondents followed a similar distribution across the options, with the largest difference between them at around 5 per cent, for the option “regularly”. Overall, 73 per cent of respondents chose either “once in a while” or “regularly”, 14 per cent indicated “all the time” and the remaining 13 per cent selected “rarely” or “never”.

If there weren’t obvious differences in how frequently students and working respondents read the news, how did the working respondents pull ahead for current affairs? The answer may lie in their daily conversations and self-expectations.

Supply manager Lim Jie Ying, 25, said that although she did not read the news  more often after graduating from university, colleagues in her office were more aware of political issues and would sometimes bring up names of prominent figures in their conversations.

“But my workplace is a bit different, because everybody there is a lot older,” she added.

Job coach Ruth Luk, 23, said she learns about news through workplace conversations she listens in to.

“You don’t necessarily have to contribute to the conversation,” she added.

However, Ms Luk said she started reading the news more frequently after she graduated because she wanted to to stay abreast of the latest developments in her industry. She added that she felt a pressure to know what’s happening around her as a working adult.

“You are part of this whole society thing, if you don’t know what’s going on, then I don’t know where you’re heading,” she said.

Chemistry undergraduate Gary Lim, 25, said he faced similar pressures during his internship. His colleagues would discuss current affairs over meals and he would feel ignorant if he could not keep up or contribute to the conversation.

In school, nobody would fault him for not keeping up with the news as conversations generally revolved around friends and extracurricular activities.

Primary school teacher Winnie Chau, 23, selected “rarely” in the survey to describe how often she reads the news. “I have a busy workload and it takes too much time and effort to read articles that are pages long,” she said.

Ms Chau added that she prefers picking up news bites from the Instagram pages of national broadsheet The Straits Times and local news website, which are “short summaries” that can be read “on the go”. She said she doesn't feel any pressure at work to know or discuss current affairs.

Neither does audio production student Isaiah Ong, 23, who said that it was not a habit for him to keep up with news. He also indicated he “rarely” reads news in the survey.

“To some extent it’s because any news updates inevitably get shared on Facebook,” Mr Ong added. He said that he sometimes clicks on those links to read more, if they touch on subjects he cares about.

Overall, nine in 10 survey respondents said they get their news mainly from online sources. Of this group, 63 per cent said they read about local political developments from social media. News websites was the next most popular option at a much lower 20 per cent. Of the rest, 11 per cent chose mobile news applications and 6 per cent chose messaging applications.

The results echo a 2016 study conducted by the National Youth Council, which found that 86 per cent of youths read about current affairs online in 2016, up from 63 per cent in 2013.

Another survey by Singapore Polytechnic students in 2018 found that youths’ knowledge of current affairs differed based on their main source of news — those who relied on social media knew less than those who used news applications or news websites, but did better than those who got their news primarily from physical newspapers, radio or television.

Environmental Studies undergraduate Deng Yimin, 23, said she follows MP Louis Ng on social media and watches out for his posts on Parliamentary Questions on the environment. Mr Ng is known to speak out in Parliament about environmental issues. Afterwards, she would keep a lookout for videos related to those questions.

Law student Eden Teoh, 23, said she was “not proud” of getting news from friends and family in messaging platforms and social media, as it causes her to get “trickle-down bits of news, usually about catastrophic events or the latest hot topic opinion piece”.

“I really ought to make it more of a point to browse various sources and keep up with the day-to-day, less sensational news,” Ms Teoh added.

Who’s your MP?

If the general election, which must be held by April next year, were to be called today, would young people know who or what they were voting for?

Seventy-five per cent knew the constituency they lived in, while 62 per cent of those living in GRCs knew at least one of their MPs.

For Ms Luk, who lives in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, roadside banners serve as a reminder of who her MPs are. This is echoed by Environmental Studies undergraduate Nikita Choudhary, 23, who says she notices the banners around her estate in Radin Mas SMC although she doesn’t pay much attention to them. Mr Lim said he knows his Aljunied GRC MPs from the “Aljunied saga”, referring to the six-year saga of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

None of the three respondents recall seeing or interacting with their MPs and only Ms Luk and Mr Lim could name their MPs in the survey.

Survey participants were then asked to answer what they thought was the role of an MP based on three options — a representative of their constituency in Parliament (correct), a grassroots leader (wrong) or a member of the town council (correct). Only 18 of them got the answers right. Twenty of them thought the MP’s only job was to speak up in Parliament.

Perhaps, whether MPs led grassroots organisations could be viewed as a trick question. We were referring to those run by the People’s Association, which has made it clear that the MPs are appointed as “advisers’’ rather than leaders to distinguish the non-partisan nature of their role.

There were also 11 multiple-choice questions on government structure and voting procedures.

The best answered questions were whether overseas Singaporeans can vote (yes, at 89 per cent) and if Cabinet Ministers are part of the Parliament (yes, at 77 per cent).

Despite the introduction of the non-constituency MP scheme in 1984, few got it right when asked if NCMPs can only come from opposition parties (yes). Perhaps, they confused it with the Nominated MP scheme which was introduced in 1990 to bring “diverse”, “non-partisan voices” from different fields into Parliament.

And even though most respondents were living in GRCs, more than half thought the term stands for “Grassroots Committee”.

Out of these questions, only two had a double-digit percentage difference between working respondents and students: Whether permanent residents can vote in Singapore elections (no; 72 per cent of working respondents, 60 per cent of students) and if the President was part of the Cabinet (no; 62 per cent of working respondents, 72 per cent of students). The President is, by the way, considered part of the Legislature, while the Cabinet forms part of the Executive arm of the Government.

Can we cast an informed vote?

Dr Elvin Ong, 35, a political researcher at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia who specialises in Singapore politics, found the survey results “worrying”.

“Only about 50 per cent of them know that Parliament is the legislative branch of the Government and that GRC stands for group representation constituency, which is the correct rate of a coin toss,” Dr Ong said. “Yet, these are basic facts which we would expect any Singaporean adult to reasonably know.”

However, Dr Ong took comfort in the fact that most knew their constituencies and MPs, which will allow them to “identify and hold accountable the performance of political candidates who may be re-contesting in the upcoming elections”.

He noted the wide difference in scores between whether respondents knew who Subhas Nair is or what POFMA stood for. The number of students who knew Subhas Nair was more than 2.3 times the number of working youths (21 students against nine workers), while working youths had a 1.7 times lead over the students for POFMA (22 workers against 13 students).

Overall, 30 of the respondents knew who Subhas Nair is and 35 knew what POFMA stood for.

Dr Ong said such results suggest that students and working youths consume “different sources of media”. “Students know Subhas Nair better because his controversy exploded on social media. Working adults know POFMA better because they read about the controversy in the mainstream newspaper,” he added.

Still, he found it “surprising” that POFMA was not well-known, given that it has been making headlines for a long time.

Dr Ong also noted that the questions for secondary school streaming and HDB resale rules were the best answered. “It reveals that HDB policies and education policies are both particularly salient to young first-time voters — a result that conforms with our expectations.’’

He was concerned that first-time voters may not be able to vet political candidates with their level of political knowledge. He advised them to familiarize themselves with “basic details”, such as their constituency, their MPs and the political parties they belong to. Subsequently, they should analyse the performance of MPs on the topics they care about and then “assess the opposing candidates” to decide who can do a better job.

But at the end of the day, the general election waits for no youth.

“There is no such thing as whether voters are ‘ready’ or ‘not ready’ to vote,” said Dr Ong. “They all have to do so regardless of their level of political knowledge.”

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