Should Voting Continue to be Mandatory in Singapore?

As July 10 rolls around the corner, many Singaporeans will find themselves making their way to their nearest polling station to cast their vote. This is not so much a matter of choice as it is a necessity – voting in Singapore is compulsory for all eligible Singaporeans.

Interestingly, although voting at elections has been made mandatory since 1959, the right to vote is not explicitly stated in Singapore’s Constitution. That being said, the Singapore government has expressed that the right to vote is a constitutional right. It is an implied right, one that is derived from the various provisions in the Constitution, namely Articles 65 and 66. Collectively, both articles ensure that general elections in Singapore are held within three months of the Parliament’s dissolution, where the Parliament can only be granted a maximum term of 5 years from the date of its first sitting.

This is the sentiment clearly articulated by Singapore’s Minister for Law, Mr K. Shanmugam, in a parliamentary speech given in 2009. According to the Minister, “Representative Democracy is the very essence of our political system; and voting is the foundation of Representative Democracy”. He went on to add that “in a Representative Democracy like Singapore, voting is therefore a right, not a privilege”.

However, do Singaporeans need to exercise this right at every general election? Why can’t voting be based on a voluntary basis such as in the United States?

Who is required to vote by law?

You could very well be one of them, that is, if your name is in the certified register of electors. This would be the case if:

(a)    You are a Singaporean citizen;

(b)    You are 21 years and above;

(c)     You have not been disqualified from being an elector under any prevailing law; and

(d)    You have a Singapore residential address on your NRIC, or

you are residing overseas and have changed your NRIC address to an overseas address and have a contact address in Singapore registered with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority

The Parliamentary Elections Act also specifically points out that an eligible voter is one that is not declared to be of unsound mind and is not in commission of a criminal offence (e.g. serving a sentence of imprisonment exceeding 12 months, under the death sentence, or convicted of a corrupt or illegal practice under the Act). Those that fall in these categories no longer possess the right to vote. This is consistent with several countries around the world, such as Malaysia, Australia, and India, though to differing extents.

In essence, eligible voters are those who have a stake in Singapore’s well-being. They are productive members of society who can comprehend the nature and significance of the responsibility bestowed upon them when they cast their vote at the ballot box. It is this group of people who will collectively decide the future of Singapore, a decision that must be taken seriously.

Why should voting be compulsory for these eligible voters?

To fulfil their civic duties as a Singaporeans

The concept of citizenship is often thought of as a form of political membership that binds an individual to a sovereign state. This membership accords one with certain benefits that can be enjoyed in view of his or her legal citizenship status. These benefits are referred to as rights—citizenship rights. For one, citizens have the right to engage in political participation, such as running for political office. Citizens are also entitled to the privileges that come along with possessing their country’s passport, such as the relative ease of travel when going abroad to certain countries. In this aspect, Singaporeans have it good. The Singapore passport is one of the most powerful in the world, allowing its holders to gain visa-free or visa-on-entry travel to 190 countries.

However, proponents of the mandatory vote would argue that citizenship is not a one-way street. They would say that people cannot simply receive the benefits of being a citizen of a state and not give anything in return. Hence, citizenship is a two-way street. It evokes both entitlement and duty. While the state confers upon its citizens valuable rights, citizens are also expected to perform their civic duties in order to maintain social stability. Voting constitutes one such civic duty. In a study published in the ASOS Journal (The Journal of Academic Social Science), Professor Adem Çaylak from Kocaeli University defines voting as “symbolic of our belonging to democratic society”. He posited that “voting is a duty and responsibility, such as paying taxes,” where “compulsory voting is justifiable in democracies when considering its role in educating individuals, democracy, and legitimacy”. 

Voting determines who comes into power to make crucial decisions for the common good of the country in the immediate future. With rights come responsibility, one that should not be ignored. In this regard, making voting a mandatory requirement of citizenship in Singapore ensures that all Singaporeans partake in the process to fulfil their civic obligations as responsible citizens.  

To ensure legitimate representation in Singapore politics

When voting is done based on a voluntary basis, there is no guarantee what the voter turnout will be like. In many societies where voting is not mandatory, voter turnouts have been consistently less than satisfactory. For instance, voter turnouts for the United States presidential elections hover at around 60%, while the 2016 American presidential election saw only 55.7% of the eligible population casting votes. Mid-term elections garner an even lower voter turnout rate of around 40%.

In contrast, Singapore sees an average voter turnout rate of around 94.4% in its past 7 general elections, in large part due to its mandatory voting. This is in fact one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. This significantly high turnout rate helps to increase the legitimacy of the incumbent political party, in that it has indeed truly won the mandate of the people via a majority vote. Thus, when people are made to vote in elections, the outcome is more likely to be representative of the electorate’s needs and demands. When this happens, the general population is more likely to accept the outcome for what it is.

To safeguard against voting bias

A serious problem in countries without mandatory voting is voting bias. When voting is voluntary, voters tend to come from a particular demographic of the population – the well-educated and those who are well versed in politics. This is of itself an issue. According to political scientist Emilee Chapman at the Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, “if you allow the electorate to restrict itself to only people who are already interested in politics on its own and ask them for their input, then you are only going to have people who already have a lot of power in society and are familiar with what using that power can do for them”. In such situations, electoral outcomes may only serve the best interests of this group of people instead of those whose voices need to be heard the most.

In Singapore, this means that the demands of the vocal minority may override those of the silent majority if voluntary voting were to be imposed. Although the silent majority typically do not go out of their way to participate in the political process of voting, they will still possess needs, interests, and views that should not be overlooked. Mandatory voting seeks to overcome this problem. It does so by ensuring that voters come from a range of diverse backgrounds to preserve the integrity of elections as a feedback mechanism for the people, one that takes into consideration the collective voice of many, instead of merely the elite. 

To promote greater responsiveness among political candidates to the needs of Singaporeans 

Votes casted at 10 overseas polls being counted during the 2015 GE. (Source)

When a country subscribes to voluntary voting, contesting political candidates have a greater incentive to prioritise the concerns of a predetermined group of likely voters (as mentioned above). As such, they will likely cater to their specific needs and demands over and beyond those of non-voters in the population, who may have a different set of concerns altogether. At the end of the day, the interests of likely voters are represented, while those of non-voters are simply swept to the side.

This changes with mandatory voting. In Singapore, political candidates now have to appeal to a wider demographic to stand a chance in capturing the majority vote. To do so, they have to acknowledge and act upon the various interests of the different groups of voters in Singapore. Essentially, political candidates have to be more responsive to the concerns of Singaporeans as a whole. In this manner, Singaporeans have a more equalised opportunity to gain representation and have their needs properly addressed. 

Why should voting NOT be compulsory for these eligible voters?

Singaporeans should have the right to choose (to vote or not to vote)

Some critics have argued that forcing citizens to vote in elections restricts their civil liberties. They maintain that citizens should have the freedom to choose whether they want to exercise their voting rights or not. Some even perceive this as a blatant contradiction when it comes to the idea of democracy – a democracy allows for the freedom of choice, yet by imposing mandatory voting, the state denies its citizens of that choice. Simply put, the right to vote could also mean the right not to vote.

Here, however, an important distinction must be made. According to the political scientist Emilee Chapman, “The right to vote is based on the idea that we need to make public decisions together. I think there is a tendency to construe voting as a form of expression as opposed to participation in a collective decision. Those are very different acts.” In this sense, the issue of mandatory voting should be perceived more as a form of civic duty rather than as a form of expression. This begs the question: which is more important in Singapore – performing one’s civic duty or the freedom to express? 

To safeguard against an electoral outcome that is a result of uninterested and ill-informed decisions

Sadly, there will always be individuals who are apathetic towards politics no matter what. Taking this into consideration, critics against mandatory voting may argue that such a system forces these individuals—who consciously choose not to become politically well-informed citizens—to vote in elections. They posit that this will result in electoral outcomes that are not wholly representative of public opinion. Ultimately, this may result in government policies that do not accurately reflect and respond to the needs of Singaporeans. 

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