GE2020: "I yearn to be heard politically"

Here we are… the last day of electioneering before Cooling-Off Day. So much has been crammed into this short period. If you’re still looking at manifestos, my compilation of all the party manifestos (now with Peoples Voice included) can be found here. There’s a Community Teach-In tonight that you can register for, too.

This morning I’d like to present a guest writer. Multiple parties have called for the voting age to be reduced from 21 to 18, and throughout this campaigning period I’ve seen plenty of young Singaporeans getting engaged and invested even though they can’t vote on Friday. So I asked an 18-year-old if they’d share their thoughts with us.


By Koh Su Thor (fine, it’s a pseudonym)

In GP (General Paper, which is meant to emphasise general knowledge and critical thinking) class I sit and learn about democracy and politics and elections and during History there’s stuff about decolonisation and forming a government and during Econs we ponder about economic trade-offs. 

I know there’s a lot of politics that go into junior college education (note to self: be Restrained while commenting on quality of said education), and that the implication of being in a JC is that you’re the cream of the crop, the ones who’ll become the lawyers, the policymakers, the corporate leaders and whatnot. Even more so, the JC that I attend rhymes with Bwa Thong, so all of the above feels amplified, according to what I’ve been “advised”.

My own political awakening happened way before I learned anything useful in school — I was nine when the 2011 general election happened. Obviously, I don’t remember clear details about events, but I remember the buzz and exhilaration of hearing about how a GRC was lost. 

Back then, I lived a stone’s throw away from the field where the Workers’ Party had their massive rally in Hougang. I accompanied my grandfather down to buy ice cream from the uncle, and I think I watched Sylvia Lim shout something about how votes are secret. I remember the atmosphere; just thousands of people standing in a field, attacked by mosquitoes, screaming and cheering for their candidates.

2011 was also the year of Nicole Seah (then contesting as a National Solidarity Party candidate), which left enough of an impression for me to remember her all this while, even though I’ve not thought about her for the past few years. I remembered the comparison between the PAP’s Tin Pei Ling and Nicole, and my dad would tell me to be well-spoken like Nicole was, and I would pretend I knew what he was talking about.

I was in secondary school in 2015, and had become just jaded enough to occasionally keep up with the election via the newspapers, and mention it offhandedly to a few friends. Oh, well, it sucks to be opposition, I guess. When your life is book upon book and equation upon equation it becomes difficult to catch up with politics, which in a local context has evolved to exclusively mean “once every five years I care about the economy and vote”. In a way, I don’t blame any of my peers (note: elite school stock, unfortunately) for being depoliticised, apathetic or just not caring about politics in general — the way the system works to examine and groom us to become the doctors and lawyers and the “brains” kind of takes a lot of energy, leaving us too exhausted to care about a topic that requires an insane amount of research and understanding.

What changed for me between 2015 and now was social media and Trump. Suddenly politics was a Thing that we Discussed in classes, either to mock his erratic behaviour or to tut at the US and be “grateful for the stability that we have here”. I was fortunate enough to have mutuals on Twitter across the globe that were my age and also beginning to wade into leftist politics, which opened my eyes to the electoral system here, Chinese privilege, class, and how it’s all intertwined. (Thank god I stopped being a H*llary stan… we love growth.)

Once I started paying attention to the amount of politics discussed in Singaporean schools, I began to realise how it was present in English and the humanities, and in National Education (propaganda) lessons, but still didn’t mean very much. Political content is a necessary part of the curriculum in JC, but it feels extremely detached from the things we learn. 

Political will and decision-making are extremely important parts of Economics, and yet we focus on different decisions and impacts without truly analysing the trade-offs. I remember a case study framing Carrie Lam’s ban on face masks during the Hong Kong protests as a “way to discourage protests in order to increase investor confidence” or whatever. Economics as a subject at JC level is incredibly shallow; despite actually learning about the need for policy and the trade-offs it feels extremely depoliticised for several reasons: first, you have one-and-a-half years to cram tons of content, which means that you don’t have the time to learn why “minimum wage is bad” and instead you just write some superficial bullshit ceteris paribus. Second, Econs in general operates on several assumptions about how the world works, and there simply isn’t time to break that all down, and third, it’s just so abstract and scientific a subject that enables students to regurgitate instead of encouraging reflection on real-world socio-economic policies.

Essentially, the pragmatism (a word that is used so much I barely even know what it means to be a pragmatic Singaporean) ruins it. I guess when you’re sitting for an extremely high stakes exam you get tunnel vision and don’t think about the political implications of the case studies you’re studying. It’s the same for GP and for History and any other subject, where I’ve been writing arguments for the sake of writing arguments and not really thinking very hard about what I’m writing (“Socialist states in Southeast Asia failed because they ended up trading nationalism/equity for growth,” says every H2 History student ever). 

When my school claimed that “robust discussions on national and civic matters also take place during General Paper lessons” I nearly laughed myself sick. My GP tutor once told me, an oft-vocal critic of the government in class, to be grateful for the things the government has done, insisting We Are Better Than Other Countries. He once spent 15 whole minutes genuinely explaining “reverse racism” to a class full of Chinese people. My GP notes tell me the definitions of Communism and Capitalism and Democracy, but they never truly analyse our local context in a deep and nuanced way; my own teacher relies on Straits Times articles on China and class presentations for content. Political questions are framed poorly; I once had to do a holiday assignment asking me to evaluate Lee Kuan Yew’s foreign policy and, if it wasn’t “relevant in today’s world”, to come up with a new foreign policy, which left me puzzled and also extremely tickled. Was I supposed to “correct” LKY’s vision? 

I’ve been immensely privileged to attend SAP (Special Assistance Plan) schools my entire life, so I don’t feel like I can speak for the entire education system as a whole. I understand, in a pessimistic way, why SAP schools and students are inclined to turn a blind eye to politics; Chinese and upper-middle-class students are protected by the status quo and are thus not encouraged to question it. And perhaps being a “heartlander” (whatever that means lol) changes things — I compared my election experience with a friend who’d lived in Bukit Timah all his life and he couldn’t understand the feeling of meeting Low Thia Khiang during his house visits, the sheer energy at rallies, or the buzz that went around Hougang when the Workers’ Party won Aljunied GRC, the first time an opposition party had ever done so. Perhaps, given where I’d lived, it’s not surprising that I ended up interested in politics — albeit subconsciously at first — from a young age.

Having turned 18 earlier this year, I’d joke about being old enough to buy alcohol and learn to drive, but not old enough to vote. In response, my friend would joke about risking death in National Service while still not being able to vote. These exchanges would provoke a nice little laugh... until two weeks ago, when the government decided it would be an excellent idea to have an election in the middle of a pandemic. 

I’d selfishly argue for the voting age to be lowered because I yearn to be heard politically, but I truly doubt if the majority of my peers in the same socio-economic class would say the same. It just isn’t as important an idea to them. It’s a shame, really, because having other young people realise our power as an electorate and beyond could create some really huge changes, but there’s only so much you can post on social media and talk to your friends about. Eventually, my elite peers fall back into the system of weaponised apathy.


I loved reading this piece; until they mentioned going to a rally as a kid in 2011 I hadn’t thought about how the increase in political contestation from 2011 on means that there’s a new generation of Singaporeans that’s grown up in a much more politically competitive landscape than what I’d experienced as a child of the 90s, and therefore have a completely different level of knowledge and expectation. Times change, norms shift — a hopeful thought, is it not?

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