Delivered in Parliament on 4 May 2020
Speaker, holding a national election in the midst of a health pandemic carries some risk. The Prime Minister has not yet announced when the impending election will be called, and by the government’s own assessment, the COVID-19 situation in Singapore is not yet at a satisfactory phase. The Workers’ Party has previously called on the government to be judicious in deciding on the timing of the election, bearing in mind the twin priorities of public health and upholding democratic principles.
Sir, there continues to be unhealthy speculation on the ground as to when the Elections will be held. We note that the recent South Korean election was held at a time where the outbreak showed clear signs of declining cases, underscored by mass community testing. Meanwhile, medical experts here have opined that to be certain that we have turned a corner, a sustained decline in cases to zero or near zero, supported by wide testing, would be needed. As we debate this Bill, this is the elephant in the room. Can the government clarify what progress needs to be made on the virus front before a GE will be held?
Coming back to the Bill itself, the provisions cover the processes for Nomination Day and Polling Day. The Workers’ Party will support the Bill but I have some queries and concerns about how the provisions will be operationalised.
First, on Nomination procedures. Clause 9 modifies Nomination proceedings to cater for the event that a candidate is subject to a quarantine or stay home order, or is hospitalized or ill so as to be medically unfit to attend the Nomination in person. The provision allows the candidate to appoint a representative to file his nomination papers in his stead. This is a welcome provision, as it will enable a prospective candidate to still contest the election even if he or she is temporarily unable to attend at the Nomination Centre. One question that comes to mind is that by the time the candidate needs to utilise this provision, he would already be ill or under a quarantine or stay home order. How will he be facilitated to execute the Power of Attorney e.g. will a lawyer be allowed access to the candidate to witness the document?
Another question relates to who can be a candidate’s representative. It is provided in Clause 9(3) that a representative should be a Singapore citizen who is entitled to vote at the election and duly authorised under a power of attorney. That being the case, I would like the government’s confirmation that there is no objection to a representative being a fellow GRC candidate or an assentor or subscriber already present at the Nomination Centre.
Next, I move on to the arrangements as to Polling Day.
Voters under Quarantine / Stay Home Orders
Clause 3 provides that voters who are under quarantine orders or stay home orders are excused from voting, and that they cannot leave their designated places of confinement at home unless the Returning Officer makes arrangements for them to vote. If the RO does make such arrangements, the voters may then choose to vote. It seems to be then that there are two uncertainties here – first, it is not clear that the RO will definitely make arrangements for such voters to vote, and second, even if such arrangements are made, voters may choose not to vote.
I am concerned about whether this clause will result in significant numbers of people not voting, when they may not be medically ill but simply ordered to be confined as a precaution. According to the Explanatory Statement to the Bill, this provision would also cover those who are on 5 days medical leave due to having acute respiratory symptoms earlier. From what I understand from the South Korean election, voters under quarantine were facilitated to vote, but only after 6 pm when the polling booths had closed to the general public. This arrangement protected other voters but also ensured that quarantined voters could vote.
Sir, we do not know the numbers of persons who may be subject to such orders at any time. If there were to be a cluster of infections in a certain area, there could be a significant number of voters for a particular constituency that could fall within this category. A significant percentage of absent voters may affect the outcome of the poll, especially in a close contest. I would like Minister to clarify what commitment the Elections Department is making to voters under quarantine or stay home orders; is the ELD not able to commit to giving all such voters the opportunity to vote?
Voters confined to Boarding Premises
Clauses 4 to 6 deal with voters who are confined to boarding premises which are not their ordinary residences, such as hotels, apartments and dormitories. I welcome the ELD’s proposal to provide special polling stations at or near these premises to facilitate the voters’ right to vote. On this, Clause 5 states that the Returning Officer may establish a special polling station, where there are 2 or more voters form the same constituency in the same boarding premises. The use of “may” suggests that the RO may decide not to establish such special polling stations. What is the ELD’s intention as to when it will or will not do so? Could Minister also clarify why the government requires at least 2 voters from the same constituency to be staying at the same boarding premise, before a special polling station will be set up?
One more question on this. For such voters confined to boarding premises, clause 6(3) states that the Minister may provide for the marking of votes remotely i.e. the voter need not turn up at the special polling station but may mark his vote e.g. in his room and hand his vote securely to the Returning Officer. There may be a good intention behind this, but it adds a risk to the voting process. What safeguards will there be to ensure that the marked ballot paper is not tampered with or lost, and has been duly included for counting?
According to the Explanatory Statement to the Bill, it may become necessary for the Returning Officer to arrange for dedicated buses to convey electors subject to COVID-19 stay orders to the special polling stations that are not their places of accommodation, in order for them to cast their votes. Clause 7 thus provides that in such a situation, the usual prohibitions against transporting electors to and from polling stations will not apply.
I appreciate that this is a practical matter that ELD may need to provide for. However, it is useful to bear in mind the rationale for the prohibition on transporting electors in the first place, to ensure that on polling day, voters may of their free will cast their votes, without undue influence or pressure. To this end, will ELD implement any safeguards to prevent any attempt to influence voters on these buses from any person or even among the voters themselves e.g. by recording the journeys on CCTV or imposing strict no-communications rules on board?
Other measures to Safeguard Public Health
Apart from what is in the Bill, what other practical measures is the ELD likely to take to safeguard public health on Polling Day? It will be useful if ELD can share its thinking, so voters know what to expect. For instance, will voters’ temperatures be taken? Will they be issued with masks, hand sanitisers and gloves, and would polling booths be disinfected regularly, as was done in the South Korean election? How much more is likely to be spent on an election with such additional requirements? Another critical aspect is safe distancing – how will this be implemented at the polling stations? For instance, past practice shows that voters tend to congregate at the polling stations early in the morning, and by lunch time the polling stations are quite empty; will voters be advised to spread themselves out this time? What else can ELD share on such practical considerations?
Finally, the Bill does not cover how the campaign methods will be modified. On the issue of campaigning, SM Teo Chee Hean had told this House on 25 March that in view of the pandemic, campaign methods will need adjustment eg. there may possibly be live streaming of videos on the Internet or more television time for candidates. It is important for these changes to campaign rules to be made known publicly and to political parties as soon as possible, so that candidates and parties have sufficient time to make necessary preparations and source for service suppliers. When will ELD make known the exact changes? Lastly, whatever changes are made, it is also critical that these modifications do not result in an escalation of campaign costs.
Speaker, it is right that the Prime Minister’s Office prepare to provide a safe environment for the holding of the General Elections, and we appreciate the rationale for the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s clarifications on the matters I have raised regarding the timing of the GE, the modified procedures and campaigning.