A Weaker Mandate in a Covid-19 Election

Parliamentary Speech for Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill, 4 May 2020

INTRODUCTION

Mr Speaker, this Bill addresses the public health risk from an election amidst the Covid-19 crisis and works towards creating the possibility of a general election that is safe and secure. There have been indications that an election is imminent. The Electoral Boundary Committee released its boundary report in March. Historically, elections have been called within a month or two after the announcement of the Electoral Boundary Review. PM Lee has not discounted the possibility of a Covid-19 election and said he would “judge the situation” at hand first.

The Bill at hand is a laudable effort. However, I am not certain that its current form is truly sufficient to protect the safety of the electorate nor the integrity of our political processes, should an early election be called for whilst we are deep in this battle with Covid-19. Please allow me to elaborate these concerns in detail.

CONCERNS WITH PROVISIONS

First, Mr Speaker, the right to vote forms the foundation of our representative democracy. It concerns me that the Bill in providing for an election in a pandemic, excludes a significant segment of the electorate. This, to my mind, inevitably threatens the integrity of our democracy by taking away the voting rights of citizens and as a consequence, weakens the mandate. Let’s discuss these exclusion provisions.

a) Exclusion of voters and depriving them their constitutional rights

Materially, Section (3) Subsection (2) of the Bill exempts individuals serving Quarantine Orders (QOs) from having to vote; and Subsection (3) makes it clear that quarantined electors cannot claim their right to vote as a valid defence for violating their quarantine order. What this therefore means is that citizens under QOs face legal repercussions if they attempt to vote. In the case of voters under stay-home notices, the Bill stipulates that if at least 2 individuals residing in one boarding premise exist, the Returning Officer can then establish a special polling station for these voters. As at 2 May, 2020 persons were under SHNs and approximately 28,000 under some form of QOs. If we discount those in the dormitories, I think we are still looking at 15,000! This number is expected to rise which gives us a sense of the number of Singaporeans who would be prevented from voting.

In addition, Section 8 of the Bill allows for possible exemption of those who may be unwell or vulnerable to illness or exposure to be discouraged from voting, applying to those Singaporeans who may be first-order contacts. The number of cases in Singapore has exceeded 18000 with unlinked cases in the community continuing to emerge, indicative of a “larger, hidden reservoir of COVID-19 cases in the community” that continues to go undetected. If an election is held in a time when we are still grappling with a high risk of community spread, we may be looking at a significant part of the population being discouraged from voting.

Mr Speaker, since the beginning of our history as a nation, the principle of ‘one man one vote’ has been fundamental to Singapore such that our founding fathers made voting compulsory. “The right to vote is a constitutional right. It is an implied right, arising from the various provisions in the Constitution, including Articles 65 and 66” said the Minister of Law in a parliamentary debate in 2009.

Explicitly, Section 38 Subsection (1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act states that the presence of an elector in the Register of Electors is “conclusive evidence for the purpose of determining whether a person is or is not entitled to vote at the election”. Does the exclusion of voters in this Bill not therefore deprive Singaporeans of this right? Will the Minister please clarify on the constitutional invalidity of depriving quarantined voters of their right to vote, especially how they have no legal defence if they exit their quarantine holdings to vote?

b) Weaker mandate with lower turnout and/or fettered minds

Sir, aside from the explicit exclusions, we must not forget too that the Bill does not account for electors who may voluntarily abstain from exercising their right to vote out of fear of contracting COVID-19, including the elderly who are immunocompromised and/or voters residing with elderly family members, regardless of the penalties incurred. An election cannot be truly held in good faith if Singaporeans are forced to choose between voting and protecting themselves and their families.

Similarly, have we accounted for the thousands of eligible Singaporeans overseas who are excluded because they may not be able to vote at the designated polling stations because of lockdown measures and travel restrictions?

Can the Minister please clarify if the Bill has been formulated with these concerns in mind, and if not, how does the Government intend to rectify this potential loss of more voters?

Mr. Speaker, one reason that has been provided for why we should hold an election during this period is to provide the incumbent Government with a fresh and strong mandate to tackle our ongoing public health and economic crisis. Yet, I can’t help but sincerely question just how strong and fresh of a mandate the new government can marshall in a COVID-19 general election where there are such significant parts of the electorate excluded from voting by law, by illness, by fear and by choice which would most certainly result in substantially lower voter turnout.

FAIR CAMPAIGNING

Mr. Speaker, I would like to now address if a COVID-19 election also runs the risk of an inequitable playing field for political parties in terms of campaigning.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, Cyber Security Agency and Elections Department, have issued advisories to political parties on the threat of foreign interference. Under the guidelines of the advisories issued, political parties are expected to not only shore up their digital literacy but also beef up their existing IT infrastructure and security.

Not all political parties will have the necessary resources to ensure full and adequate compliance with the advisories, and this is especially concerning given that a COVID-19 election will likely heavily depend on social media and other online platforms for campaigning to replace rallies. Some believe that rallies contribute to the levelling of the playing field, and give fair opportunity for each political party to offer their pitch. To have an election without rallies would be disadvantageous to parties with less resources. In this regard, an online dip poll held by Lianhe Zaobao in late March about the desirability of an election found that 67.5% of its poller (7859 people) disagreed on holding an election during the ongoing pandemic as it would be difficult to hold rallies.

This Bill does not seem to have any provisions for fair campaigning. Can the Minister clarify how the Elections Department will ensure commensurate and fair campaigning across all political parties, given the extenuating circumstances?

RISK OF FURTHER TRANSMISSION

Last but not least, Mr Speaker, apart from the integrity of the mandate and democratic processes, we cannot discount the possibility that holding an election any time soon will increase the risk of transmission again. It is true that measures can be taken to ensure higher sanitary standards in voting booths throughout voting day. However, we must not forget that all it takes are a few minor lapses to trigger another dangerous bout of contagion.

As of 15 April, there were over 2.6million (2,653,942) voters registered in the voter roll. The likelihood of such lapses on a day where we expect over 1.8 million Singaporeans to head to the polls is more than high. Just looking at how quickly the virus spreads in weeks with 200,000 workers across different dormitories should alarm us to what we would be risking to allow large hordes of people to come together at the polling stations.

Some may urge us to look at the example of South Korea to suggest that elections can still be successfully held without risk to public health. South Korea, however, had managed to stem their flow of infections before they held their election. Besides, we do not even know if the South Korean elections will lead to a relapse in infections, given the 14 day incubation period. Already, there are worrying trends that the virus is more devious and more complicated than previously thought; South Korea, in fact, has seen more than 180 cases where recovered patients have become reinfected by the virus.

CONCLUSION: PROTECT SINGAPOREANS FIRST

Mr. Speaker, while the Covid-19 crisis has been foisted upon us without choice, we can still choose to protect the health of Singaporeans and safeguard our democracy.

No one can say for sure how long this public health crisis will last until it is actually over. I do therefore humbly urge the Minister to direct the energies and resources of this Government — which still has a full year mandate ahead of it — to be focused on resolving the crisis and safeguarding the physical and mental health of Singaporeans. And not to burden the severely-stretched public service further with an early election, particularly with the colossal interagency efforts to resolve the migrant worker crisis that are ongoing and will be needed beyond COVID-19.

Sir, if the COVID-19 crisis resolves before the due date of 21 April 2021, then we can hold an election as per normal. If not, we may consider holding an election at that time according to the terms of this Bill. Alternatively, if the situation in fact worsens in a way that will still hamper a fair election, this House may have to consider passing a constitutional amendment to extend the deadline for an election. Some may contend that passing a constitutional amendment with regards to elections would be unprecedented, but Mr. Speaker, I think we will all agree that many of what we have witnessed in this chamber in the last months have been anything but “business as usual”!

I would also like to seek the Minister’s assurance that this Bill is viewed as a last resort; that it should only serve as a guarantee, and not be interpreted as a go-ahead to hold elections immediately in this current climate. If we are to pass this Bill today, we must make sure that the Bill is comprehensive in ensuring both the safety of the electorate, maximum suffrage and fair campaigning.

This will also help to quell sentiments on the ground that an early election is being exercised for political expediency, avoiding an undue erosion of public trust.

Mr. Speaker, please let me conclude by reminding this House and Singaporeans that voting is not a fire drill exercise we conduct every five years; it is a right and privilege to have a say in how we want to build this nation and the life we want for ourselves and our families.The right to exercise this vote is therefore what holds our society together, and must not be denied by exclusions nor be encumbered with fear of infection. Any yes that is given without the ability to safely say no is never a true choice. And therefore not the kind of vote or mandate we want the new government to be built upon, especially to lead us in a post-COVID world.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.