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Cooling-off day open to abuse in ruling party’s favour : Sylvia Lim

Parliament debated the introduction of the "cooling-off" period. Here is Sylvia Lim's speech on the issue.

Here's the transcript of Ms Lim's speech:

Sir, the Bill carries several amendments. While some of the amendments are useful, the Workers’ Party opposes the Bill because of the changes it makes to entrench the NCMP system and the introduction of the `cooling off’ period.

Increasing the number of NCMPs

This is connected with the Constitutional Amendment Bill debated earlier. I have already spoken at length under that Bill on the reasons why the Workers’ Party voted against the change. I will not repeat them but will focus on the change to introduce a cooling-off period.

The ‘cooling off’ period

The Bill seeks to introduce an additional day before Polling Day where campaigning is not allowed. This has been called the cooling-off day. On this day, no symbols or badges can be displayed (Clause 27); no election advertising can be published or uploaded (Clause 30); no canvassing is allowed (Clause 34) and no rallies can be held (Clause 35).

In our view, there is no convincing reason to show that, after all these years without a cooling off period, such a change is needed in the national interest. In addition, the change is open to abuse in the ruling party’s favour.

The first supposed rationale for introducing this, given by the Prime Minister some months ago, is the PAP government’s worry about irrational voters. The Minister also referred to this fear of irrationality in his speech earlier.

In proposing this change, the Prime Minister has underestimated the intellectual strength of Singaporeans and is signalling that Singaporeans are incapable of making rational judgments through the ballot box. These assumptions reveal the distrust that the PAP has of Singaporeans.

Furthermore, this fear of irrationality is arrogant. `Irrational’ by whose criteria? Nobody has the right to tell another person what amounts to a good or bad reason to cast a vote. Person A may be very affected by one issue while Person B finds it trivial. Each citizen’s vote is a valid expression of his own satisfactions or dissatisfactions, aspirations and disappointments.

It also makes no sense at all that the ruling party is now worried that Singaporeans will be irrational when we have, in fact, become more educated and have greater access to information today.

The second reason mentioned was fear of unrest.

In the first place, our General Elections have been run smoothly with no major incidents all this while. The government has already instituted measures to reduce the risk of disorder e.g. at the end of Polling Day when poll results are announced, no longer are supporters of different parties allowed to gather side by side at the announcement centre; instead, each party gathers with its supporters at different assembly areas to hear the GE results.

The government has always said that it does not blindly follow other countries, but does what works for us. Yet it has tried to strengthen its argument for a cooling off period by using other countries, when the circumstances in those countries are clearly different. Those countries had much longer campaign periods. As for Australia, the concern was not to allow rich parties the unfair advantage of buying up excessive media time at the critical moment – hence the blackout period. These concerns do not apply to Singapore, as our campaign period only lasts 9 days, and the campaign rules do not allow us to buy air time.

Besides the lack of justification, the cooling off period is likely to be abused in the ruling party’s favour.

Under Clause 30, the 24-hour ban on election advertising will not affect the mass media reporting election-related news. This itself is a tremendous loop-hole, which can be used in a biased manner. Allegations against opposition candidates, or attacks on opposition policy proposals, can be repeated on news programmes on cooling-off day, to drum up sentiment against the opposition and to discredit the opposition.

Though allegations may also be made against the ruling party policies, policy explanations by civil servants may not be deemed to be election advertising since the connection with campaigning is more indirect. For instance, if affordability of housing becomes an election issue, the Ministry or HDB could announce a change during the cooling-off period, thus taking some heat off the ruling party. By contrast, opposition parties will not be allowed to put out new responses as these will be deemed `election advertising’ as defined under the Act.

Though party political broadcasts are allowed to be aired on the cooling-off day, these are pre-recorded a few days before, and will not be able to address any issues which arose after the recording.

In other countries, experience has shown that cooling off periods are open to abuse by incumbents. In 1999, the Council of Europe published a Handbook on Media and Elections. It was noted that cooling-off periods may be observed according to the letter of the law, but breached in spirit. An example was given of the 1996 presidential elections in Russia; the incumbent Russian president used the state-owned media to create fear of voting for the opposition candidate by airing films that depicted gloom if the opposition candidate won. Instead of being a day for voter reflection, the campaign silence instead had a `distorting effect’.

Another way in which the cooling-off period can be circumvented is by showing government officials carrying out their ‘official duties’ on TV. During the 2004 presidential elections in Indonesia, the EU’s Election Observation Commission noted that the state television company devoted disproportionate amounts of coverage to positive reviews of the incumbent president’s activities and achievements in office. Examples included showing a daily pro-government programme and advertisements for education reform.

One major problem of the cooling-off period is how to enforce the ban on canvassing, especially if done by word of mouth. In theory, Clause 34 provides that nobody is supposed to do any canvassing on the cooling off day and Polling Day, but how can conversations be effectively policed? Members of grassroots organisations can easily do house visits or organise block parties on cooling off day geared towards garnering support for PAP candidates. Even if violations are reported to police, police resources at that time will be spread very thin.

All in all, there is no convincing reason to introduce the cooling off period which will likely be abused to the ruling party’s advantage.

For these reasons, the Workers’ Party opposes the Bill.