By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
The absence of an independent electoral commission is inconsistent with Singapore’s claim to be a democratic nation.
On 11 May 1963, an English gentleman by the name of Frank Adler, somehow managed to gain access into Markham Royal Air Force Station in the English county of Norfolk. While within the boundaries of the Station, he obstructed a member of Her Majesty’s forces and was promptly arrested.
According to the UK Official Secrets Act 1920, the Markham Royal Air Force Station was a prohibited place and it was an offence for anyone to obstruct a member of Her Majesty’s forces while ‘in the vicinity of any prohibited place’.
Thinking he was clever, Mr Adler argued before the Court that as he was actually in the prohibited place, he could not be said to be “in the vicinity” of the prohibited place.
The learned judge was not going to let Mr Adler get away with such a ridiculous argument. Mr Adler was found guilty of the offence.
The judge explained that the words “in the vicinity of” should be interpreted to mean on or near the prohibited place. If the Court was confined to only the literal meaning of the words, it would have produced absurdity – as someone obstructing a member of Her Majesty’s forces near the Station would be committing an offence, whilst someone doing the same thing inside the Station would not.
Mr Adler’s case1 is well-known to law students as being a classic example of the courts applying what lawyers call the “Golden Rule” for statutory interpretation. Under the Golden Rule, where a literal interpretation of a wording gives an absurd result, which Parliament could not have intended, the judge can substitute a reasonable meaning in the light of the statute as a whole.
Cheng San, Singapore
2 January 1997 was Polling Day in Singapore. On that day, top PAP guns walked into and stood inside a Cheng San GRC polling station while people were lining up to cast their votes. They were Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan and Deputy Prime Minister Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong, none of who were candidates for Cheng San GRC.
At that time, Cheng San GRC was being hotly contested by The Workers’ Party. As to the extent to which citizens at Cheng San GRC polling station were influenced to change their votes upon seeing high-ranking PAP leaders congregating there, we will never know.
PAP won Cheng San GRC by a narrow margin of 54.8% to 45.2%.
After the 1997 General Election, the Workers’ Party lodged a complaint to the police that Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan and Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong had been inside a Cheng San GRC polling station on Polling Day. The Workers’ Party cited two sections of the Parliamentary Elections Act:
“No person shall wait outside any polling station on polling day, except for the purpose of gaining entry to the polling station to cast his vote”.
“No person shall loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station on polling day.”
However, the Attorney-General stated that the PAP leaders had not broken the law.
Pointing to the use of the word “outside” in Section 82(1)(d), the Attorney-General explained2:
“Plainly, persons found waiting inside the polling stations do not come within the ambit of this section. …. Only those who wait outside the polling station commit an offence under this section unless they are waiting to enter the polling station to cast their votes.”
As for Section 82(1)(e), the Attorney-General pointed to the use of the word “within” and explained3:
“The relevant question is whether any person who is inside a polling station can be said to be “within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station”. … Plainly, a person inside a polling station cannot be said to be within a radius of 200 metres of a polling station.”
All these explanations of the English prepositions “in”, “within”, “inside”, “outside” – is making my head go terbalik4!
I need to go back to reading nursery books to refresh my understanding of “inside” and “outside”. (By the way, a very good nursery book which explains the meanings of these words is the children’s classic “Inside, Outside, Upside Down” by Stan & Jan Berenstain. I used to read that book to my children when they were toddlers.)
If Singapore had an independent election commission overseeing the election procedures, the Workers’ Party would have been able to lodge their complaint to such a body, instead of lodging their complaint to the police as they did.
Unfortunately, Singapore does not have an independent election commission.
In 2011, UN member countries called on Singapore to establish bodies such as a human rights institution and an independent electoral commission. The Singapore Government rejected the UN calls, arguing that such bodies were not necessary. The Singapore Government said:
“Elections in Singapore have always been conducted fairly. The electoral system and its procedures are clearly spelt out in Singapore law which applies to all political participants, regardless of affiliation. The Singapore Elections Department, staffed by civil servants, adheres to the Parliamentary Elections Act and conducts elections in a fair and transparent manner. During the conduct of elections, there are equal opportunities for all political participants to observe and monitor voting operations. The result is an electoral system of integrity that has enjoyed high public trust and served Singapore well.” 5
The Singapore Government’s official explanation side-steps the actual problems of not having an independent electoral commission.
Notably, we have no safeguards against gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when electoral boundaries are drawn so as to manipulate vote percentages to benefit the political interests of an incumbent government. Gerrymandering undermines the integrity of the electoral process. Hence, it is crucial to have an independent body to oversee the process of boundary delimiting.
At every general election in Singapore, boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn; constituencies have come and gone. The reasons for making those changes have never been satisfactorily explained to the public.
The Elections Department being under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, it is a hopelessly constrained agency. We need an independent electoral commission to safeguard the integrity of the process of choosing our national leaders, and more importantly, to give citizens confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of the result.
The lack of an independent electoral commission is a glaring gap in Singapore’s electoral system. The Singapore Government’s official explanation for denying its citizens the benefit of an independent election commission, is inadequate and unconvincing.
Up to now, the ruling party has had to continually fend off persistent criticisms that it has created an un-level political playing field in order to preserve its political incumbency. However, when the PAP-led Government sets up an independent electoral commission, I am sure that PAP critics will have a lot less to complain about.
But the time when it will be of greatest significance to the PAP, is on the day when the PAP becomes an opposition party. When that day comes, I have no doubt PAP would then be very glad for the existence of the independent election commission they had established while they had been the ruling party.
1 Adler v George  2 QB 7
4 Means “upside-down” in Bahasa Melayu
5 (Para 96.25, Addendum to Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, 22 September 2011)