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For free and fair elections, owners “have to be us”: MARUAH

DSC_9933By Howard Lee

Human rights group MARUAH launched a campaign yesterday, 4 April, to increase citizen awareness on Singapore’s electoral system, starting with a forum to outline a compilation of up to five position papers and proposals to call for free and fair elections in Singapore.

The forum, titled “The Vote, the Elections and You” and chaired by law professor Jack Lee, was meant to kick off a series of round-island events to allow citizens to discuss Singapore’s electoral system and increase awareness on some of the issues surrounding our elections.

The events will also aim to get citizens to sign a declaration to request for the Elections Department to implement the proposed changes.

Outlining the work that the NGO has done on the issue, MARUAH’s president Braema Mathi noted that the team has tried to make the papers, done mainly through research by volunteers, as rigorous as possible, and has also put considerable effort into examining models used by other countries.

Noting that the effort was now in its third stage – the first and second being the identification of lacks in election coverage by media houses, and the identification of problems within polling stations – Ms Mathi said that the focus is now on getting “the public to join us as custodians for free and fair elections”.

The compiled proposals added to MARUAH’s earlier research, with the first paper recommending ways where citizen confidence in the secrecy of the ballot can be improved.

Ms Mathi cited studies by both MARUAH and the Institute of Policy Studies that indicated up to 10% of the population still fearful that their vote might not be secret. This is troubling as “people feel that they have to vote out of fear”, and it was more important that all citizens can feel that “no one is dictating the reality of what I want for my country”, she said.

To achieve that, MARUAH proposed the removal of serial numbers on ballot slips, improving the privacy at voting booths, doing away with polling officials calling out the name of voters, and doing away with identifying ballots by their precincts. The overall aim was the increase public confidence that voting is secret.

Mr Ngiam Shih-Tung, member of MARUAH, presented the paper on Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) and minority representation, indicating the inadequacy of the GRC system to fulfil its intended purpose.

As the numbers of GRCs have been increasing, voters do not know who their Members of Parliament are as the number of MPs in each GRC are “more than the number of people in my family”. This means that citizens only know the anchor Minister in each GRC, which affects the quality of MPs representing them in Parliament as it entrench a “multiplier” effect of the first-past-the-post system.

He said that the rationale for the GRCs – the fear that Singaporeans will vote along ethnic lines – has not been proven and the continuation of such fears is unhealthy.

Drawing on models used by other countries, MARUAH proposed that an Ethnic Balancing Contingency System be used instead, where other means can be used to ensure minority representation in Parliament without the need for the GRC system.

DSC_9943Mr Ngiam also presented the paper on electoral boundaries, noting that they have changed significantly in the past 20 years.

He highlighted MARUAH’s call for setting up an independent electoral boundary authority by stature, which will include technical experts in areas such as cartography, members of political parties and members of the public.

He also identified the need for the government to provide reasons for changing electoral boundaries and to mandate public consultation during redistricting of voter precincts.

MARUAH also proposed to align electoral boundaries with urban planning areas identified by the Urban Redevelopment Authority – of particular concern since the current map indicates that many of these areas straddle a few constituencies. Doing so would help create stronger communities and avoid accusations of gerrymandering.

Presenting the paper on depoliticising the role of Community Development Councils (CDCs), Ms Mathi indicated that the system’s practice of putting elected MPs in non-elected roles means that citizens are deprived of the right to say how their town council is run, alienate those who wish to participate in grassroot activities without getting into partisan politics, and presents problems when CDC covers opposition wards.

She noted that the CDCs lack value-add, as the People’s Association (PA) and the newly implemented Social Services Offices can better serve the CDC’s functions, even making them redundant.

MARUAH proposed to dissolve the CDCs in their current political form, to be replaced with councils led by popularly-elected non-partisan players; the PA to cede existing control of grassroot organisations; and for the new councils to be funded by the government with full discretion given in the use of funds.

Doing so would encourage accountability in town mayors, increase sense of political ownership when council decisions are shaped by residents, and encourage greater social cohesion.

DSC_9946Ms Geraldine Soon, exco member of MARUAH, presented on the need for an independent electoral commission that is independent from the executive, has no vested interest in the government or political parties, and is financially independent.

She indicated that the current Elections Department (ELD) has been justified as the legitimate body by the current government due to its insistence on the impartiality and incorruptibility of the Singapore civil service, but noted that the ELD’s close relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office has led to public doubts about its perceived impartiality.

The forum ended with a Q&A session, with questions thrown up about whether it was necessary to ensure female representation in Parliament as was done with race for the GRC, and whether there should be greater acceptance of political diversity in the workplace.

Other key queries was whether MARUAH was “shouting in the dark” in calling for electoral reforms, and if such changes were only possible with a change in government, followed by the removal of entrenched mindsets.

Ms Mathi indicated that every paper on electoral reform had been sent to ELD and a call for dialogue has been made, but MARUAH’s appeals so far have been met with “deafening silence”.

However, she disagreed that such efforts for change are beyond the ability of ordinary Singaporeans, as these are essential issues that affect our rights as citizens, and there is need to demonstrate our concerns to the government.

“We have to own the process to find answers these questions. People who can make the changes have to be us.”

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