Human rights advocacy group MARUAH has written a letter to Mr Lee Seng Lup, Head of the Elections Department, to call for more stringent requirements on the balloting process, and for clarity on the guidelines for media houses covering the election in the wake of the latest incident where Mr Daniel Goh from the Workers’ Party was questioned about an alleged extramarital affair by publications under the Singapore Press Holding.
The letter, also published on MARUAH’s Facebook page, sought ELD’s clarification on the sealing of ballot boxes, guidelines for re-entry of polling and counting agents, procedures for checking samples of ballots, and called for samples to be provided to help officials decide on unconfirmed ballots.
MARUAH also questioned the new rules of disallowing leaders of a political party from speaking at rallies organised by other parties, calling it “deplorable”.
“There is no plausible reason for the rules on grounds of public order or safety,” said MARUAH. “This rule is a gross violation of Singaporeans’ right to free speech.”
Noting that certain parties have come together to jointly contest in wards, such as the Singapore People’s Party and the Democratic Progressive Party in Bishan Toa Payoh GRC, MARUAH said that this is “unfair to the two opposition parties”.
“While this rule was apparently made for a short-term political purpose, it has long-term implications in that it creates a barrier by administrative fiat to the establishment of coalitions between political parties in Singapore despite the fact that there is no constitutional or statutory basis for doing so.”
MARUAH also questioned ELD’s standards on media houses for what they can publish that can potentially damage candidates, given that there are currently similar guidelines for political parties governing ethical practices.
MARUAH’s letter is appended in full below.
28 August 2015
Mr Lee Seng Lup
11, Prinsep Street
Dear Mr Lee,
We wrote to you on 14 August requesting for a meeting and to offer MARUAH as independent, non-partisan election observers. To date we are awaiting a response from your office.
Following the GE in 2011, we also wrote to you in May 2011, on the issue of voting dilemmas for people who were visually handicapped. We are grateful that you have since introduced voting aids to enable visually-handicapped voters to mark their ballot papers independently.
In 2013, another issue that we raised with you was the design of the polling booth. In MARUAH’s 2011 post-election survey, a number of respondents felt that there was insufficient privacy when marking their ballots. MARUAH suggested that screens, three-corner partition booths or curtains be used to ensure the secrecy of the vote. We hope that this will be implemented in GE2015.
Given that the GE2015 will be held very shortly, MARUAH looks forward to working with the Elections Department to ensure that our polls are held in a free and fair manner at all levels of the electoral process. MARUAH has listed below a few areas that the Elections Department needs to pay urgent attention to.
Security of ballot boxes
We note the change in election procedures, as described in the Handbook for Parliamentary Election Candidates 2015, to allow one polling agent for each candidate or group of candidates to be present on the bus used to transport ballot boxes from polling stations to counting centres. This is a welcome move and will help to strengthen Singaporeans’ confidence in the integrity of the election process.
Allowing one polling agent, too, from each political party contesting in that constituency to sign ballot boxes at time of sealing (instead of only being allowed to place a seal on the box) the box before they are moved to the counting centres, will make it easier for candidates to verify the chain of custody of electoral materials. It would be helpful for ELD to clarify whether the seals and signatures used by polling agents during sealing of ballot boxes may include elements of candidates’ logos, symbols or names, or whether the seals are included in the general prohibition of election advertising within polling stations.
Re-entry cards for polling agents and counting agents
Re-entry cards for polling agents and counting agents were used in the 2011 Presidential Election and 2012 by-elections to facilitate the taking of breaks by candidates’ agents, and re-entry procedures were spelt out in the candidates’ handbooks for those elections. We observe that re-entry procedures are not described in the 2015 Candidates’ Handbook. Nonetheless, we hope that re-entry cards for polling and counting agents will continue to be used and that the procedure(s) will be explicitly described in any Guides for Polling Agents and Counting Agents that will be published for the coming election. Consistency in approaches has to be part of the processes that we need.
The Candidates’ Handbook (p 42) states that the purpose of the sampling check is to help “election officials” check against final count results. ELD should also clarify whether any persons besides elections officials receive data from the sampling check prior to the official announcement of results for that electoral division by the Returning Officer. If any such disclosures are made, they should be made available simultaneously to all candidates, for example, by the ARO, announcing the results of the sampling check over the table at the time that the sampling check is performed. We feel that this is the best way to ensure consistency and be transparent.
Adjudication of uncertain ballots
While the ARO on the ground must make the final decision in adjudicating any uncertain ballots, it would be helpful for ELD to publish the examples that it uses in training AROs so that counting agents and the public will better understand the thought processes and the criteria used to reject or accept a ballot. There have been instances in the past (examples of such incidences in 2011 have been written about through and again in the recent letter sent by the Singapore Democratic Party to ELD) that have been reported and we can avoid this for GE 2015.
New restrictions on speakers at election meetings
The new rules prohibiting leaders of a political party from speaking at rallies organised by other parties is deplorable. There is no plausible reason for the rules on grounds of public order or safety. This rule is a gross violation of Singaporeans’ right to free speech. The rules will severely cripple a specific group of candidates from the Democratic Progressive Party and the Singapore People’s Party, who have come together to put forward a collaborative challenge to the contestants from the ruling party of the People’s Action Party. We contend that this is unfair to the two opposition parties. While this rule was apparently made for a short-term political purpose, it has long-term implications in that it creates a barrier by administrative fiat to the establishment of coalitions between political parties in Singapore despite the fact that there is no constitutional or statutory basis for doing so.
Campaigning and Ethical Practices
We cite the recent case of Workers’ Party’s candidate Dr Daniel Goh who came under attack through an anonymous letter that he was having an affair. What concerns us is the approach taken by the media houses – Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp – to publicise the letter and generate stories. How do these practices resonate with what ELD has given as guidelines in 220.127.116.11 (page 21 and 22) and also in Section 10.1(d) & (e) on page 56? We believe these guidelines are targeted at political parties for them to observe ethical practices, maintain a fair discourse in terms of “public interest” and to prevent deterioration into ‘gutter politics’. We ask ELD what are the guidelines for media houses, including on registered online ones.
MARUAH fully recognises that holding General Elections is a difficult exercise. However, MARUAH remains hopeful that the Elections Department will be willing to accept our assistance to ensure that free and fair elections with a high level of decorum do take place in Singapore.
We look forward to hearing from you shortly and we would like you to note that as a matter of public interest we will place this letter on our website.
Braema Mathi and Ngiam Shih Tung
Co-chairpersons of MARUAH Election Watch