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Are rules on Cooling Off day still relevant and do they actually work to achieve the intended objective?

By Ghui

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) once branded Singapore as "Uniquely Singapore". While Singapore is undoubtedly unique in many ways, one unique feature certainly stems from its electoral system (although I am pretty sure that this was not what the STB had in mind when it coined the phrase).

While Singapore has inherited the British Westminster System of government and adopted many features of the democratic processes found in many first world countries, it has also developed certain unique nuances such as the Elected Presidency (EP), the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and the Cooling Off day to name a few.

Given the upcoming by-election in Bukit Batok, it is no surprise that the topic du jour is the ongoing war of words between Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Mr Murali Pillai and the wider PAP stalwarts. As election date creeps up on us, it would be timely to examine the dos and don’ts of Cooling Off day.

The widely publicised intent behind Cooling Off day is ostensibly to give voters a chance to reflect uninfluenced by campaign activities. To facilitate this time out, there is a raft of regulations put in place to regulate the conduct of candidates and campaigners on this political Sabbath day.

But in the day and age of rapid social media and immediate transmission of information, are these rules on Cooling Off day still relevant? Do they actually work to achieve the intended objective?

As pointed out in this article by Professor Jack Lee, "the term "election advertising" is defined compendiously in section 2(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) as: “any poster, banner, notice, circular, handbill, illustration, article, advertisement or other material that can reasonably be regarded as intended — (a) to promote or procure the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or (b) to otherwise enhance the standing of any such political parties, candidates or groups of candidates with the electorate in connection with any election, and such material shall be election advertising even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well and even though it does not expressly mention the name of any political party or candidate…”"

It would follow that "commenting on an existing article on the Internet when the comment amounts to “election advertising” would also be captured by the definition of "publishing" such advertising. Given the ease to which the Internet is so readily available, a contravention of this would be increasingly hard to police and prosecute. In addition, given the popularity and information overload of the Internet, are voters really going to be influenced one way or other by yet another article one day before polling day?

Further, the legislation is drafted in a general and far-reaching way which can include merely "posting a link to an article without any commentary". This is because Section 2(1) of the PEA defines   “publish” as anything "that makes available to the general public, or any section thereof, in whatever form and by whatever means, including broadcasting (by wireless telegraphy or otherwise) and transmitting on what is commonly known as the Internet…" Arguably, this would apply to posting a link because even in the absence of commentary, the poster is making the material available to the public.

It is important to note that there "isn’t anything in the definition of the word "publish" which limits it to a first-time publication of any material".

The drafting of these regulations are wide and perhaps deliberately kept so to ensure that it can capture any form of behaviour that is deemed unsuitable. But in the fast-moving world online, it does seem increasingly difficult to comply with. This is clearly seen when both Tin Pei Ling and Vivian Balakrishnan apparently flouted these regulations in GE 2011 and GE 2015 respectively.

As I have said before repeatedly on other instances of widely crafted laws - it is next to impossible to comply with laws if we don't know what the yardsticks or benchmarks are. This can in turn, lead to unnecessary self-censorship or unwitting contravention which really serves no purpose.

Given the alleged transgressions by both Balakrishnan and Tin, I question the relevance of Cooling Off day in the first place?

And if it is deemed by the powers be that Cooling Off day is absolutely required, we need to clarify the laws to stipulate what would actually amount to a contravention. This is especially so in the day and age of information technology that is utilised not just by the opposition politicians but also the ruling party. In light of apparent offenders of the Cooling Off day laws being PAP candidates, clarifying the extent and reach of Cooling Day laws will certainly benefit the PAP.