It is uncertain that the current form of Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill is truly sufficient to protect the safety of the electorate and the integrity of political processes, if the early election to be called in the midst of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, says Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong on Monday (4 May).
Ms Ong in Parliament raised concerns that the Bill might acts as a weaker mandate with a lower voter turnout, issues of fair campaigning and the risk of further transmission though “the Bill at hand is a laudable effort”.
Speaking during the parliamentary speech, Ms Ong doubted the Bill that has exclusion of voters whether would deprive the constitutional rights – right of vote of Singaporeans.
She noted that under this Bill, the individuals serving Quarantined Orders (QOs) are exempted from voting and the quarantined electors cannot claim the right to vote as a valid defence for violating their QOs, otherwise they might face legal consequences.
“If an election is held in a time when we are still grappling with a high risk of community spread, we may be looking at a significant part of the population being discouraged from voting,” she said, adding that the Bill also discouraged those who may be unwell or vulnerable to illness from having to vote.
Minister Chan Chun Sing refutes that the Bill would deprive the right of vote of certain voters, saying, it allow “more voters to vote”
As the right to vote is fundamental to Singaporean, she thus asked the Government to clarify on the “constitutional invalidity” of “depriving” quarantined voters’ right to vote, especially on how the quarantined voters “have no legal defence if they exit their quarantine holdings to vote”.
With the fears of COVID-19 infections, Ms Ong also said that some voters may “voluntarily abstain” from voting, such as the elderly and voters residing with elderly family members, in order to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19.
She added, “An election cannot be truly held in good faith if Singaporeans are forced to choose between voting and protecting themselves and their families.”
Responding to her question, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said it is a “misconception” that the Bill would deprive the right of vote of certain voters.
In fact, the “special arrangements” in the Bill will allow “more voters to vote” as those serving Stay-Home Notices (SHNs) at designated facilities will vote under special arrangements in order to minimise their contact with other voters, says Minister Chan.
Under this new Bill, Mr Chan said that those serving SHNs or are on medical leave for acute respiratory illnesses will not be penalised for not casting their votes in the next GE, and will have their names “restored to the electoral registers without penalty.
Individuals serving SHNs and quarantine orders will have their names automatically restored to the registers after the election, while those on medical leave can apply to have their names restored.
“Thus, the arrangements afforded by this Bill should allay concerns among the wider voting population who might otherwise be dissuaded from voting because of in-person voting by those under SHN,” he added.
While some overseas Singaporeans may also not be able to vote at the designated polling stations due to the lockdown measures and travel restrictions, Ms Ong questioned that whether these concerns have been taken into account when formulate the Bill and requested the Government to rectify the “potential loss of more voters”.
To this, the Minister replied that they might “have to abandon overseas voting” in those locations as allowed under the Parliamentary Elections Act, if the physical conduct of polling in certain overseas locations is not possible and if overseas Singaporean voters and election officials are exposed to unacceptable risks.
However, he also noted that they will not take this decision lightly before the Returning Officer assesses and monitors the situation for each overseas polling station after the Writ of Election is issued.
Ms Ong asks the Government to not “discount” the risk of further transmission; Minister Chan assures ED will in place necessary safety precautions, studying measures practiced by South Korea
On top of this, Ms Ong also urged the Government to not “discount” the possibility of holding an election amid ongoing pandemic will increase the risk of transmission.
She cautioned, “It is true that measures can be taken to ensure higher sanitary standards in voting booths throughout voting day. However, we must not forget that all it takes are a few minor lapses to trigger another dangerous bout of contagion.”
“Just looking at how quickly the virus spreads in weeks with 200,000 workers across different dormitories should alarm us to what we would be risking to allow large hordes of people to come together at the polling stations,” she added.
Mr Chan assured that the Elections Department (ED) will carry out safety precautions based on the prevailing advisories issued by Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to protect candidates, voters and election officials.
Not only that, he said the ED will study the ideas of staggered hours, temperature taking, disinfecting the polling booths more frequently, wearing gloves, or increasing the number of polling stations as well as the precautionary measures practiced by the countries that have held elections during pandemics such as South Korea.
“In the case of South Korea, they implemented precautionary measures such as temperature screening, safe distancing and requiring voters to wear masks and plastic gloves. Another useful observation from the South Korea elections is the wide use of collaterals such as videos and infographics to assure the voters of the precautionary measures being put in place. As a result, they had a record turnout at the elections.”
“Their experience shows that it is possible to run a safe and smooth election during COVID-19, provided we have in place the necessary safety precautions and voters are assured of the safety of the election,” he asserted.
Addressing the MHA’s advisories to all political parties about the threat of foreign interference in elections last month, Ms Ong also said that it is possible of “an inequitable playing field for political parties in terms of campaigning” if the election held during COVID-19 outbreak.
“Not all political parties will have the necessary resources to ensure full and adequate compliance with the advisories, and this is especially concerning given that a COVID-19 election will likely heavily depend on social media and other online platforms for campaigning to replace rallies,” she explained.
Citing a poll by Lianhe Zaobao that showed 67.55 percent of 11,635 people disagreed on holding an election during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as it would be difficult to hold rallies, she suggested, “To have an election without rallies would be disadvantageous to parties with less resources.”
The Bill, she said does not seem to have any provisions for fair campaigning while questioning, “How the Elections Department (ED) will ensure commensurate and fair campaigning across all political parties, given the extenuating circumstances?”
In response to this, Mr Chan said that the ED will issue an advisory on campaigning guidelines together with the relevant authorities such as the police and MHA after discuss with MOH on the health and safety aspects of campaigning.
“This will be done with sufficient time for political parties and aspiring candidates to prepare,” he said.
Anthea Ong: Government should assure the Bill to be viewed as a “last resort”, not as a go-ahead to hold elections immediately
As the Government still has a full year mandate ahead of it, Ms Ong thus urged the Government to instead direct the resources to focus on resolving the crisis as well as safeguarding the physical and mental health of Singaporeans.
She said an early election will put the further burden on the “severely-stretched public service”, especially with the “colossal interagency efforts” that needed to deal with the migrant worker crisis that are ongoing and beyond COVID-19.
Ms Ong also urged the Government to assure that the Bill will be viewed as a “last resort”, which should only serve as a guarantee, but not as a go-ahead to hold elections immediately.
“If we are to pass this Bill today, we must make sure that the Bill is comprehensive in ensuring both the safety of the electorate, maximum suffrage and fair campaigning. This will also help to quell sentiments on the ground that an early election is being exercised for political expediency, avoiding an undue erosion of public trust,” she said.
“Voting is not a fire drill exercise we conduct every five years; it is a right and privilege to have a say in how we want to build this nation and the life we want for ourselves and our families. The right to exercise this vote is therefore what holds our society together, and must not be denied by exclusions nor be encumbered with fear of infection.”
“Any yes that is given without the ability to safely say no is never a true choice. And therefore not the kind of vote or mandate we want the new government to be built upon, especially to lead us in a post-COVID world,” Ms Ong concluded.
As part of the Government’s “contingency plans” in holding the next General Election (GE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill that passed on Monday will allow Singaporeans serving Stay-Home Notices (SHNs) and Quarantine Orders (QOs) at designated isolation facilities to vote outside their electoral divisions, either at the said facilities or at dedicated polling stations.
Minister Chan explained that this Bill is part of the Government’s move to robustly plan ahead and keeping the citizens safe while upholding democracy in Singapore.