Government seems to treat votes from overseas Singaporeans as less important or reluctant to have them vote

In light of the recent interviews given by Deputy Prime Minister Hean Swee Keat and Minister for Trade and Industry, Chan Chun Sing, it is clear that our general elections are imminent.

This is despite the fact that a date has still not yet been publicly set, leading to criticism that the lack of a set date could lead to the incumbent Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) reaping an unfair benefit.

As early as April, the Elections Department (ELD) had already announced that the Registers of Electors was certified and are available for public inspection online. Special arrangements have also been put in place to ensure that voters can vote safely amid the coronavirus outbreak by way of the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill (Covid-19 Election bill) 

Yet, despite all the seamless execution of these logistics, the government is still unable to stipulate a date for the election because things may get “overtaken by events”. Head scratch anyone? Why can’t we set a tentative date at the very least then? After all, everything is subject to change right? But moving swiftly on, it would appear that not all voters are treated equally either!

The Covid-19 Election Bill makes allowances for people on stay-home orders to vote under special conditions, and nominate a representative to help them file their nomination papers if they are unable or unfit to do so due to Covid-19.

What about overseas voters then?

While overseas Singaporeans who have resided in Singapore for an aggregate of at least 30 days between March 1, 2017 and February 29, 2020, can also apply to register as overseas electors to vote at one of 10 designated overseas polling stations, there are no allowances made for those who might be suffering the effects of lock down in these other countries.

Take for example the United Kingdom. Many Singaporeans reside throughout the United Kingdom but may not be able to make the track to London especially in the time of the coronavirus.

Even if there had not been the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to note that the overseas polling stations may not be easily accessible to Singaporeans in foreign countries given that they are only found in Canberra, London, Tokyo, Beijing, Washington, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, San Francisco and New York. Referring to the chart by the Overseas Singaporean Unit, Singaporeans are based all over the world, how is ten designated overseas polling stations able to cater for their needs?

The reluctance of who-be-voters to take the journey to the polling stations can be seen from the number of Singaporeans who register as overseas voters.

Back in 2015, Mrs Lina Chiam, former Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) asked the government for the number of overseas Singaporeans registered as overseas voters and the percentage of these voters when computed against the total number of eligible Singaporean voters and what is the percentage of eligible overseas voters who did not cast their votes during the last General Election in 2011.

In response, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean wrote to her, stating that 3,104 electors have registered to vote overseas as of 31 July 2015. This is 0.1% of the total number of electors in the registers. And 78% of such registered overseas electors cast their vote at the overseas polling stations at the 2011 General Election.

According to the statistics from the government, there were 212,500 based overseas back in 2011. This means just 1.5 per cent of overseas Singaporeans registered!

There is an easy solution to all of this — postal votes! Postal votes are not new and are already used in many countries in the world such as the United Kingdom.

However, the Singapore Government is against the idea of postal voting.

Mr Teo revealed this back in 2016: “In postal voting, there are risks with security and secrecy of the ballot as it may be lost or tampered with during postal delivery. In addition, ballot papers have to be sent to the voter at their registered overseas addresses and they have to mail back the marked ballot papers to the Returning Officer by a certain date. It is difficult to ensure that the ballots will get back on time to be counted. Late votes and missing votes will result in controversies. For now, voting by paper ballot at polling stations is still the simplest and most transparent method of voting that can ensure the integrity and secrecy of the voting process.

This is in response to the parliamentary question filed by Dennis Tan Lip Fong, NCMP from the Workers’ Party, who asked if the Government would consider allowing early voting by postal ballot at the general elections, noting that more than 200,000 Singapore citizens living abroad and and most do not vote using the current overseas voting facilities.

What then? Their votes are of no consequence?

There are many ways to ensure security and so many countries have already implemented postal voting given that it is efficient and possibly cost saving for people who have to travel. Yet again, it sounds like a simplistic and unconvincing response.

It is important to note that had the PAP put in place postal voting then, there would have been no need to enact a Covid-19 Election Bill because anyone on a stay home order could just vote by mail instead of having to go through the trouble of nominating a proxy etc.

It is said that there are 2.65 million of eligible voters for the upcoming election. Given that there are 217,200 Singaporeans living abroad as of 2019, this would also make the most sense.

Are their votes any less important that those residing in Singapore? Back in 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented how Singaporeans are reluctant to work overseas “constrains our potential in the world”. And now that such Singaporeans are based overseas, we disregard their opinion of how Singapore’s future is to be?

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