An electoral process designed to “heavily” favour the ruling party has essentially secured the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s victory in “every election since S’pore’s self-governance”, says former Philippines parliamentarian Teodoro “Teddy” Brawner Baguilat, Jr.
Mr Baguilat, who is also the executive director of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said in a statement on Thursday (18 June) that Singapore’s present electoral system “is unfair from the start and entrenches a process that prevents any genuine political competition or free choice at the ballot”.
“Opposition candidates face insurmountable challenges not only to run in elections, but also for their message to reach eligible voters, due to a short campaigning period and strict media restrictions.
“In addition, authorities continue to use draconian laws to target political opponents and muzzle other critical voices, resulting in a limited civic space,” said Mr Baguilat, adding that discourse spaces and the media in Singapore are similarly heavily controlled.
“While the Elections Department has said that voters will have access to the campaigning messages of all political parties, this is only meaningful if such access is done on an equal basis.
“Yet, PAP’s monopoly of mainstream media and support from grassroots organizations will certainly allow the ruling party easier access to voters,” said APHR in its report “In Singapore, an Already Unfair Vote Undermined by COVID-19”, released on Thursday.
Key opposition candidates have been targeted with lawsuits by members of the ruling party, and voters in opposition-led constituencies face reprisals for not voting for the PAP such as denying “upgrading funds to opposition-led town councils as a form of punishment to the residents who did not vote for PAP”, said APHR.
Even COVID-related measures such as those under the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act 2020, said APHR, pose obstacles in ensuring “a fair campaigning process during the pandemic, or protect the voting rights for specific groups, particularly the sick and overseas voters”.
APHR noted in its report that there is no postal voting option at present.
“Overseas Singaporean voters will need to either return to the country or register to cast their vote in one of the few polling stations outside the country.
“With the limited flights and other travel restrictions imposed due to the virus, it is likely to be challenging for them to reach these stations or return to their place of residence without being quarantined,” said APHR.
Such setbacks will only “compound the unfairness of the electoral process that already tilts favourably for the ruling party,” APHR argued.
While Singapore has until April next year to hold the next General Election, observers predict that it will be held as early as next month.
Further fanning speculation of an impending GE, the Election Department on Thursday released its preliminary campaigning guidelines, which it said is in line with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines for Phase Two, post-circuit breaker.
The announcement of these guidelines, however, is unrelated to the timing of the GE, said ELD. The timing of the next GE will be decided by the Prime Minister, it added.
“There is no need to rush into organising one so soon, especially as the country continues to record hundreds of new daily coronavirus cases. There is no reason why the authorities are unable to accommodate all voters, and the possible exclusion of specific groups will only further undermine the legitimacy of the poll,” said Mr Baguilat.
Legal and structural reformation of electoral bodies to ensure their independence and putting an end to “politically-motivated charges against opposition candidates” may ensure a freer and fairer election process, he said.
“The very purpose of an election is for people to express their political will freely, and major changes are necessary to ensure that the upcoming vote fulfils the aspirations of the Singaporean people,” he said.
Mr Baguillat added that the public should not “be fooled by the absence of irregularities or electoral fraud”.
“The current system is unfair from the start and entrenches a process that prevents any genuine political competition or free choice at the ballot,” he reiterated.
APHR in its report made the following recommendations to the Singapore government:
- Establish an independent electoral department that is separate from the Prime Minister’s Office;
- Establish clear delimiting boundary procedures in line with international standards and ensure that the process is placed under the responsibility of an individual or institution that is independent and impartial;
- Give significantly longer notice for election dates and more campaigning time to ensure equal electoral competition and for voters to make their opinions;
- Replace the GRC system with one that ensures better respect for the principle of “one person one vote”;
- Immediately drop all ongoing politically-motivated legal cases against political opposition members, human rights defenders, and journalists. Also, remove the disqualification against those who have been unjustly barred from running as candidates, including John Tan, Han Hui Hui, and Jolovan Wham;
- Immediately amend or repeal all laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly in Singapore;
- Ensure that state-owned media provide balanced and neutral information on the election and on candidates and parties in all election-related programs, including news. All contesting points of view should be fairly and equitably communicated; and
- Delay the general election unless additional measures are taken to: ensure all eligible voters are able to vote, including the sick and those abroad; and ensure that opposition parties are able to campaign on an equal footing with PAP.