Overseas, and unable to vote

It appears that holding an election in the middle of a global pandemic has emphasized the great need for the Government to explore other ways to facilitate the ease of voting

For the first time since becoming an eligible voter, I am unable to exercise my right to vote in an election. This is because I am now based overseas, and because we are living in a time of travel restrictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The original intention was to travel home to Singapore so that I could partake in covering the political rallies for The Online Citizen as well as to cast my vote. However, before I knew it, COVID-19 happened.

Long story short, not only am I unable to fly home as planned without incurring huge personal costs, both financially and personally, I have been unsuccessful in registering myself as an overseas voter.

The whole frustration centers upon the fact that I have been unsuccessful in logging into the service on the Elections Department’s website using my Singpass as the password was invalid after a period of disuse. It is also still linked to my now defunct Singapore number, which I have informed OneKey in person prior to my move to Australia three years ago that this would be the case. I was given the impression that it would not be an issue.

Admittedly, I was in a rush as there was plenty to do before my flight so after pursuing it twice with the employee who assisted me with 2FA registration, I dropped the matter and left. Due to this, I am unable to receive a One Time Password (OTP). There is an option to request for a new password which will then be sent to my mailing address in Singapore in 5 working days. That would have been too late to register as an overseas voter. In hindsight, I should have sorted this out during my trips back home or write them an email to clarify. Indeed this is a lesson learnt, and a frustrating one.

However I am not alone.

Within a few days of my attempt to register as an overseas voter, stories from Singaporeans living overseas began to surface on social media. I invited contacts on Facebook to share some of their experiences with me, and some of them did.

Region – Europe and Scandinavian countries

In Europe and the Scandinavian countries, the closest polling stations are in London, New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

“… that isn’t possible now, nor am I able to fly home to vote,” shared Loretta Perera, who lives in Moscow. She is registered to vote in London.

This is due to high rates of COVID-19 infections in both Britain and America, causing several implications that stand in the way for Singaporeans living in the surrounding countries to cast their votes.

Living in Finland, Daniel Yap is another Singaporean who is affected. He believes that voting is our right and duty, which overseas Singaporeans would like to take part in.

“But while it was troublesome before, it has now become impractical – nearly impossible. We are variously facing travel bans, closed borders, 28-day self-funded quarantines, erratic flight schedules, and the risk of having to enter places with high infection rates like New York and London. Jobs, education and family are to be sidelines for unrealistic periods to perform this duty.”

Divya Kaur* who lives and works in Madrid for the past two years, echoes the same.

“We are still in the middle of a pandemic. Even if travelling is possible, even if my husband and I are able to take this risk to our personal health, we cannot afford to take at least 28 days off just for isolation because we have children. And what if we become infected?”

Region – Asia Pacific

Scattered across Asia Pacific is a number of Singaporeans who will not be voting for the first time. Some of the respondents who have voted in the past, especially the ones working in neighbouring countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, usually return home to do so as there are no polling stations in the countries they reside in. The polling stations in Asia Pacific are located in Beijing, Canberra, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

“The 14 day Stay-Home Notice deters me from travelling home. Once I return to Malaysia and if I test negative for the virus, I will similarly have to serve a 14 day quarantine at my place of residence” said Meiyin Tam, who lives in Kuala Lumpur. “The nature of my job requires me to be present at the workplace. I am unable to work from home so this will all be done at my own cost.”

Noraini Ahad* might not return to vote but is, at the time of writing, considering her options.

“If I am on a Stay Home Notice, I have nowhere else in Singapore to go but to stay with my 73 year old mother. What if I catch anything while travelling from Jakarta and then pass it to her? I am worried. It might be that I will have to stay in one of those quarantine facilities, I will check before I decide but there are no plans to go back for now because of the risks.”

In Australia, the only jurisdictions that have opened their borders are Australian Capital Territory (ACT), New South Wales (NSW), and Victoria (VIC). The polling station in the country is located in Canberra, ACT.

Howard Lee, who is currently studying in Perth, the capital city of Western Australia, has two options if he is to vote – travel to Canberra, or home to Singapore.

“Unfortunately, the travel restrictions basically meant that this kind of travel, factoring stay-in periods, is simply not feasible.”

“I was happy that the borders are open in time for me to go to Canberra,” said Rajah Kumar* who lives in Melbourne, and has been in Australia “for a few elections now”.

“But you know what, second wave in Victoria. So it will be very socially irresponsible to travel although it seems that I may not have a problem getting into Canberra. Then again who knows what will happen closer to polling day?”

Not enough information

Some of the respondents provided feedback regarding the information disseminated by government agencies and the Singapore overseas mission.

According to Juliana Sim*, who is a first time overseas voter living in London, the Singapore mission has done well in providing information on the COVID-19 situation as well as advisories for Singaporeans living in the UK. This does not seem to apply to this election.

“If you check the embassy’s website though, you will find nothing about the General Elections. I am a Singaporean who takes pride in our efficiency so this makes me a little disappointed. Maybe I had overlooked and I do hope that is the case,” she said.

“I think many people only started catching wind about the need to register to vote by 25th June 2359 one day before the deadline,” said Christine Lim, an international student in Amsterdam. “And it was only because people had actively asked MFA and were sharing on social media. When I shared the news to the Singapore-Nederlands Association Facebook page, people seemed completely confused about election procedures and their options.”

“What is most infuriating is the lack of any empathy for our plight. Our emails to ELD get canned replies repeating old voting instructions,” said Yap, who wrote to the Elections Department (ELD).

“Minister Lawrence Wong’s dismissive comment about the risks and costs overseas voters face gives an impression of callousness at best, and deliberate hindrance at worst,” he added, referring to comments made by former Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong in a virtual press conference on 25 June 2020.

Moving forward – How can we improve the overseas voting experience?

It appears that holding an election in the middle of a global pandemic has emphasized the great need for the Government to explore other ways to facilitate the ease of voting.

  1. More polling stations

“At what size a diaspora does the Government uses to determine the feasibility of setting up an overseas polling centre?” asked Lee, who expressed certainty that the overseas Singaporean population in Western Australia is sizeable enough for the consulate to set up a polling station in the state. “You can run frivolous Singapore Day events here with food, entertainment and all, why not the serious stuff that matter to our democracy?”

“I think it is time for the Government to explore other options by which Singaporeans living overseas can securely cast their votes in a less painful way. Personally, I would like to see more polling stations. Travelling to London from Madrid, even in normal times, takes planning, time, and money so it would be appreciated if the Government considers this,” said Kaur.

  1. Online and/or Postal Voting

Yap wishes that the Government could spend resources to enable online voting.

“If Singpass is not secure enough for voting, but secure enough for making CPF withdrawals, then we need to spend our considerable tech talent developing solutions to make this basic right available for Singaporeans, whether overseas, or bed-bound with illness,” he pointed out.

“My American partner can choose to either mail his vote or vote online I don’t get why we can’t. I’d love to vote with Singpass!” added Perera.

  1. More options for Singaporeans to register as overseas voters

As Singaporeans who have been unsuccessful in registering ourselves as overseas voters, Sim and I are in agreement that Singpass should not be the only way for Singaporeans to register themselves with ELD.

“My suggestion is to allow the embassies to register us in their respective country offices. I am sure we can provide forms of identification to verify that we are living overseas. There are always bills, pay slips, official letters from the universities and Government agencies of the countries we are residing in,” Sim suggested.

It is unfortunate that many who would genuinely like to exercise their vote will not be able to do so this time due to the obstacles resulting from the ongoing pandemic that continues to hammer the world.

However the issues that we have read about, whether on social media or in the news, from overseas Singaporeans should not be treated as issues that only exist due to the pandemic. Instead, this brings forth an opportunity to review the system and to recognize that some of the issues mentioned, such as the lack of polling stations and voting options have been long standing and legitimate.

As the world continues to evolve, and as the globalised economy continues to present opportunities for Singaporeans to study and work abroad, the future Government cannot stick by the existing structure and thus ignore the desire of overseas Singaporeans who would like to continue participating in the political matters of the place they call home.

*Names have been changed by respondents’ request.

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