by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
Guaranteeing secrecy of your vote is an imperative for free and fair elections.
Towards this end, for general and presidential elections, Singapore’s Elections Department (ELD) requires all authorised personnel to make an Oath of Secrecy before they are permitted to enter a polling or counting station to carry out their roles.
If you had taken part at the last general election as a polling or counting agent for a candidate, you would have had to appear before a Commissioner for Oaths to sign your signature on a printed form captioned “Form of Oath of Secrecy (Form 18)” containing the sentence:
“I, the abovenamed person, swear that I will not at this election in the abovementioned Electoral Division do anything forbidden by section 56 of the Parliamentary Elections Act which has been read to me.”
With the following footnote:
“Section 56 of the Parliamentary Elections Act (printed overleaf) must be read to the person taking the Oath. No stamp fee is required.”
If you notice, Form 18 has a very odd stipulation that Section 56 of the Parliamentary Elections Act must be read to the person taking the Oath, before the person swears and signs Form 18. This directive is not just odd, but also onerous, because Section 56 is 500 words long. I don’t want to lengthen this essay by 500 words, so let me show a picture of Section 56 instead.
Imagine the tedium of reading out Section 56 and the tedium of hearing a recitation of it. I can read Section 56 myself, but I am legally obliged to let someone read it to me.
The last three general elections were more hotly contested than before. General Election 2011 saw the highest number of seats contested since post-independence, with 82 of 87 seats (or 94.3%) contested. At General Elections 2015 and 2020, all seats were contested. Walkovers are now a thing of the past.
At each of the last three general elections, vast numbers of officers and agents had to be recruited by ELD and candidates to serve at polling and counting stations. All these personnel would have had to produce a signed Form 18 in order to gain admission into polling or counting stations to carry out their roles.
I was a candidate at General Elections 2011 and 2015. Each time, I had to recruit about 50 volunteers to serve as my polling and counting agents at the Single Member Constituency where I contested. All 50 polling and counting agents, including myself as a candidate, had to make the Form 18 oath.
I did not contest at General Election 2020, but was among the many Commissioners for Oaths who administered Form 18 for candidates, polling agents and counting agents. General Election 2020 had 1,097 polling stations. There are plans to increase the number of polling stations in the next general election. [Ref: Written reply PQ2503 of Notice Paper No. 1586 of 2022]
At the general elections that I have been involved in, it was each time an enormous logistical effort to arrange for the Oath of Secrecy to be taken by those required to make it. That Section 56 must be read to the declarant, was an added load on the effort.
Once upon a time, I read bedtime stories to my children. That was when they were too young to read for themselves.
In this day and age, surely declarants can read Section 56 for themselves. If they are not clear what Section 56 means, they should exercise personal responsibility to seek clarification, before making the Oath.
If the declarant is illiterate or cannot understand English, then reading out Section 56 to such a declarant is pointless.
It has always bugged me why Section 56 must be read out to the declarant. Recently, I decided to dig out the origins of the Oath of Secrecy. My journey back in time bore fascinating fruit.
The first time Singapore held a general election was on 20 March 1948.
At that time, Singapore was a British Colony. The British Colonial Government decided to hold the 1948 general election to let the people of Singapore elect 6 out of the 22 seats in the Legislative Council, with officials and appointed members holding the other 16 seats.
In preparation for Singapore’s first ever election, the British Colonial Government enacted the Singapore Legislative Council Ordinance, 1947 and set up the Elections Office under the Colonial Secretary’s Office.
It was publicly declared that the Elections Office was “non-partisan and completely colourless and was only concerned with ensuring that every eligible voter had an equal chance to vote. It was completely without party affiliations of any kind and the ballot would be secret, as in any democratic country.” (The Straits Times, 14 October 1947)
The 1947 Ordinance morphed into the Singapore Parliamentary Elections Act, 1954. The Elections Office under the Colonial Secretary’s Office is now the ELD under the Prime Minister’s Office.
Ploughing through the ancient 1947 Ordinance, I was jubilant to find the mother of Section 56 and Form 18 within its yellow leaves.
Entombed in the 1947 Ordinance was the edit that all officers, agents and other authorised personnel had to make an Oath of Secrecy before they could attend at a polling station or at the counting of votes.
The Oath of Secrecy prescribed by the 1947 Ordinance was as follows:
“I swear that I will not at this election for the ____________________ electoral district do anything forbidden by section 51 of the Singapore Legislative Council Elections Ordinance, 1947, which has been read to me.”
The form had the following footnote:
“The section must be read to the declarant by the person taking the declaration.”
Ah ha – that is where the words “which has been read to me” and “must be read to …” came from !
The Singapore Parliamentary Elections Act, 1954 has endured numerous amendments. But its Form 18 remains substantially the same as the Form of Oath of Secrecy incepted by the 1947 Ordinance.
The words “which has been read to me” in the Form 18 Oath statement and the words “must be read to …” in its footnote, have been carried forward in successive iterations of Form 18 since 1947 to the present day, without questioning if the requirement and the wording continues to be suitable in today’s context.
Perhaps the author of yore intended the words “must be read to the declarant” to be taken literally. More importantly, those words conveyed the message that the declarant must understand the do’s and don’ts as prescribed by the relevant section, before he makes the Oath of Secrecy.
Whatever might have been the good reason for requiring the whole section to be read out to the declarant back in 1947, such a requirement is no longer meaningful in today’s context.
The requirement that Section 56 must be read to the declarant, is an anachronism.
Feeling brave after having done the research, I decided to write to ELD to propose that Form 18 for general elections as well as its counterpart, Form P13 for presidential elections, be updated.
I wrote up a long letter to ELD. I explained how it was onerous and not meaningful to read out 500 words of legal prose to each declarant. Instead, the form should have the declarant declare that he/she has read and understood the relevant Section. This puts the onus on the declarant to seek a proper understanding of the relevant Section, before making the Oath of Secrecy.
I proposed that for both Form 18 and Form P13, the words “which has been read to me” in the Oath statement be changed to “which I have read and understood”; and that the footnote be removed for both Forms.
If adopted, the revised Oath statement for Form 18 would be:
“I, the abovenamed person, swear that I will not at this election in the abovementioned Electoral Division do anything forbidden by section 56 of the Parliamentary Elections Act 1954, which I have read and understood.”
And the revised Oath statement for Form P13 would be:
“I, the abovenamed person, swear that I will not at this election do anything forbidden by section 36 of the Presidential Elections Act, which I have read and understood.”
Not having to read 500 words of legal prose out to each declarant will help alleviate the massive effort required to carry out the oath taking process during a general or presidential election.
I sent my lengthy letter to ELD on 21 Feb 2023 at 12:59 pm.
You won’t believe it – ELD replied to me the very same day at 5:14 pm:
21 February 2023 5:14 pm
Dear Mrs Chong-Aruldoss
Thank you for your feedback submitted on 21 Feb 2023.
We will take your suggestion into consideration when we next review the forms. Regards
The speed at which ELD replied to me, was pretty impressive.
I hope ELD would take up my suggested changes to Forms 18 and P13 before the next general or presidential election.
The next general election must be held by 23 November 2025, so perhaps the next general election is not imminent.
However, the next presidential election is due to be held by 13 September 2023. If contested, the huge exercise of getting Form P13 signed for everyone required to do it, will be repeated.
Presidential Election 2011 was contested by an unprecedented four candidates. There were a huge number of officers and agents seeking to sign Form P13 at Presidential Election 2011.
Presidential Election 2017 was uncontested. With no polls, Form P13 was unused.
If Presidential Election 2023 is again uncontested, then as before, there would be no polls and Form P13 would remain unused. In which case, my misgivings with Form P13, would have no practical relevance.