Are Singapore elections so predictable that we have begun to treat it as a non-event? Since we can predict with certainty which party is going to get most of the votes, does it mean we should vote apathetically? Can Singaporeans democratically change our government through normal procedural elections under the current situation? How many Singaporeans have a desire to run as Opposition candidates but are stopped by their perceptions of the system? Why are the major political parties in Singapore facing difficulties in recruiting election candidates? Is the media impartial to all political parties during electoral campaigning?
These were just some of my thoughts as the panel speakers, members of the public and the ARDA team members made their observations and opinions at Singapores first indoor public forum on Singapore elections.
The event threw up robust complex election issues. One of the mulled over issues was the mentality of the Singaporean voter. It is apparent that psychological factors heavily influence how the average Singaporean votes. The current governments carrot and stick approach has given the Peoples Action Party (PAP) an unfair edge over other Opposition parties. Positive media reviews of PAP candidates and Government Shares motivate Singaporeans to vote for the ruling party while fear of losing jobs, serial numbers on voting ballots and negative media portrayal of Opposition parties turn the general uninformed public away from supporting the Opposition.
During the forum, some participants revealed the fear that Singaporeans have developed over the years under one-party rule. One of them mentioned the dominance of the government in various domestic sectors from telecommunications to the supermarket.
Focusing on a larger picture, one of the younger participants opined that Singapores lack of democratic culture as compared to United States is one of the reasons why we are behind promoting democracy and human rights, which indirectly ties in with elections issues.
Mr J B Jeyaretnam who was the moderator, set the topic of the forum, by raising the pertinent question of whether Singapores elections are truly free and fair. This includes whether elections are fair to candidates, if all parties have equal opportunities to present their policies and programs, how parties are funded during election campaigns, how transparent the system is on procedures during polling day and so on.
Mr Yap Keng Ho, one of the two panel speakers, presented his internet poll on the election system and revealed disturbing signs of Singaporeans who are unsure of the freeness and fairness of the current system. A small sample base and a limited time frame were drawbacks of the survey which Mr Yap promised to fix by extending the deadline of the survey period.
Dr Tan Chong Kee, the other speaker, drew a comparison between Singapore and a system under a sage-king. He posited that even if we agreed to have a wise monarch rule the country, we would still need free and fair elections for his ministers to ensure that the philosopher-king gets an accurate picture of the happenings on the ground in order for him to make the right policies.
The views of the ARDA team were equally helpful. Mr Earl Parreno, a seasoned election observer and journalist from the Philippines, related the Marcos rule in Philippines and how citizens overcame their fear of the dictatorial regime through People Power revolution. Hong Kongs Mr Martin Lee discouraged boycotting elections when one of the participants suggested it as a form of civil disobedience but he also expressed his understanding that the people of Hong Kong could vote freely for the candidates and that they enjoyed much more freedom than Singaporeans do.
On the future of Singapore elections and individual actions, one participant cautioned the governments plan to roll out e-voting, which he claimed, is difficult to monitor and is susceptible to fraud.
Another participant suggested that though independent election commissions should be considered as a viable option to ensure fairness of the system, he believed that Singaporeans are on the whole, generally unsympathetic towards Opposition. As such, he urged the public to give Opposition a chance; and that Opposition candidates will need to work harder at the grassroots level to gain citizens support and trust.
Nearly all of the participants who spoke expressed their disappointment with the way elections are conducted in Singapore. Factors such as blatant gerrymandering, intimidation of voters, media biasness, fear of the ruling party, etc. all ensured PAP victory. No one was hopeful that things would change in the near future.
This forum on election helped Singaporeans understand the need of being aware of electoral issues from various perspectives. We need to recognize that free and fair election is a major element in promoting and ensuring democracy. Without it, no amount of unhappiness among the people will make the PAP change its policies.
Charles Tan is a Young Democrat.