Discussion in Parliament on voting secrecy misses the point

March 4, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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Given the gravity of the problems surrounding the election process in Singapore, it is astounding that the debate in Parliament on the matter during Budget 2008 was completely devoid of substance and sense.

The declaration that the vote is secret (see Straits Times report below) misses the point. Whether there is in fact ballot secrecy is not for the Minister to assert or MPs to agree; it is for an independent commission to enforce and ensure.

The fact that the ballot slip is numbered sets up the possibility for the authorities to trace the vote. Such a possibility compromises the principle of secrecy.
This problem takes on a much more sinister complexion given the atrocious record of the PAP when it comes to democratic practices.

The opposition must insist that serial numbers be removed from the voting slips. Mr Wong Kan Seng’s excuse that the numbers are to prevent ballot stuffing is limp.

The Australian vote, for example, does not carry any identification. Yet, stuffing of ballots is not a problem there.

This is because there are many ways to prevent such cheating: Votes should be counted at the polling centre instead of being transferred to another venue thereby reducing opportunities for ballot boxes to be switched or added, watchdog groups should be allowed to monitor the voting and counting processes, voters’ fingers could be marked with indelible ink after they vote, an independent commission should be in place to conduct elections, and so on.

Many countries have adopted such procedures and their systems have much more credibility than Singapore’s. Numbering of voting slips is just a convenient excuse for the PAP.

Pretending that the numbering is not a factor so as not to exacerbate voters’ fears is wishful thinking at best.

Singaporeans have repeatedly indicated that they fear voting for the opposition because they may get found out. Sticking our heads in the sand and wishing for the problem to go away is not a solution.

Even if the opposition keeps quiet about this, it is not beyond the PAP and its so-called grassroots people to start a whisper campaign that such-and-such a person was victimised by the Government because he or she voted for the opposition.

During our walk-abouts, many Singaporeans have approached us asking whether such scenarios are true and whether the PAP really checks how they vote. Real or imagined, the fear is there.

For example, a taxi-driver told us that he had on one occasion approached his MP for assistance on a matter. When he returned to enquire about the outcome of his request, he was asked why he voted for the opposition and not PAP.

Whether his story was real or whether he was fear-mongering, no one knows. But stories like these make their rounds in the kopitiams and housing estates.

Why allow such stories to be circulated when there is a solution which is to remove the numbering on ballot slips? In this way any doubt that the voting may not be secret is once and for all eradicated.

Take the bull by its horns. Confront the problems and work to change it. The short-term pain will build the necessary foundation for free and fair elections in the decades to come.

The longer we try to take the easy way out and not demand a genuinely secret vote, the more advantageous it is for the PAP.

This is why the SDP has called on opposition parties to come together to demand reform of the election process. We will continue to do so.

With the other many problems that beset our electoral process, there is no doubt that Singapore’s election system is a sham. That there was no substantive debate in Parliament on the issue is a shame.


Is the vote secret? Of course, says Low Thia Khiang

Li Xueying
Straits Times
28 Feb 08

Opposition MP Low Thia Khiang does believe that the vote in Singapore is secret.

“Of course I do believe the vote is secret, otherwise I will not even want to participate in elections!” declared the smiling Workers’ Party secretary-general, to laughter in the House.

In response, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said: “Well, I’m happy to hear Mr Low saying and confirming here in this House that he believes that the vote is secret and I believe Ms Sylvia Lim, the party chairman also thinks the vote is secret.”

The exchange started when Mr Low (Hougang) asked Mr Wong about plans for a voter education campaign.

Mr Wong had earlier, during the debate on the budget for the Prime Minister’s Office, said educational brochures will be mailed to every home.

Videos will also be produced for TV and Internet broadcast, and for distribution at community centres.

Saying that he was pleased with this news, Mr Low noted that there are still some Singaporeans who are “wary” about the vote’s secrecy, particularly given the serial numbers printed on ballot papers.

He asked if the campaign would address this.

Mr Wong said: “Before I answer the question, maybe I’ll ask Mr Low whether he thinks that the vote is secret.”

Yes, said Mr Low.

Mr Wong responded with a smile: “So there’s no question about the integrity of the voting process as well as the secrecy of the vote.”

He then explained the need for serial numbers.

“When there is a dispute, for example, there are more votes counted than there are voters in the constituency, then we’d know whether ballot papers have been stuffed into the ballot boxes and we can then trace every number and see where these extra papers come from.”

But he assured: “There is no way of tracing who (cast the ballot) unless the court so orders when there is a dispute in terms of the vote.”

Voters will be educated on this issue, he added.

Mr Wong also addressed a query from Ms Lim, who asked if overseas Singaporeans could vote earlier, so that their ballots are counted with local votes.

She said: “My concern was that in some single seats especially, the number of overseas voters could be as low as two, so there may be some concern about anonymity.”

Mr Wong replied that such a move will mean overseas Singaporeans will have just four to five days of listening to campaign speeches and so “may not have enough information to form a conclusion”.

Thus, it will “not be fair” for them to vote so early.

He allowed the possibility of putting aside some votes in Singapore to be mixed with the overseas ones.

“But again it will also mean a delay in the announcement of the results of those constituencies.”