Free and Fair Elections Build Singapore's Political Resilience

8 April 2020
James Gomez

parliamentary electionsWe speak these days of economic and social resilience but we must also speak of political resilience. This can only be achieved through a free and fair election.

The Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill and COVID-19 (Temporary Measures Bill), when passed, will render Singapore's forthcoming polls an unfair election. For elections to be free and fair, the process must go beyond logistical and procedural access for voters.

Voters must also have equitable access to messages on policy alternatives in different ways put out by political parties. When votes are cast based on imbalanced access to information, it does not build resilience in the body politic.

The emergency measures to address the coronavirus health crisis - notably restrictions on freedom of assembly - coupled with the fake news law POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act), will give the PAP an unfair advantage. POFMA has already been used to target individuals with views critical of the Government.

In terms of news consumption, Singapore has been experiencing a shift towards online-based sources of information (86%) with print media lagging (38%). News consumption takes place over social media platforms (62%). Singapore enjoys 79% social media penetration with 99% of them accessing it via mobile devices.

The unfairness, brought about by an electoral system that is unable to adequately reflect the will of the people and that allows the ruling party to call snap elections, will be deepened further by the political dimensions of the tabled Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill and COVID-19 (Temporary Measures Bill).

While voters and potential candidates are provided with alternative arrangements if they are subject to stay-home notices, the Bills can impact the operations of political parties during this period. It can effectively incapacitate political party activity including the production of social media content even before the elections.

Only one party will operate from the advantage of being in government. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) will extend its unfair advantage derived from a pliant mainstream media if the campaign is limited to online platforms. Voters can feel this unfairness.

That a free and fair election can be held in the middle of a national emergency is a strand of fake news that is propagated by the ruling party and its enthusiastic apologists. Not addressed or debated are the limitations on basic rights, dictated by the health crisis, that is convenient to the ruling party.  

Pressing issues of concern to Singaporeans go beyond the immediate health crisis. At the end of the day, what affects Singaporean most are concerns over the rising cost of living, population density, healthcare and housing affordability, poverty and inequality, weak social security and pension system.

The absence of substantive reports on the lack of electoral fairness in the media testifies to the PAP propaganda machine both globally and domestically. Add to this pro-PAP internet trolls that routinely cyber-bully critics online and stifle free and fair debate and social media influencers who peddle pro-PAP messages on their Facebook, Instagram accounts or personal Vlogs, the propaganda and message disruption on social media is complete.

The PAP propaganda machine, aided by a biased mainstream media, and now engulfing also the social media, will have a considerable advantage. Restrictions by Google on political ads, Facebook community standards that uphold the trolling of opposition parties and the limits on message forwarding imposed by WhatsApp all work to take away any levelling social media could have offered to voters wanting to access alternative information. Hence, the refrain - one can campaign online in light of the COVID-19 measures - is fake news.

In sum, the holding of elections amidst the national emergency creates an unfair election and puts voters at a serious disadvantage It creates a media imbalance where voters are unable to access policy alternatives messages that can address their genuine grievances. COVID-19 special measures will create a media bias that will render the Singaporean voter an unfair election and will continue the PAP's grip on Singapore without robust checks and balances.

Without a free and fair election, we cannot build resilience into Singapore's politics.

Dr James GomezDr. James Gomez was an SDP candidate in the 2011 parliamentary elections.