Campaign rules need to be out way before writ of election

By Ethan Tay

People’s Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng (centre in purple) hands out mandarins to a passer-by outside Ang Mo Kio Hub on 19 Jan 2020. PHOTO: LIANG LEI

As the Government focuses on reopening the economy and stemming Covid-19 infections in the foreign worker dormitories, its plans for holding an election seem to have taken a backseat. On May 26, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat announced the country’s fourth Covid-19 support package targeted to help businesses retain employees and provide more jobs. Just when it seemed an election would be delayed further, Mr Heng hinted during a media interview the next day that an election is coming sooner rather than later and Singaporeans have to be prepared for it. 

But how do opposition parties prepare for an election if the Elections Department (ELD) has yet to provide guidelines for campaigning during the Covid-19 outbreak? On May 28, two opposition parties responded to Mr Heng’s statement on their websites. 

The Workers’ Party called for the ELD to give clarity on how campaigning regulations would be modified, stressing that this should be revealed as soon as possible so that political parties would not risk squandering resources on campaigning efforts that are not aligned with the regulations.

The Singapore Democratic Party was more audacious in its requests, stating the specific campaign modifications it wants the ELD to make to ensure that political parties have equitable access to the electorate. 

One of its requests is the extension of campaigning duration from the customary nine days to 21 days. Nine days of campaigning is also the minimum duration required, according to the Parliamentary Elections Act which stipulates that polls need to be held no earlier than the 10th day and no later than the 56th day after Nomination Day. SDP’s request for 21 days of campaigning does not come up to half of the maximum 54 days of campaigning, considering Cooling-Off Day as the 55th day.

SDP also asked for all parties to be given access to Mediacorp’s television channels every night and its radio programmes every day. This is a huge leap from the usual practice of just two nights throughout the campaigning period. Since the 2001 general election, the Media Development Authority has only allowed two broadcasts — one shortly after Nomination Day and another closer to Polling Day. Both broadcasts were transmitted through Mediacorp’s various radio and television channels. The duration of broadcast allocated to each party depends on the number of candidates it fields. In the 2015 general election, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), which fielded six candidates, had 2.5 minutes of airtime while the People’s Action Party (PAP) with 89 candidates was given 13 minutes.

SDP’s other requests include reserving space in mainstream newspapers for political parties to publish their manifestos daily, and allowing walkabouts to be conducted in food courts, void decks, and other common areas.

The ELD usually uploads an advisory for candidates to its website, containing campaigning guidelines and voting procedures. In the last two general elections, advisories were released on the same day the President issued the Writ of Election. 

Nomination Day, which marks the start of campaigning and is typically set one week after the Writ is issued, means candidates in the last two general elections only knew what the campaigning guidelines were one week before it began. The law allows up to one month to pass between the time of the Writ and Nomination Day. 

This might be reasonable under normal circumstances as the campaigning guidelines stated in the advisory are generally a rehash of what’s in the Parliamentary Elections Act and the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations. Only a few nitty-gritty rules stated in the advisory were not in the law, such as the allocation process for rally sites. When the law allows the Commissioner of Police to impose conditions at his own discretion, such as for a rally permit, these conditions were spelled out in the advisory.

With the Covid-19 outbreak, safe distancing rules have handicapped many typical election campaign methods such as house-to-house visits and the organization of rallies. There is a need for more advance notice on how campaigning rules will be altered so that candidates have sufficient time to come up with alternative campaigning methods. The usual one week notice will not suffice.

A look at the advisories to candidates in the last two general elections showed that there were not many changes to campaigning rules. 

In the 2015 general election, the rule stating how far posters and banners were allowed to be displayed from a polling station was reduced from 200 metres to 50 metres. 

In the 2011 general election, Cooling-Off Day was implemented to give voters the space to reflect rationally on the issues raised by political parties. The laws for election advertising had also been amended to allow election advertising through social networking sites and electronic media applications.

For both elections, the spending limit of a candidate was increased by 50 cents per voter in an electoral division to account for inflation. In GE2015, the average spending per voter of a PAP candidate and an opposition candidate were $2.16 and 73 cents respectively, far from the $4 limit. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu was the biggest spender, spending $2.97 per voter in Yuhua SMC. 

From GE2015 until now, there have been no significant changes to campaigning rules. On April 20, however, the ELD released two advisories stating precautionary measures that political parties should take to minimise cybersecurity risks and prevent foreign interference to elections.

South Korea recently held its parliamentary election on April 15. Campaigning methods were altered drastically after the National Election Commission told candidates to refrain from gathering in masses. Candidates switched to online methods — conducting live talk shows with voters, uploading speeches, and posting videos of their interactions with citizens on the streets. Some candidates also paid for banner advertisements on Korean search engine Naver.

Campaigning is likely to look similar in Singapore’s upcoming election, which pundits think will take place in July. However, political parties here have fewer digital advertising options after Google said it will not accept political advertisements which are regulated by the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements

The code was issued last year by the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office to curb foreign interference on Singapore’s politics. Digital advertising intermediaries are required to disclose information linked to paid political advertisements communicated in Singapore, including the identity of the person or organisation that paid for the advertisement. Facebook also announced measures to comply with the code.

RELATED STORY: Political Advertising on Facebook in Singapore: Who spent what?

A comparison of social media accounts owned by political parties showed that the PAP has the widest reach on Facebook, with about 190,000 followers. This is followed by the WP with 112,000 followers, while the SDP and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) have about 62,000 and 20,000 followers respectively, as of May 31.

On Instagram, the PAP leads again with about 29,300 followers. WP trails behind at 9,000, while SDP and PSP have about 2,300 and 1,300 followers respectively. 

WP takes the lead on Telegram, with 2,200 subscribers on its channel, a thousand more than the PAP, while the PSP has about 400. SDP does not have a Telegram channel.

During the circuit breaker period, opposition parties have been active in conducting Facebook live and Zoom webinar sessions with their supporters. The WP Youth Wing has conducted two webinar sessions so far — one on April 26 which garnered 101,000 views and the other on May 16 with 46,000 views.

PSP conducted a “MeetPSP” session using Facebook live and Zoom on May 21, chalking up around 46,000 views. It plans to conduct one more session on June 4. The party also organised a TraceTogether webinar session on May 13 that had 9,800 views. 

SDP conducted an online forum on May 23 titled “The world has changed with the pandemic. Can Singapore?” which gathered about 25,000 views.

The PAP has not conducted any Facebook live or Zoom webinar sessions to engage their supporters, although it has been active in posting party updates on its Facebook page.

It seems such live-chats and discussion forums will be more intensively used by political parties if campaigning is shifted online. A Zoom Pro plan costs about US$15 per month per host. A webinar add-on costs an additional US$40 per month, which allows the host to stream the webinar on Facebook live and YouTube to unlimited audiences. 

Conducting webinar sessions seems to be a lot less costly than organising a physical rally which costs thousands of dollars per night. According to SDA chief Desmond Lim, he paid about $11,000 for the setting up of a stage, sound system, barricades and generator in GE2015. But a physical rally is more visually impactful than a virtual one, and opposition rallies in particular have always been well attended. 

In response to the WP and SDP’s press statements on May 28, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said campaigning guidelines cannot be announced “prematurely” because they are dependent on the ever-changing measures enacted to tackle the evolving Covid-19 outbreak. 

“Depending on when the (election) will be called by the Prime Minister, the ELD must make sure that whatever measures that they announce are cognisant and in sync with the prevailing health situation," he added. 

On May 19, the multi-ministry task force revealed a three-phase plan to reopen the country’s economy. Phase one, which starts on June 2, would last for at least four weeks. But it may be shorter, depending on the level of infection spread in the community, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on May 28. The task force will reassess the situation in mid-June.

In phase two, almost the entire economy will resume operations. However, businesses and organisations that involve large gatherings in enclosed spaces such as museums, cinemas, and clubs, may not resume operations all at once.

Arrangement to facilitate a safe election amid the Covid-19 outbreak — such as allowing Singaporeans on stay-home notices to vote outside of their electoral divisions and permitting representatives of aspiring candidates to file nomination papers on their behalf if they are ill — have been authorized by the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act. Closer to the election date, the ELD will release an advisory detailing other nitty-gritty precautionary measures such as the frequency of disinfecting polling booths and temperature screening.

RELATED STORY: No clarity on Covid-19 elections legislation

However, even if the country’s health situation improves in the near future, mass gatherings the size of rallies are unlikely to be allowed anytime soon as the government would probably err on the side of caution. Political parties might as well invest their resources on online platforms which will come in handy to reach out to their supporters whether during campaigning or otherwise. 

It is likely that all political parties are already prepared for e-campaigning, but you never know when a new curveball would be thrown given the recent advisories on cybersecurity and foreign interference. 

For the first time, the political parties will also be campaigning in a Pofma environment.

The Act states that for the entire election period, Ministers will cease to exercise their powers under Pofma. Instead, senior civil servants are appointed as the Ministers’ alternate authorities for the election period. This means that it is for civil servants to decide on the veracity of online statements made by politicians, including their past or potential political masters. How will this law work during Singapore’s typically short campaigning period, especially if political parties appeal against directives issued and start politicising the use of the law? 

Political parties will need more than the usual one week notice to know what they can or cannot do, and even more time to get their facts and texts right. 

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