Has anyone asked those hit by the virus about not having to vote?

By Ethan Tay

ILLUSTRATION: ETHAN TAY


On Monday, the Elections Department (ELD) announced new measures to ensure a safe election during the Covid-19 outbreak and changes to regulations on paid internet election advertising.


The long-awaited campaigning guidelines, however, have yet to be released. The ELD said these rules will be announced closer to the election as they are dependent on the state of the outbreak and the safe distancing guidelines in force at that time.


In the “worst case scenario”, it said, the guidelines will be released on the day the Writ of Election is issued.


In the 2015 general election, the ELD released changes to campaigning rules five days before the Writ, and the full list of rules on the day the Writ was issued.


Regardless of when the guidelines will be released, the ELD assured that political parties will be given "enough time” to plan their campaigning strategies.


There are two ways the ELD can give candidates more preparation time: it can either issue campaigning guidelines earlier or extend the period between the Writ of Election and Nomination Day, which marks the start of the campaigning period.


The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) asked for the latter, proposing a 10-day period, if campaigning guidelines were released on the day of the Writ. By law, a maximum of one month is allowed between the Writ’s release and Nomination Day, but by custom, the ELD has always settled on roughly a week’s gap.


From what it has let fall, the ELD is likely to take the first route and stick to its usual one week gap between the Writ and Nomination Day. So, it’s up to the political parties to be diligent about making the necessary preparations without knowing when the election will be held.


But what if the Covid-19 situation improves after the release of campaigning guidelines? It doesn’t seem likely that the ELD will relax measures to allow higher-risk activities. After all, it is better to err on the side of caution. The trouble comes if the health situation deteriorates. Then, the ELD will have to tighten guidelines to safeguard the health of voters.


Perhaps, the government would time the election to be held during Phase 2 of the easing of circuit breaker measures. That could come as quickly as next week, as Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong had said Phase 2 could start before the end of June.


The Covid-19 outbreak is expected to be stabilised by then, making it a safer bet to call for an election. But in Phase 2, it is still not likely that election rallies can be held, especially if religious services, conferences and exhibitions have not been given the go-ahead.


Phase 2 could take a few months, Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong said, as it involves multiple steps to ease measures gradually, until the country moves to a ‘new normal’, that is Phase 3.


Large-scale events would have fully resumed by then but organisers would have to contend with a cap on the size of gatherings, as well as safe distancing measures. This seems to rule out the staging of the traditional rally in open fields if the elections were held in the near future. Political leaders have hinted that the elections will be held sooner rather than later, but it is worth noting that the constitutional deadline is April 2021, when Singapore could be way out of the woods.


In its statement on Monday, the ELD encouraged political parties to make preparations for e-campaigning and plan for campaigning activities that minimize large gatherings. It assured political parties that if large gatherings were to be banned, it would put in place other measures to ensure that voters have access to their campaigning messages.


One possible measure suggested was providing additional broadcast time for political parties. The SDP had previously called for access to Mediacorp’s television channels every night and its radio programmes every day, during the campaigning period. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) welcomed this possible provision, but asked for clarity on how additional television broadcast time will be provided.


In past general elections, the Infocomm Media Development Authority allowed two broadcasts during the election campaigning period. Broadcasts were aired on Mediacorp’s television and radio channels in each of the four languages — English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.


Only political parties that fielded at least six candidates were eligible to broadcast their campaigning messages on these channels. Duration of air-time for each broadcast depended on the number of candidates fielded, starting with a minimum of 2.5 minutes for six to seven candidates. On average, a party would get 30 seconds more air-time for every four additional candidates fielded.


Additional television broadcasts, however, may not be effective in reaching the millennials more attuned to the internet. E-campaigning would be a better bet to reach this group of voters, especially through social media. Radio broadcasts, on the other hand, may reach those who drive.


Other campaigning activities such as walkabouts and house visits are likely to be permitted as they can be conducted without an accompanying crowd. In fact, a few politicians have already been doing so, like MP for West Coast GRC Foo Mee Har who went door-to-door distributing Hari Raya goodies on May 22, while keeping a safe distance from residents. Former Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam of the Workers Party was also seen distributing food to low-income households in the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward of Aljunied GRC last Wednesday.


For South Korea’s election in April, campaigning activities were altered as social distancing guidelines were in place. Candidates were required to wear gloves and face masks and maintain a two-metre distance from residents when they conducted walkabouts. They were also allowed to deliver speeches in small groups.


But some Korean politicians did not abide by these safe distancing guidelines. President Moon Jae-in was seen coming into close contact with residents, sometimes without wearing a mask. Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon was spotted hugging a supporter, and campaign workers from the United Future Party gathered shoulder-to-shoulder at a market in Dongdaemun in Seoul, holding up posters.


In the United States, television and internet campaigning have intensified as the Covid-19 outbreak halted rallies in the last three months. In terms of Facebook advertising, Mr Biden splashed about US$5 million last week to rally supporters to petition against Trump and included clips from his speech on systemic racism in digital ads targeting young voters. In contrast, Trump’s campaign spent about US$1.27 million on Facebook ads last week. Google advertising and emailing were also used to release campaigning messages to the public. The presidential election is scheduled to be held on Nov 3.


In Singapore, however, internet election advertising may not be as intensive since Google announced late last year that it will not accept political advertisements which are regulated by the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements.


The newly amended rules also require candidates to declare details of all their paid internet election advertisements within 12 hours of the start of the campaign period. So, candidates do not have much liberty to publish ads spontaneously like Mr Biden.


Aside from announcing the amendments made to election advertising regulations, the Election Department on Monday also shared details regarding the safety measures that would be in place at polling stations.


Voters would have to be masked and don gloves, election officials must wear protective suits, and the polling booths would be regularly disinfected, similar to measures taken during the elections in South Korea and Israel.


The ELD did not opt to spread out the voting period over a few days as commonly practiced by South Korea and Australia’s state of Queensland, but it increased the number of polling stations, allocated time-bands for voters to cast their ballots and offered a way for voters to check the length of queues online.


In South Korea’s election, voters showing symptoms of fever can cast their ballots in a special area where they will also be tested for Covid-19. In Singapore, however, the ELD said that such voters will not be allowed entry into the polling stations. It did not say whether they will be able vote in other ways.


Certain groups of voters, such as those under quarantine or on medical leave for acute respiratory illnesses, are still left in the dark as to whether they could exercise their right to vote.


Currently, those under quarantine cannot vote because the Infectious Disease Act forbids them from leaving their places of accommodation. Those on medical leave due to acute respiratory illnesses will have to abide by the advice of the Returning Officer or the Director of Medical Services on whether they can vote.


For voters in South Korea infected with Covid-19, they were allowed to vote via postal ballots prior to Polling Day. But in Singapore, this group of voters seems to have been ignored.


In 2016, NCMP Dennis Tan asked in Parliament if it was feasible to implement postal voting for overseas voters, instead of having them travel to designated consulates, since many do not go to the overseas polling stations to cast their ballots.


Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said there were risks with the security and secrecy of postal ballots as they may be lost or tampered with during postal delivery.


That might be the case with overseas mail but such risks can surely be minimised if postal voting is implemented within the borders of Singapore and for a small group of people, that is, those infected with Covid-19.


As of June 11, there were 1,178 Singapore citizens and permanent residents (non-imported cases) infected with the virus. The number of citizens of voting age who are infected with the virus could be small and therefore, manageable. If they could mail in their ballots, and with the right precautions, they would hardly pose a risk of infection to other people and can, more importantly, exercise their right to vote.


In fact, I wonder who is speaking for this group of citizens. Did anyone ask them whether they would be okay with not voting?

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