Should there be space for political dissent and an independent elections commission?

30May2016

 

The recent actions of the Elections Department and the police against Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung don’t just show that election regulations are unfairly enforced. They are merely another symptom of a political system where dissenters are regularly targeted and beaten down by the state.

Netizens have expressed outrage over the arrests and raids on Teo and Ngerng’s homes and the confiscation of their personal laptops and mobile phones.

Many have accused ELD of having double standards when it comes to enforcing election regulations, targeting opposition supporters but not government officials and pro-government groups. That ELD is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office does not help with perceptions that it is politically motivated in targeting dissenters.

It is hard to blame people for thinking that way. After all, ELD did not report nor take punitive action over other potential breaches which were publicised or brought to its attention.

The election commission is a vital institution in any democracy to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections. It is a grave situation for a democracy where the election commission is not impartial in its duties, or even merely perceived as such.

However, beyond the outcry over heavy-handed police actions and double standards, there are broader questions that we should raise about our electoral system. Is there any value in the Cooling-Off Day rule – a rule that cannot be practically enforced as it seems to apply currently? How can we ensure that our election commission is impartial and effective in its duties?

The government seems to be confused as to what exactly constitutes a breach of the Cooling-Off Day rule. The Parliamentary Elections Acts says that the transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals over the Internet or other electronic means is allowed. Yet ELD made police reports over the same thing by two individuals, Ngerng and Teo.

ELD has tried to justify that by saying that Ngerng and Teo regularly promote their political views. But where in Singapore’s law is it prohibited to engage in political discussion? This raises serious questions over the government’s fairness in implementing the Cooling-Off Day rule.

However, even assuming that ELD’s interpretation of the rule is correct, which implies that all individuals break the law when they broadcast their political views over the Internet on Cooling-Off Day, how is it possible to enforce this law in practice? Singapore has a population of 5.5 million. Is it possible for ELD to monitor and act against all those who break this rule? If not, would it be wise to have such a law? How could some who break the law be prosecuted but not others?

Of course, it is no secret to any observer that ELD is biased towards the ruling party. It regularly draws electoral boundaries that absorb PAP wards at risk of falling into opposition hands into GRCs, but cleverly leave untouched constituencies already controlled by the opposition. Targeting dissenters for breaches of election regulations can be seen as just one more way of making things difficult for the opposition.

Even though Singapore’s leaders like to extol the efficiency of the fusion of the ruling party and the state, ideally it would be better to have a truly independent election commission – one that is institutionally designed to be free of political influence, rather than directly controlled by the government. Although there are other countries with election commissions controlled by the government, many of them are much more mature democracies than Singapore.

However, is the PAP likely to set up an independent election commission? All its actions show its resentment towards dissent against its rule and desire to suppress alternative political views, even as it pays lip service to being inclusive in governance. It continually criticises and makes things difficult for alternative media. Ministers threaten to sue ordinary citizens into bankruptcy for defamation.

Our problem isn’t simply one of whether ELD or the police are politically biased. The problem is that all organs of state are controlled by a party that cannot tolerate criticism and seeks to stamp it out where it can.

 

 

Teng Yong Ping is a staff member of SPH and wishes to make it clear that these views are his only and not those of the company’s.

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