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Singapore moots new laws for voting in the time of coronavirus

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 7/4/2020 Dewey Sim in Singapore
a close up of a stone building: A man stands along a quiet street in Singapore on April 7 as the country ordered the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential as well as schools to combat the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP © AFP A man stands along a quiet street in Singapore on April 7 as the country ordered the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential as well as schools to combat the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP
  • The new, temporary laws will allow electors under Covid-19 stay-home orders to vote outside their electoral divisions to minimise interactions with others
  • Aspiring candidates also need not be present in person during nomination proceedings under the new bill, which has yet to be passed

Singapore’s government has proposed new laws to ensure elections can be held safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a fresh sign that it is gearing up for polls to take place before the April 2021 deadline by which a vote must take place.

Under the bill, which will only be passed after it is read a second time when parliament next sits, electors who are subject to Covid-19 stay-home orders may vote outside their electoral divisions – such as the designated facilities at which they are staying – so they would not mingle with other people.

Aspiring candidates also need not be present in person during nomination proceedings if they are ill or under a quarantine or stay-home order, according to the new bill, which outlines temporary arrangements that will only apply to the next election.

Trade and industry minister Chan Chun Sing, who introduced the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill in parliament, said there might also be “special steps” taken in the interest of public health when it came to the polling and vote-counting processes if elections were to take place amid an outbreak.

Singapore, which has 1,375 confirmed cases of Covid-19, on Tuesday began a partial lockdown that will see most workplaces except essential services closed until May 4, with schools moving to full-time home-based learning on Wednesday.

a store inside of a wooden table: Table settings with the chairs removed at Lau Pa Sat food centre in Singapore. Photo: AFP © AFP Table settings with the chairs removed at Lau Pa Sat food centre in Singapore. Photo: AFP

The island nation in March ordered all inbound travellers – including citizens, residents and tourists – to serve a compulsory two-week stay-home notice in a bid to identify those who had been infected with the virus. The central business district was quiet on Tuesday, with local media running pictures of empty train stations, buses and streets.

Singapore’s election must be held by April 14, 2021, but the government has been making preparations for it to be held earlier.

In an interview with local media in March, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the logistical hurdles of conducting an election amid a pandemic were “solvable problems”, and that he faced a choice between “conducting an election under abnormal circumstances against going into a storm with a mandate which is reaching the end of its term”.

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong also chimed in, pointing to how Queensland in Australia held local elections amid the outbreak. “There are pros and cons either way. I am sure [Prime Minister Lee] will weigh all the factors carefully in deciding when to call our general elections. I have confidence in his judgment and wisdom to make the right decision in Singaporeans’ interest,” he wrote on Facebook.

In South Korea, which is seeing a downward trend in new infections, coronavirus patients will be allowed to vote by mail or as absentees in next Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.

The vote will elect 300 members of the National Assembly for the next four years, in an exercise that has posed challenges over how to rein in the virus at polling places while ensuring people’s right to vote. There are more than 10,000 confirmed cases in the East Asian nation.

Meanwhile, the Elections Department Singapore (ELD) in a press release said it was reviewing election processes and putting in place necessary precautionary measures that complied with advisories from the health ministry.

Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, likened the idea of voting from home to e-voting, and raised concerns over the proposed arrangements. “That is a huge concern because it will be hard to verify whether the votes are actually from the person and have not been tampered with in any way,” he said.

The credibility of the results was also a point raised by political analyst Bilveer Singh, who said the government would need to ensure the integrity of votes if polling was done under confinement, as well as ensuring the safety of voters and polling administrators.

Tan said it was likely the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had adopted a wait-and-see approach, whereby it would monitor the number of coronavirus cases in upcoming weeks and only call for an election when the situation stabilised.

He suggested one of the possible election windows was end-May, and the other was September.

a man walking down the street: Singapore’s usually bustling business district was almost deserted on April 7 as most workplaces in the city state closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: AFP © AFP Singapore’s usually bustling business district was almost deserted on April 7 as most workplaces in the city state closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Still, former PAP member of parliament Inderjit Singh felt the general election should not be held any time soon, at least until leaders were sure the Covid-19 situation was under control.

“If we can be assured things are in control and there will not be a third … spike, that will be the window of opportunity that the government can call for the election,” he said.

Inderjit lauded the bill, saying it included “good arrangements which will allow candidates to still compete” even during the outbreak – though he added that this might take the form of online campaigning instead of physical rallies.

As voting in Singapore is mandatory and those who fail to do so will be struck off the electoral roll, Inderjit said “Singaporeans will mostly vote, even if reluctantly”. Singapore’s voter turnout has often been above 90 per cent, coming in at 94 per cent in the most recent election five years ago.

Tan from SIM Global Education said there would be measures in place, such as staggered voting times, to ensure Singaporeans were assured enough to head out to vote.

Conversely, Steve Chia, the secretary general of opposition Singapore People’s Party, felt voter turnout could take a hit as some citizens chose to stay home instead of going out to rallies or vote.

He said the proposed special arrangements under the new bill were “important and necessary” to include every citizen in the democratic process, but added that it was not a good idea for elections to be called as long as there is still “unknown community spread”.

“The government should not divert its resources and attention for political pursuits till after there are zero unlinked infections for a week,” he said, making a point raised by various opposition parties.

Even as signs of a looming election are clearer than ever, several PAP MPs – including Tin Pei Ling, Gan Thiam Poh and Lee Bee Wah – said what was most important now was to stem the spread of the virus.

“Right now I am focused on helping my residents through the Covid-19 crisis. My volunteers are also focused on this,” Lee said. “We are not thinking about any general election-related matters.”

Singapore’s parliament also quickly pushed through a new bill on temporary measures to deal with Covid-19 under a certificate of urgency.

This bill, conceived and delivered in just nine days, allows those affected by the outbreak to get out of contractual obligations – including getting deposits back for weddings that have been postponed – and forces property owners to pass on tax rebates to tenants.

It lasts for six months and allows courts to hear matters online while giving the health ministry more leeway to prevent further spread of the virus, including the current “circuit breaker” measures and the ability to requisition land, property or services to ramp up health care capacity and public health capabilities.

Additional reporting by Kok Xinghui

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