Despite its subject-matter, the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill is one such piece of legislation. It's one of those things that I think of as "keeping the lights on" -- legislation to keep the wheels of government turning. And it is just as important to keep one's eyes on them and speak on them, as the other stuff.
The video and text of my speech, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister's responses to my points, are below.
I had wondered about whether to make the suggestion for the Government to fund polling agents to attend at overseas polling stations. When I did, I could hear some surprised titters rippling through the House. I suspect that at least some MPs saw it as a call for Goverment-funded junkets for politicians, especially Opposition party members.
But I think that view misses the point, as does the DPM's reply, that the actual process of vote-counting in Singapore is seen as fair and impartial, because of the safeguards built into the process, including the opportunity for all parties to monitor the vote-counting process. Whether or not the Opposition parties have sufficient manpower for that, is a different question. The principle remains valid. And if so, then why should there be a difference between local and overseas polling stations? The emphasis on frugality suggests that there can be a price to the integrity of the vote-counting process -- I disagree and I think it is short-sighted and sends the wrong message.
The DPM also suggested that I had said that:
"five days of campaigning is the same as nine days of campaigning, so why not close four days earlier. I am not sure if the Opposition will agree with that. I think we all want to have as much time as possible to put our views across."I think that is an overly-simplistic representation of what I had said. I believe that qualitatively, there is little difference between five days of campaigning and nine days of campaigning -- in my view, both are inadequate, and many if not most Singaporeans would have made up their minds already anyway. And like I said, consistently limiting campaigning to the statutory minimum of 9 days is not consistent with wanting to maximise the amount of time available, or as the DPM said, "I think we all want to have as much time as possible to put our views across."
Video of speech:
Speech on the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill
Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Mr Speaker, Sir, I rise in support of the Bill.
This Bill seeks to refine the Act by implementing changes that the Deputy Prime Minister had announced in the Committee of Supply debate earlier this year. These refinements are positive and much welcome. Having said that, I have three points for the Deputy Prime Minister's consideration.
Sir, of all the amendments, the relaxation of the eligibility criteria for an overseas voter is the most significant. A Singapore citizen must now spend an aggregate of 30 days in the past three years in Singapore to qualify for overseas voting. It removes the previous eligibility criteria which had been heavily criticised. This will have the effect of enabling many more overseas Singaporeans to vote. It also means that at the next general elections, overseas polling stations are likely to receive many more overseas voters than in the 2006 elections.
Section 39 of the Act specifies that the Presiding Officer of a polling station, which includes an overseas polling station shall exclude from the polling station all persons except voters allotted to that polling station, the candidates, the polling agents of each candidate and other persons involved in the functioning of the polling station. My question is whether the Government will make special provision to enable polling agents of candidates to be present in overseas polling stations.
While the Act, as it now stands, permits parties to send their polling agents to overseas polling stations, the reality is that travel costs would be so high as to make this prohibitive and unrealistic. That being the case, I propose that the Government should fund the travel of one polling agent from each political party involved in the elections to each overseas polling station where overseas voters in respect of constituencies contested by that party are registered to vote so that all parties would be able to appropriately monitor the various overseas polling stations. This would ensure that the same degree of transparency and accountability applies to both local and overseas polling stations and preclude any allegation of vote rigging, foul play or other unfairness.
My second point relates to early voting for overseas voters. Ms Sylvia Lim had raised this issue in last year's COS and I think she has mentioned this slightly earlier. Sir, at COS this year, the Deputy Prime Minister had answered that there are many implications to early voting which make it unfeasible, including the fact that overseas Singaporeans would then only witness four to five days of campaigning from overseas before voting which may not be enough for them to form a conclusion on whom to vote for. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister to reconsider this and to permit early voting for overseas voters.
The concern raised by Ms Lim is certainly true that there is a valid concern about anonymity in some wards, in particular single member constituencies. It seems to me that there is little qualitative difference between five days of campaigning and nine days of campaigning. I believe that the benefits of permitting early voting for overseas voters far outweigh the potential problems. And certainly, if the Government was keen to give Singaporeans more time to come to an informed conclusion, then it should provide for much longer campaign period than the statutory minimum of nine days which has been the practice in past elections.
Also, in this year's COS, Mr Matthias Yao had raised the question of contingency plans to deal with possible disruptions to the smooth conduct of elections, such as severe weather on Nomination Day and Polling Day. The Deputy Prime Minister's response then was that the Elections Department was looking into this and legislative amendments would be introduced to address such situations. The Bill currently before this House does not appear to address this issue. I therefore hope that the Deputy Prime Minister can update this House on the status of the Elections Department's work on contingency planning and the proposed legislative amendments that he had referred to in this year's COS.
Sir, the Amendment Bill before this House is a well-balanced piece of legislation that preserves the principles of democracy by enabling many more overseas Singaporeans to vote than is presently the case. This keeps our general elections relevant in today's globalised world. I believe that the refinements I have suggested would improve the Act even more.
With that, I support the Bill.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (Mr Wong Kan Seng): Sir, I thank the Members for supporting the amendments in this Bill. I will answer the questions raised by both Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Siew Kum Hong.
On advancing the end of poll for overseas polling stations, I have explained before that it will shorten the time for overseas voters to make an informed decision. I have just heard Mr Siew saying that five days of campaigning is the same as nine days of campaigning, so why not close four days earlier. I am not sure if the Opposition will agree with that. I think we all want to have as much time as possible to put our views across. The timing right now to close the poll for overseas station no later than we close the poll for the Singapore station is a correct one. We will see how else we can deal with the situation of too few voters in a particular constituency. But as more Singaporeans go overseas to work and register themselves to vote, then the chances are that many of them will come from a particular constituency, and therefore the question of secrecy or anonymity of the vote will no longer arise. In fact, even if there are five overseas Singaporeans who voted for a particular constituency, nobody can tell really how the five individual members actually voted other than to know that maybe X number for one party and Y number for another party. Beyond that, who voted for who is anybody's guess. I think the Opposition Member, Mr Low Thia Khiang himself, also once agreed with me that the vote is secret and we cannot really tell.
On the eligibility criteria, I have explained that. Mr Siew is quite happy with the change. His suggestion about Government funding the polling agent to go to a polling station overseas is something that we will not need to do, because there is no law compelling any party to send any polling agent to the polling station. It is not compulsory. They do not have to do it. In fact, there are some parties that could not even have enough polling agents for the Singapore elections. So we do not see the need to spend public money to send the Opposition or PAP polling agent to an overseas station. We should trust the integrity of the election process and, so far, there has been no complaint. People know that our election is fair and transparent and it is not an issue at all not to have polling agents to oversee it. If the party wants to do so, I think they are free to spend whatever they need or even to appoint somebody overseas as their polling agent. But, again, that must be subject to the availability of space in a particular overseas polling station because, as we know, Singapore is quite frugal. We do not have large Missions like some countries and, therefore, we may not be able to find enough space to accommodate all the parties that want to send their polling agents to those countries.
On the last question of contingency plans, these are still being worked out. This particular Bill only deals with overseas voting and registration for overseas voting.