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Are Singapore’s Elections Fair? Examining the Electoral Process and Political Rights

Goh Jun Cheng

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a multiparty political system. Ever since independence in 1965, regular free elections have been held in Singapore under the Westminster model. But are elections truly fair and democratic?

This in-depth article examines key aspects of Singapore’s electoral framework to assess the conduct of free and fair elections.

Evolution of Singapore’s Electoral Framework

  • Singapore started off as a part of Malaysia in 1963. But in 1965, it separated and became fully independent.
  • As a former British colony, Singapore naturally adopted the British Westminster parliamentary system at independence. This system is based on free elections, competing political parties and universal suffrage.
  • The governing People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated politics since 1959 when Singapore first became self-governing. The PAP has comfortably won a majority of seats in every election to date. There has never been a change in government.
  • Nonetheless, the fundamental institutional structure enabling multiparty electoral competition remains intact. Opposition politicians serve as Members of Parliament (MPs) and local councilors.

The Elected Presidency

  • Singapore also has a popularly elected President as its Head of State, not just a parliamentary government. The President performs custodial, oversight and crisis powers over the elected government.
  • Constitutional amendments in 1991 made the presidency an elected office. The elected president lends more democratic legitimacy than an appointed head of state.
  • To qualify as presidential candidates, individuals must meet stringent qualifications guaranteeing experience and expertise. This ensures meritocratic rather than populist elections.

Singapore’s Electoral System

  • For parliamentary elections, Singapore uses the first-past-the-post electoral system inherited from the British. The country is divided into electoral divisions called constituencies or wards. Each constituency elects one MP to represent it in parliament.
  • To win a constituency, candidates simply need to gain the most votes but not necessarily a majority. Minority candidates with significant support can still lose.
  • Critics argue this “winner take all” system discourages opposition parties with more multi-party contests. But others counter it allows clear mandates and avoids unstable coalition politics common under proportional representation systems.

The Elections Department

  • Parliamentary elections are administered by the Elections Department, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office for autonomy from any political party.
  • The Elections Department oversees key aspects of the elections process including electoral registers, logistics, balloting, vote-counting and announcing results.
  • Singapore uses plenty of technology in its elections. Polling stations have switched to electronic voting and vote counting systems to enhance verifiability and efficiency.
  • The Elections Department is generally viewed as competent and neutral. But opposition parties argue its allegiance to the Prime Minister’s Office favors the ruling party.

Fair Election Campaigning

  • Singapore’s electoral law allows free campaigning during the election period. Candidates can convey their messages to voters through rallies, walkabouts, door-to-door visits, posters, party publications and online means.
  • Campaign advertising on traditional media like television and radio is restricted to provide equal airtime to competing parties. But social media campaigning is unfettered.
  • Strict campaigning rules like avoiding negative mudslinging, regulating posters and banning election surveys aim to facilitate clean, ethical contests. But critics contend the limits hinder opposition campaigns.

Updating Electoral Boundaries

  • The Elections Department regularly reviews and updates electoral division boundaries to maintain equal voter sizes across constituencies. It redistributes voters affected by population shifts.
  • Opposition parties allege that electoral divisions are sometimes unfairly redrawn before elections to dilute their support and advantage the PAP.
  • But boundaries are decided by four senior civil servants on recommendations of an independent committee. The process does not seem partisan but opaqueness leads to suspicions.

Robust Electoral Rolls and Voting Access

  • Electoral rolls with registered voters are stringently maintained to avoid fraud. Only citizens aged 21 and above can vote after registering with proof of identity. Paper ballots are issued to verified voters on polling day.
  • Special priority queues are available to assist elderly and disabled voters. Overseas voting options have also expanded over the years. These facilitate inclusive ballot access.
  • Registration and voting are compulsory duties enforced by law to bolster turnout. But in practice, non-voters face limited consequences beyond reminders. Turnout typically exceeds 90% anyway.

Preventing “Carrot and Stick” Tactics

  • The government seeks to prevent abuse of state resources by incumbents and vote inducement through regulatory prohibitions.
  • For instance, major policies likely to sway voting preferences are avoided before elections. Using state funds and facilities for campaigning is also banned.
  • These restrictions intend to prevent abuse of government power for electoral gain. But the opposition claims the incumbent party already benefits from state machinery daily.

Limits on Free Speech and Dissent

  • Laws like the Sedition Act and Public Order Act that restrict political speech are sometimes criticized for suppressing opposition dissent against the establishment. Defamation suits deter criticism of leaders.
  • Peaceful public protests also require police permits which are rarely granted. Imposing permits for even lone picketers may go too far claim activists.Heavy penalties for illegal protests exist.
  • The government asserts laws are necessary for religious and ethnic harmony in a diverse society. But critics say restrictions enable authoritarian control. A better balance may be needed.

Media Regulation an Area of Concern

  • Singapore adopted media regulations like newspaper licensing schemes and Internet blocking measures with the objective of countering falsehoods and extremism.
  • But such laws are decried for potentially enabling censorship and self-restraint of alternative media critical of the government.
  • State ownership of domestic media like Mediacorp TV and the Straits Times Newspaper also limits content plurality. But town councils now run rival local newspapers.
  • Government leaders contend unbridled media poses risks in Singapore’s context. But a lighter touch could uphold responsible journalism with fewer constraints.

Transparent Ballot Counting and Results

  • To maintain integrity, the vote counting process at polling stations is open to candidates and scrutineers. Ballot boxes use numbered tamper-proof seals. The process is also streamed live online.
  • After vote tallying, counting agents and candidates sign off on statutory declarations of poll accuracy. Results are then announced publicly constituency by constituency live on TV and online.
  • Recounts are conducted if requested and deemed necessary. The transparent process deters electoral fraud. But opposition parties still voice minor reservations over counting complexities.

Post-Election Appeals Mechanism

  • Losing candidates who dispute the validity of election results on grounds of irregularities can file election petitions to contest outcomes. Petitions get considered in court.
  • If illegalities are proven, election courts can void results and order a reelection. This provides a mechanism to remedy unfair contests.
  • However, election petitions are very rarely filed as rules make it hard to conclusively prove illegal practices altered electoral outcomes.

Representation for Diverse Voices

  • Within mainstream politics, efforts are made to field candidates from various ethnic groups reflecting Singapore’s multiracial population. Female candidates are also fielded, including several office holders.
  • Reserved elections for minority community candidates introduced in 2020 fosters plural representation where regular elections may fall short. But quotas remain controversial.
  • Non-party alternative voices are limited with rules constraining civil society participation in political issues. Registration criteria for advocacy groups are strict.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Singapore’s elections seem largely clean and transparent in operational aspects like balloting, counting and results declaration. But broader issues around electoral boundary delineation, incumbent advantages, restrictions on media and speech as well as barriers hindering viable opposition raise questions.

While still multiparty elections allowing dissenting voices, further enhancements to level the playing field could ensure more dynamic, contested electoral democracy beneficial to Singapore’s governance.

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