Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill (Bill No. 18/2020)
Sir, it was Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert who said of the COVID-19 virus, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline”.
I am supportive of planning for all contingencies to enable as many eligible Singaporean voters to cast their votes as possible in a General Election.
At the end of the day, we do not want a situation where we are forcing Singaporeans to choose between their right to vote and their health.
We need to have plans and back up plans. We need to have resources to ensure that we can implement our plans. We also should ensure our message is clear that those who are not well should stay home and that those who are well can safely vote because we have taken all necessary precautions.
Sir, I have five clarifications on the Bill.
Resources for and safety measures at special polling stations
First, this Bill is intended to have effect until April 2021. We can try to predict but it is difficult to say for certain how the number of infections will unfold.
In the event that the number of people subject to COVID-19 Stay Order Regulations and living at boarding premises increase significantly, more special polling stations will be required.
Can the Minister share the measures taken to ensure that we have sufficient resources to operate special polling stations and, if necessary,to transport electors such that every elector subject to the COVID-19 Stay Order Regulations and living at a boarding premise will have access to a special polling station?
Can the Minister also share what public health and safety measures will be implemented at special polling stations to prevent disease transmission?
Voting outside of special polling station
Second, Clause 6(3) provides the Minister with the power to make regulations allowing electors subject to COVID-19 stay orders to vote without leaving their boarding premises.
The explanatory note elaborates that such an elector may remain in her or his room at the boarding premise, be delivered the ballot paper to mark secretly, and return it using a secure method to the Returning Officer.
This is a very significant departure from in person voting at polling stations and is not subject to the usual protective measures at polling stations to ensure the secrecy of votes such as the presence of polling agents, the sealing of ballot boxes, and the supervision of a presiding officer.
Where votes are collected from individual electors’ rooms, as opposed to where votes are cast at a single location, there are many more points where the secrecy of the vote may be undermined.
There are measures that can be taken to ensure the secrecy and integrity of the vote and the explanatory note states that the regulations need to be consistent with principles such as secrecy of the vote and one-person-one-vote.
Can the Minister share what are some of the protective measures that may be introduced in regulations if it is necessary for an elector to vote from her or his room?
Use of new technology
Third, as early as November 2018, the Elections Department (ELD) announced new technology and processes to be used at the next elections.
These include counting machines, electronic registration, and self-inking pens.
The ELD announced in November 2019 that it would hold roadshows ahead of the next general election to familiarise voters with the new equipment. The ELD also announced that it will organise sessions for political party representatives to try out the new digital services and provide feedback.
Training would clearly also need to be carried out for counting agents who will have to operate the counting machines.
Can the Minister share what measures will be implemented to ensure that voters, polling agents, and counting agents can be familiarised with these new initiatives to ensure smooth roll out on polling day itself?
How will training be provided if on-site sessions cannot be conducted, for example during circuit breaker periods?
Potential delays in polling
Fourth, Clause 6(2)(b) provides that the hours of any poll at a special polling station must not be less than 4 hours as set by the Returning Officer, and must close no later than the close of poll on polling day in Singapore.
It is likely that the voting process will be slower because of the additional safety measures taken, the new technology used, and the potential need to transport electors to special polling stations.
Can the Minister share what plans there are to address any potential delays in the polling process that might affect electors’ ability to vote before the close of the poll on polling day, whether at a regular polling station or a special polling station?
Plans for overseas voters
Lastly, as of 2015, there were 10 overseas registration centres in Canberra, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC.
Many of these cities are currently and may in the future have high rates of disease transmissions and may be in varying states of lockdown.
While overseas electors may form a small proportion of the voters, they too are citizens of Singapore and it is important to preserve their right to vote as far as possible.
Can the Minister share what the COVID-19 special arrangement plans are in relation to overseas voters?
Sir, notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here