By Nathaniel Koh
[This article was first published in the Workers' Party newsletter "Hammer" in the first issue of 2010]
In December 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed that the day before Polling Day be designated as a “cooling-off” day.
During this cooling-off period, no form of campaigning is allowed. This means that mass rallies and door-to-door visits are banned, and party logos and symbols cannot be displayed. These regulations are similar to those that apply on Polling Day itself. However, the only exception is that party political broadcasts can be televised alongside news reports on the election.
Are the Prime Minister’s reasons for introducing a cooling-off day really valid? Will this cooling-off day be open to abuse?
Debunking the Prime Minister’s reasons
The Prime Minister gave two reasons: rational voting and public disorder.
Firstly, the Prime Minister argued that voters should be given an extra day to think through the arguments and vote rationally. That reason is flawed because it is assumes that Singaporeans have not been voting rationally in past elections and will not do so in future elections. Our country has one of highest literacy rates in the world. Our people are one of most highly educated in Southeast Asia.
In proposing this change, the Prime Minister has underestimated the intellectual strength of Singaporeans and is signalling that Singaporeans are incapable of making rational judgments through the ballot box. These assumptions reveal the distrust that the PAP has of Singaporeans.
Secondly, the Prime Minister argued that the extra day will lower the risk of public disorder. He recalled that there were occasions of pushing and shoving at election rallies. That reason is flawed because at previous elections, there were no reports of public disorder on the day before polling day.
Precautions against public disorder have already been introduced in previous elections, where supporters of different parties are allocated separate sections. Contesting parties are not allowed at the announcement centre on polling night when the results are released. In addition, parties are assigned separate assembly centres for their supporters to gather.
Open to possible abuse
In the book Media and Elections published by the Council of Europe in 1999, the author, Yasha Lange, writes that having a cooling-off period may be open to abuse. While cooling-off periods are generally observed according to the letter of the law, they are commonly breached in spirit. He cites the example of the 1996 presidential elections in Russia where the incumbent Russian president used the state-owned media to create fear of voting for the opposition candidate by airing films that depicted gloom if the opposition candidate wins.
Another way in which the cooling-off period can be abused is by scheduling non-election programmes, or by showing government officials carrying out their ‘official duties’ on TV. According to the European Union’s Election Observation Commission, in the 2004 presidential elections in Indonesia, during the cooling-off period, the state television company devoted disproportionate amounts of coverage to positive reviews of the incumbent president’s activities and achievements in office. Examples included showing a daily pro-government programme and advertisements for education reform, which was paid for by the Ministry of National Education.
Abuse of the cooling-off period could also happen in Singapore. For example, if the opposition campaigns on the issues of health care and public housing, the relevant government ministries, through their civil servants, can put out statements rebutting the opposition’s stand on those issues without the need for any PAP candidate to appear. Although this does not violate the letter of the law, it ignores the spirit of it.
Comparing Singapore with other countries
When the cooling-off period was announced, the mainstream media made comparisons with other countries to show that this regulation will not be unique to Singapore. Australia, Indonesia, Italy, and Russia were some of the countries that were mentioned. Let us examine the campaigning periods of those countries and the primary reasons for them having cooling-off periods.
The campaigning periods of those countries are long and drawn-out. Australia’s federal elections in 2007 lasted for 20 days, while the 2009 parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia lasted for 20 and 33 days respectively. In Italy, the 2009 parliamentary elections lasted for about 56 days, while the 2009 presidential elections in Russia lasted for 29 days.
In contrast, Singapore’s general elections in 2006 lasted for just 9 days. Even with the proposed extension of campaigning to 10 days, there is still a wide gap between the campaigning period in Singapore and that of other countries that have cooling-off periods. The issues that Singapore faces are too important and wide-ranging to be debated on within just 10 days. So if a cooling-off period were to be introduced in Singapore, then the duration of election campaigning must also be brought in line with those countries mentioned.
The Prime Minister’s reasons for introducing the cooling-off period are flawed. His proposal assumes that Singaporeans are prone to vote irrationally and display disorderly behaviour. On the other hand, The Workers’ Party believes that Singaporeans are rational voters, have maintained public order in past elections and will continue to do so in future elections.
Based on the experience of other countries, a cooling-off period in Singapore would be open to abuse. Civil servants and government ministries can still speak on behalf of the PAP during the cooling-off period, whereas opposition parties have no way to make their point.
This proposal for a cooling-off day is just one of the many obstacles that the PAP has put in place to favour themselves and disadvantage the opposition and Singaporeans. Nevertheless, with or without a cooling-off period, the Workers’ Party will continue to its present its programme for the betterment of our country and work hard to win the hearts and minds of all Singaporeans.