Tuesday, 9 June 2020

GE 2020: Singapore Elections Department sets out safety measures for voters ahead of election amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Precautions include allocated time slots for voters and having more polling stations
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

Voters will be allotted recommended time bands to visit polling stations to reduce crowding in the upcoming election, as part of guidelines announced yesterday to allow Singapore to safely hold an election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of polling stations will be increased by 220 to 1,100, with election officials spread out at least 1m apart, so they can keep a safe distance from one another.

Voters will also be given disposable gloves and be allowed to use their own pens if they wish.

In unveiling the precautionary measures, the Elections Department (ELD) said its key considerations were to minimise the exposure of voters, candidates and polling officials to those who are not well or who may have come into contact with COVID-19 cases, as well as to ensure the safety of all involved, particularly older voters who are more vulnerable.

"We call on all voters, candidates and their agents to be socially responsible, and play their part to ensure a safe election for everyone."

With public health experts expecting COVID-19 to be around for the long haul, and a constitutional deadline to hold the polls by April 14 next year, the next general election is almost certain to happen before the pandemic abates.

But some have warned of the danger of pushing ahead, saying elections create the ideal conditions for the contagious virus to spread.

To avoid having large numbers of people descend on polling stations at the same time, the ELD said a recommended two-hour time slot for voting will be indicated on polling cards and electronic polling cards that voters will receive.

Morning slots will be reserved for seniors who are 65 years and older, so they can vote before others.

The ELD is expecting at least 400 of them at close to two-thirds of the polling stations. It added that while adhering to the time slots is not compulsory, and people will be allowed to vote if they turn up at other times, everyone is strongly encouraged to keep to the recommendations.

Those who show up outside of their allocated time slot may end up having to wait longer.

Meanwhile, to avoid bunching at the start of each two-hour window, people can check the queue situation at their polling station at http://VoteQ.gowhere.gov.sg before showing up.

As with most activities in public areas, voters, election officials and any candidates who visit the stations will also have to adhere to safe distancing rules and wear protective gear such as masks.

However, voters will have to pull down their masks when election officials, clad in surgical masks, disposable gloves and face shields, have to verify their identity vis-a-vis their NRIC.

The increase in polling stations from 880 to 1,100 means each station will serve an average of 2,400 voters, down from 3,000.

There will be temperature screening at the stations to sieve out those with fever or respiratory symptoms, who may or may not be allowed to vote. The ELD said it will decide later based on the prevailing COVID-19 situation during the polls.

With contaminated surfaces identified as one of the main ways COVID-19 spreads, measures will also be in place to minimise contact and ensure hygiene. Voter registration will be done electronically, with people scanning their identity cards instead of handing them to officials.

Hand sanitiser will be made available for voters and election officials.

Before voters can collect their ballot paper, they have to sanitise their hands and put on disposable gloves.

This is to minimise the chances of contaminating the ballot paper which counting agents will have to touch later, as well as the self-inking "X" pens that people will use to mark their ballot.

To supplement these efforts, cleaners will be deployed at all polling stations to clean items and areas described as "common touch-points" such as the self-inking pens and polling booths. They will do so at least once every half an hour.

The ELD estimates that voters will have to spend at most five minutes within the polling stations from registration to voting.

Those on stay-home notice (SHN) orders at designated facilities such as hotels will get to vote at special polling stations as provided for by the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act.

For voters on SHN at home, on quarantine orders or who are issued medical certificates for acute respiratory symptoms, the ELD said the decision for these groups will be made and announced only after the writ of election is issued.

Factors to be considered include health risks involved, and the Health Ministry will be consulted.

To ensure that all voters are aware of the measures, the ELD will launch education efforts in all four official languages.

In South Korea, people were allowed to vote by mailing in their ballot papers. However, this will not be possible in Singapore, the ELD said, when asked. It said there was no way to verify if the person who marked the ballot is really the voter.

The same held true for digital voting. Even if people logged in using their SingPass account, it could be others logging in on their behalf, it said. "This will compromise our principle of one man, one vote."

Political parties need to prepare for campaign that minimises interaction with large groups of voters
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

Political parties should prepare for a very different general election campaign, one that relies less on physical interactions with large groups of voters, said the Elections Department (ELD).

The ELD said parties need to look at other means of getting their campaign message out to voters - including through the Internet - as the COVID-19 situation is likely to place limits on whether rallies, walkabouts and house visits can take place.

At a media briefing yesterday, the ELD said campaigning rules outlining whether these physical activities will be allowed are not yet ready. This is because the COVID-19 situation remains fluid, and campaigning guidelines will need to take into account existing rules on safe distancing and management closer to the actual date of the polls, it said.

But it intends to give political parties as much advance notice as possible, it added.

"ELD is committed to giving political parties and candidates as much lead time as possible, to prepare their campaigning activities. However, putting out the guidelines early would mean that there could be further changes, as the COVID-19 situation evolves," it said.

It added that it would ensure that voters have access to campaigning messages from all political parties and candidates, in the event that health advisories restrict people from gathering in large groups.

These could include steps such as more TV broadcast time for candidates and political parties.

The ELD said campaigning activities on the Internet can still continue.

Singapore's next general election must be held by April 14 next year.

Leaders from the ruling People's Action Party have hinted that Singapore could go to the polls soon.

That has, in recent days, prompted calls from opposition parties for more clarity on what sort of campaigning would be allowed during the hustings.

Last month, the Workers' Party called on the Government to publish election campaign rules, saying there has been a "distinct lack of clarity as to precisely how campaigning will be modified in view of the COVID-19 pandemic".

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing responded on May 30, saying the ELD could not prematurely announce these rules and risk them becoming outdated due to the fast-evolving COVID-19 situation.

Yesterday, when asked by reporters whether campaigning rules were ready, the ELD said rules for physical campaigning will have to rely on prevailing health guidelines and it "did not make sense" to announce them now.

It said: "If social distancing measures allow 10 persons to congregate, then we will allow walkabouts, subject to safe distancing requirements. But if the guidelines allow for only five persons (to gather), then we've got to decide what it means for walkabouts."

Campaign rallies will also not be possible under such conditions, said the ELD.

The Government has said the second phase of Singapore's reopening will allow social gatherings of up to five people.

But should the election be held early next year - with the COVID-19 situation having improved - then physical rallies could be held, subject to guidelines at the time, it added.

The ELD said it was "working through the scenarios" and will announce campaigning guidelines as soon as possible, to give candidates and political parties time to plan their campaigns.

Unwell candidates can authorise representative to file nomination papers
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

Candidates who are unwell do not have to be present at nomination centres on Nomination Day.

Instead of showing up in person like in previous elections, they can authorise a representative to file the nomination papers on their behalf, the Elections Department (ELD) said yesterday.

The submission of political donation certificates and certificates from the Malay Community Committee and the Indian and Other Minority Communities Committee, along with the collection of nomination forms can be done on the ELD website.

The changes are part of measures rolled out to carry out election activities safely during the next general election, which must held by April 14 next year.

Candidates who send a representative must ensure he has power of attorney, including authorisation to submit nomination papers and raise objections to the nomination papers of other candidates.

The other requirements for successfully filing nomination papers will still need to be fulfilled, such as having the required number of subscribers and submitting a political donation certificate.

Subscribers - who include seconders, proposers and assentors - who are unwell will not be allowed to enter the nomination centre, and candidates will need to find someone to take their place.

The ELD encouraged candidates and their election agents to use its expanded digital services to prepare the documents required for nomination.

On Nomination Day, temperature screening will be conducted at nomination centres and everyone will have to use the SafeEntry system for contact tracing.

Candidates who have a fever or respiratory symptoms will be directed to a separate area, where they can still inspect the nomination papers of other candidates.

There will be a safe distancing space of 1m between candidates and their subscribers within the nomination centre, along with the wearing of masks at all times.

Election officials will be given protective gear, including surgical masks and face shields, while cleaners will be deployed at all centres to ensure a high level of hygiene.

Stricter rules on paid online advertisements for next Singapore general election
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

Political parties will have to comply with stricter rules on paid online advertising in the next general election, said the Elections Department (ELD) yesterday.

The changes include having to disclose to the ELD where and when the advertisements will appear, and adding terms to ads that explicitly indicate they are paid advertising.

"By strengthening disclosure requirements behind the use of paid Internet election advertising, the amendments will enhance accountability and better safeguard the integrity of the electoral process," said the ELD at a briefing.

Currently, candidates are already required to declare to the Returning Officer all the online platforms on which they will be putting ads, whether paid or unpaid. This must be done within 12 hours of the start of the campaign period.

All election advertising must also contain the publisher's name, as well as the name of every person for whom or at whose direction the advertising is published.

Candidates must also subsequently declare any new platforms they intend to use before using them.

The Returning Officer is appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee the impartial and smooth conduct of elections.

Under the new rules, apart from providing the platforms they are going to use, candidates must explicitly declare if they are using paid online ads.

If they are, then candidates must provide several details, including where the ad will appear, the publisher of the ad, the time period in which the ad will appear, and whether money was received for the placement of the ad.

Paid online ads must also include statements such as "sponsored by" or "paid for by", indicating that they were paid for by the candidate, political party or an authorised third-party campaigner.

Another new rule is that candidates must clearly state the amount spent on paid online ads when they submit their election expenses returns form after the election.

The ELD has also changed the rules on print advertising, such as election posters and banners.

First, candidates will now have to bear the cost of removing posters or banners that break the rules.

This is on top of old rules stipulating that candidates can be issued a warning, be fined or jailed for such breaches. Each poster or banner will cost $50 to remove - which the ELD said was calculated on a "cost recovery" basis - and the money will count towards the candidate's election expenses.

Previously, candidates were also allowed to display election posters or banners of up to three maximum sizes during the campaign period, depending on whether they were contesting in a single-member constituency or a group representation constituency. They could display one large ad for every 5,000 voters.

Now, candidates will be allowed to display election posters or banners of up to two maximum sizes.

They will be able to display one large ad for every 4,000 voters in their constituency, meaning that they can display 25 per cent more large ads.

Also, the list of items exempted from the definition of election advertising has been expanded - from small items such as pens and keychains to include umbrellas and other portable objects.

These objects must be worth less than $10 and be less than 10cm x 10cm x 10cm in volume.

Items exempted from this requirement should also not contain or display content that is false or negative about other candidates.

Lastly, candidates were previously required to lodge a copy of their election posters or banners with the Returning Officer before displaying them.

Now, parties may lodge the same election poster or banner to be displayed across different constituencies on their candidates' behalf.

Battleground for next GE will be cyberspace, say observers
By Danson Cheong and Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

The sight of thousands of people crowding round the makeshift stage of a campaign rally will not be a feature of the coming election. Instead, signs indicate the battle for votes will take place in cyberspace, political observers said yesterday.

The markedly different campaign landscape of the coming general election that they envision comes in the wake of the Elections Department's (ELD) announcement on safety measures to be implemented at voting sites and nomination centres.

The ELD did not release anticipated guidelines for campaigning, but urged political parties to draw up plans that minimise physical interactions among groups and to reach out to voters on the Internet.

Experts told The Straits Times they expect campaigning rules to be announced closer to, or when the writ of election is issued, by which time Singapore is expected to have entered the second phase of the reopening of the country in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan said there will still be "fairly severe limits on gatherings" at that time, and political parties will probably have to make online campaigning their main focus.

"Previously, most parties use online platforms to supplement their campaigns, but now, it might be more dominant than in-person campaigning," he said.

They would need to think of creative ways to capture the attention of voters online since they could potentially toggle between different parties' online rallies, said the former Nominated MP.

But reaching out to certain voter segments like the elderly will be challenging, and the additional TV broadcasts mooted by the ELD will only be "a mitigating measure in this regard", he said.

Former People's Action Party (PAP) MP Inderjit Singh urged the ELD to release campaign rules early, saying it is crucial so candidates can make plans to reach voters who are not online, such as sending manifestos by post if house visits are not allowed. "It's very important to show Singapore will have a fair election, and that the PAP is capable of winning based on fair campaign rules," he added.

As for the safety measures for voting, political scientist Bilveer Singh said they bear similarities to precautions taken by South Korea when it successfully held elections in April amid the pandemic. "Most importantly, I think this will socialise society into the mindset that the election can be conducted safely."

Opposition parties welcome prospect of more TV time
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

Opposition parties have welcomed the Elections Department's (ELD) statement that political parties and their candidates could get more time on TV for campaigning in the coming polls.

At the same time, they are anxious that the key measures the ELD unveiled yesterday did not give details of campaigning rules, which, they say, means they will have less time to conduct outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Workers' Party said it is "currently studying the newly released guidelines by ELD".

It had previously called on the Government to publish ground rules on how political parties should campaign during the pandemic, and said there has been "a distinct lack of clarity" on this.

Opposition parties yesterday said having extra TV time would help them spread their message more effectively to voters.

The Progress Singapore Party, led by secretary-general Tan Cheng Bock, said: "PSP would like to call for the terms on how the additional time is to be calculated and to have them stated clearly."

Singapore People's Party chairman Jose Raymond said that given the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, it would be more cost-efficient for the parties to use mainstream media platforms for public broadcasts.

"I hope the ELD provides opportunities for all parties and candidates to have access to the mainstream media platforms for public broadcasts," he added.

He also said the "comprehensive" voting procedures given yesterday "should allay some voters' concerns" about casting their ballot during the pandemic.

Mr Lim Tean, secretary-general of People's Voice, welcomed the prospect of more time to have political broadcasts on the main TV channels. He noted that this was previously restricted to the party broadcast after Nomination Day and before Polling Day.

As for campaign guidelines, the Singapore Democratic Party said the delay in giving them "signals the PAP's intent to tilt the GE in its favour as much as it can".

The party, led by secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, said the "rush for an election" shows a "wanton disregard for the safety and public health of Singaporeans".

PV chief Lim Tean said:“I think they should let us know in good time. It cannot be when the Writ of Election is issued, then they tell us.”

Singapore Democratic Alliance Chairman Desmond Lim commended the ELD’s measures, but questioned if they were adequate in preventing potential infections within the community.

Democratic Progressive Party secretary-general Hamim Aliyas said he is concerned that although the number of voters per polling station is lower, there could still be a long queue formed for those waiting to vote, leading to a clustering of people. 

Mr Goh Meng Seng, secretary-general of the People's Power Party, is against letting candidates who are unwell send a representative to file their papers on Nomination Day. "If they are sick, they are sick. It's just not their time. We should not make an exception."

Permanent secretaries appointed to exercise POFMA powers in place of ministers during election period
By Kok Yufeng, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2020

The permanent secretaries for all 16 ministries and several portfolios in the Prime Minister's Office will exercise the powers of the ministers under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) during the election period.

Under POFMA, when a Writ of Election is issued, ministers cease to have the power to issue orders under the Act, but these powers may be exercised by an alternate authority - a senior civil servant whom the respective ministers have to designate beforehand. The election period as defined under the Act begins on the day the Writ is issued and ends at the close of Polling Day.

Notices of the appointments of alternate authorities were published in the Government Gazette yesterday, the same day that the Elections Department set out safe polling and nomination procedures should a general election be held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Gazette notices published yesterday did not give any specific date for when the next election period will be.

Alternate authorities have been appointed by all 19 Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to cover their various portfolios and responsibilities.

An alternate authority has also been appointed by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, who is the minister in charge of the Government Technology Agency as well as public sector infocommunications technology and related engineering.

The permanent secretary and second permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information - Ms Yong Ying-I and Mr Joseph Leong respectively - were both appointed as alternate authorities by Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran.

Mr Leong will be the alternate authority should Ms Yong be unable to perform her role.

POFMA was passed by Parliament last May after over a year of public consultation, including a Select Committee hearing, and gives ministers the power to order the removal or correction of online falsehoods, and order accounts or sites that spread untruths to be blocked.

A person who disagrees with a minister's decision can have his appeal heard in the High Court as early as nine days after initiating a challenge to the minister.

*  Elections Department: New rules for GE campaign will move contest for votes online
No physical rallies for election campaign, candidates to get TV airtime for constituency political broadcasts
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 19 Jun 2020

The upcoming general election will take on a markedly different character if it is held in phase two of Singapore's reopening, as seems likely, with political parties taking their message online and candidates being given more airtime on television.

In announcing preliminary campaign guidelines yesterday, the Elections Department (ELD) said that walkabouts and door-to-door campaigning will be allowed, though groups must not exceed five persons and should abide by safe distancing measures.

Parties will not hold mass rallies but e-rally live streams instead, and the Government will provide venues with Internet connectivity for this at subsidised rates.

These changes are meant to protect voters' health and safety, while ensuring they have access to campaign messages from all political parties and candidates amid the coronavirus pandemic, the ELD said.

The guidelines may be adjusted depending on the COVID-19 situation when the election is called.

In a first, every candidate will be given three minutes of airtime on national television during the campaign as part of new constituency political broadcasts.

These constituency broadcasts will be aired on Mediacorp's Channel 5, and come on top of the two party political broadcasts permitted for each party that will be aired on 19 television and radio channels.

This is a special, one-off arrangement, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ELD said.

Each candidate contesting a single-member constituency will get three minutes of airtime under the constituency broadcasts, and can choose to speak in any of the four official languages.

Each set of candidates in a group representation constituency will be given either 12 or 15 minutes of airtime, depending on whether they are contesting a four-or five-man GRC. Parties can decide whether one or more candidates should speak during the allotted time. Further details will be released after the Writ of Election is issued, the ELD said.

It advised members of the public to watch these broadcasts in their own homes and not gather in groups larger than permitted under the Health Ministry's guidelines.

During the campaign period, candidates can apply to hold e-rallies at live-streaming facilities at specific time slots throughout the day. These venues are entirely optional, and more details will be provided after the Writ of Election is issued.

On walkabouts, the ELD said there should be no mixing between groups, and each group should remain at least 1m apart from other groups. Those walking the ground should wear masks, keep all interactions transient and minimise physical contact.

Candidates may also use vehicles for campaigning - typically lorries or trucks outfitted with loudspeakers - and broadcast recorded messages. However, they cannot speak, live stream, or broadcast music or videos from the vehicle.

Traditional thank-you processions after Polling Day will not be allowed, as these are not considered critical to the campaigning process.

Party supporters will not be permitted to gather at nomination centres on Nomination Day, or at assembly centres on Polling Day.

In announcing the guidelines, the ELD said this "has no relation to the timing of the general election, which will be decided by the Prime Minister".

It called on all members of the public, candidates and their election agents to be socially responsible and "play their part by adhering to safe distancing measures during campaigning and polling to ensure a safe election for everyone".


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