Charles Chong, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Punggol East, has written an article in response to a speech by Leon Perera, the Workers’ Party Non-constituency MP.
On 2 March, Mr Perera, speaking in Parliament, had asked the government to educate new citizens that their votes are secret. He had cited a few cases of new citizens telling him that they would have liked to vote for the WP but were afraid that they would lose their citizenships if they did so.
Mr Perera’s call was rejected by Senior Minister of State, Josephine Teo.
“I couldn’t help feeling a wave of déjà vu as I listened to the Committee of Supply (COS) debate for the Prime Minister’s Office a few days ago,” Mr Chong wrote on the PAP website, referring to the parliamentary debate.
Mr Chong then took readers down memory lane, to a time 40 years ago, to perhaps show that the WP had been the one sowing doubts about the secrecy of the ballot.
Mr Chong recalled how, in 1976, the then WP secretary-general, JB Jeyaretnam, had written to the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to “make a public announcement that the ballot in Singapore is absolutely secret…and to give…assurance that [the] government has no intention whatsoever of finding out how any single voter has voted and…would never even attempt to do so.”
This was what Mr Jeyaretnam said in his letter:
“I am not suggesting that your government has done this but there is the fear. If your government, as you wish others to believe, would not do this, then I can see no harm in your making the statement.
“By making this statement, you will be striking a blow for democracy and I believe, Mr Prime Minister, your stature will increase tremendously.”
Mr Lee responded the next day.
“[The ballot] has always been and is secret. You have my assurance on this.”
Mr Lee then accused the opposition parties of being responsible for spreading the fear, that the ballot is not secret.
“I must remind you that it has been members of some opposition parties who have sought to cast doubts on the secrecy of the ballot. Unfortunately, you and your party have not been free from blame.”
Before we go further, let us take a little detour and go even further back in our history, to 50 years ago – in 1967 – and see how this fear that the ballot is not secret had possibly emerged.
After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the government announced the set up a Constitutional Commission in December that year.
The Commission, headed by the then Chief Justice, Wee Chong Jin, would look into how Singapore could entrench a “bias in favour of multi-racialism and the equality of our citizens, whether they belong to majority or minority groups.”
On 27 August 1966, the Commission submitted its report to the President.
Among its many recommendations was one which touched on the issue of the secrecy of the ballot.
The Commission said that Singaporeans would be casting their votes for the first time after Independence, in 1968, something which they had very little experience in.
In recommending that the right to vote be entrenched in the Constitution, the Commission said:
“With this limited experience of elections, we do not consider it safe to assume that a significant proportion of the people of Singapore will be able to realise, until it is too late to prevent it, that any inroads have been made into the democratic system of general elections by a future government intent on undermining first and ultimately destroying the practice of democracy in Singapore.”
It then brought attention to a clause in the Singapore Parliament Elections Ordinance (c53).
“This subsection requires that ‘each ballot paper shall have a number printed on the back and shall have attached a counterfoil with the same number printed on the face’.”
The Commission then added, importantly:
“It appears to us that this provision is inconsistent with the right to secrecy of the vote.”
Now, fast-forward to March 1967, where Parliament debated the Commission’s report, and this is where it gets very interesting.
“There is one minor recommendation which I must deal with, and that is with regard to the secrecy of voting,” said E. W. Barker, then Minister for Law and National Development.
Referring to the Commission highlighting the issue of the numbering of the ballot papers, Mr Barker said “[there] must be some good reasons for having numbers, and this provision has survived many a protest.”
“The reason is obvious,” he said. “If ballot papers have no numbers, there is a possibility of fraud. Who is to know how many ballot papers have been issued? If this provision is scrapped, more vigorous protests will be made to the effect that the Government rigged the elections.”
He then added, and this is the important thing to note:
“At present it is possible for the Government to find out who voted for whom.”
The MP for Bras Basah, Ho See Beng, quickly chimed in: “We never do that.”
Mr Barker then replied: “But I can assure you, as Mr Ho See Beng has said, we do not do that.”
Mr Barker continued:
“But, Sir, it is even more possible for Government to distribute to their supporters more unnumbered ballot papers than their supporters are entitled to. However honest this Government is, I would say that protests against unnumbered ballot papers would be more vociferous than those against numbered papers.”
Let’s pause here for a moment and recap: the then Minister for Law had said that “it is possible for the Government to find out who voted for whom.”
Now, is this the same today, given that ballot papers still have serial numbers on them?
This question – or, yes Mr Chong, this fear – will continue to hang in the air unless and until the Government addresses it head-on.
Mr Perera’s question, as you can see, is not without merit, and is indeed an important one.
But to be accurate, despite Mr Barker’s admission, fear that the ballot is not secret precedes Singapore’s Independence.
The practice of having the ballots numbered dates back to 1947, and as far back as 1959, the fear was also present, as reported by the press then.
So, going back to Mr Chong’s article, it seems to point the finger at the opposition again, in particular the WP, insinuating perhaps that it is the opposition party which is spreading this fear, as the government had done in 1976.
Déjà vu indeed!
But the serious question remains: why not, once and for all, disabuse the rumours and fears unequivocally by declaration, AND remove the serial number on the ballot papers, or come up with an alternative to track ballot papers?
Mr Chong wrote in his article, “After 40 years, Singapore has progressed, but Mr Leon Perera is still parroting what Mr Jeyaretnam had said in 1976.”
Maybe this is because, after all that time, the Government has not addressed the issue comprehensively and emphatically?
The Punggol East MP then asked, “Where will we be, 40 years from now?”
Indeed, where will we be, with regards to this fear?
Perhaps it is time to put this ghost to rest once and for all.
And if we are to start, why not start simply – by educating our newest citizens and our young – students – that the ballot here is secret, as Mr Perera has suggested?
And, by the way, it isn’t just Mr Perera, or the late Mr Jeyeretnam, who are or were concerned with this. Even the government-appointed Commission, led by the distinguished former Chief Justice, had expressed concerns about it.
So, Mr Chong might want to give the matter some serious thought, while merrily walking down memory lane.