“Our votes in elections are secret and can never be traced – no ifs, no buts. So why does the government not want to expose new citizens to ballot secrecy education, as I suggested today in Parliament?”
That was a question Mr Leon Perera posed on his Facebook page on 2 March, after the day’s sitting of Parliament.
Mr Perera is a Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) of the Workers’ Party (WP).
“I have met many Singaporeans (old and new) who fear that their ballots can be traced and hence cast their votes out of fear,” the NCMP said. “As I shared in Parliament today, one new citizen I met told me that he would like to vote for the Workers’ Party but feared that he would lose his citizenship if he did.”
Mr Perera explained that “there are around 20,000 new citizens joining the electorate every year.”
“That’s the rough equivalent of one new Single Member Constituency each year and one new GRC every term of Parliament,” he said. “If many of them cast their votes out of fear, this will corrode our democratic society bit by bit. In time, our children and grand-children will grow up in what is effectively a non-democracy, where they cannot remove a failed government at the ballot box and would have to emigrate instead.”
The NCMP had expressed his concerns in Parliament, which included what he described as “one-sidedness” in the political education that new citizens receive.
For example, he cited how in the Singapore Citizenship Journey’s (SCJ) community-sharing sessions, new citizens and prospective citizens interact with grassroots leaders and organisations under the People’s Association (PA) umbrella.
The chairman of the PA is the Prime Minister, who is also the secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP).
The new citizens also get to meet PAP politicians but not those from other parties.
Me Perera asked if the Government would include ballot secrecy as a topic in the handbook – called “Home For New Citizens” – which is issued to new citizens.
In January 2016’s sitting of Parliament, Mr Perera had raised similar questions about ballot secrecy, asking if the Ministry of Education (MOE) would include this in its curriculum for students.
Both times, in Jan 2016 and March 2017, Mr Perera’s suggestions were dismissed.
Last year, Education Minister, Ng Chee Meng, cited “limited curriculum time” as the reason why the MOE is unable to take up the NCMP’s suggestion.
Instead, the minister said, “through our curriculum and through the students’ own exploratory learning together with their parents, in good time, when they reach 21 years old and beyond, they will be equipped with the necessary skills to evaluate for themselves whether voting is secret.”
In her reply to Mr Perera’s query in March, the Senior Minister of State (SMS) for Finance and Transport, Josephine Teo, said that “electoral fraud has never been an issue in all the elections that she has taken part in as a voter.”
She said, according to Yahoo Singapore News, that “the vast majority of all adult new citizens have lived in Singapore at least five years before naturalisation, which means they would have witnessed at least one electoral cycle usually.”
“I do not know of many other fellow citizens who would doubt that,” she added. “So I urge the member not to be overly worried about this.”
Mrs Teo’s reply is a little puzzling because she seemed to be supportive of political education in schools when Law Minister, K Shanmugam, suggested it in 2009.
In an editorial in the People’s Action Party (PAP) magazine, Petir, in December that year, Mr Shanmugam suggested that political education be taught in schools.
Mr Shanmugam was, according to news reports, concerned if the PAP would outlive the 70 years record of a ruling party, and whether younger Singaporeans knew what was at stake for Singapore when they cast their votes.
“[Law] Minister K. Shanmugam feels younger voters can erode its dominant position should the party fail to convince them that Singapore, more than most countries, needs a strong leadership and a political system that allows for effective and speedy decisions to be made,” the Straits Times reported then.
“The way for the PAP to outlive this record, he feels, is to provide greater political education for Singaporeans, in particular, students,” the newspaper said.
In a follow-up article in January 2010, the Straits Times apparently asked Mrs Teo for her views on the issue.
She saw “political education as a means to make up for some of the real-world political experiences younger Singaporeans are not getting,” according to the newspaper.
So, why the apparent change of heart when it comes to teaching new citizens about ballot secrecy? These new citizens too, obviously, would benefit from knowing how the voting process works.
Isn’t ballot secrecy an integral part of politics in any democratic country?
As for Mr Ng’s claims that there is insufficient curriculum time for students to learn about ballot secrecy, that’s a rather flimsy excuse, given that the Law Minister obviously found that schools had enough time – he had even suggested perhaps having an entire new syllabus on political education for schools back in 2009!
Mr Shanmugam had, however, made it clear that “the education should not trumpet the virtues of any particular system”. Indeed, this is how it should be.
Teaching students and new citizens about ballot secrecy and the voting process must transcend party politics.
As Mr Perera said, “Educating all Singaporeans (old and new) about ballot secrecy is critical.”
This is because there has always been this “urban legend”, especially during election time, that the vote is not actually secret and how one voted can be traced.
If such rumours are allowed to be continuously propagated each time an election comes around, then it will corrode trust in the system, and may even lead to perverted outcomes, or freak results.
For a government which has been railing against falsehoods being passed around, it is indeed strange that it is not acting more comprehensively to extinguish such unfounded fears about the secrecy of the ballot.
Surely, “limited curriculum time” is a poor excuse for something so important. And does it take much effort to insert a line or even a paragraph into the handbook for new citizens to emphasise that the ballot is secret?