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Bracing for an (even more) unfair election

Issue 110

Over 160 of you signed up for this newsletter since the last Saturday round-up! 🤯 As far as I can see it’s due to the two special issues — one on showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and one on work pass holders stuck outside Singapore during this period. Thank you for all the interest and support.

I’ve recently updated (and republished on Substack) my overview of the state of civil liberties in Singapore — I first wrote it in 2019 and have been updating it periodically. I hope it’s useful as a bit of a crash course on the situation here. Feel free to share it with anyone you like!

Singapore’s elections are unfair.

This has been the source of a lot of angst for me recently — we’re clearly headed into our (very short) election season, even though we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak. As anyone who has followed elections in Singapore knows, the electoral process is heavily skewed in the ruling party’s favour. (For more details, I wrote about this for the Lowy Institute last year.)

But with COVID-19, it looks like things are set to get even more unfair. The Workers’ Party has called for election campaign rules to be published ASAP, but the Elections Department — which isn’t independent, but sits under the Prime Minister’s Office — says the rules will only be made public closer to the election, since it’ll depend on what the COVID-19 situation is like then. This could be very short notice, though, if the campaigning period is not extended (as the Singapore Democratic Party has suggested), which would mean that the opposition parties will have even more of a scramble than usual to pull their campaigns together. The Singapore Democratic Party has also said that a July election — as is rumoured — would be “reckless” and “needlessly jeopardise the safety and health of Singaporeans”.

Here is where I will insert an image from the Facebook page of Yee Jenn Jong from the Workers’ Party:

(If you don’t already know, Yee Jenn Jong ran as a candidate in Joo Chiat SMC in 2011, and lost by a narrow margin. When the 2015 general election came ‘round, the SMC vanished completely, absorbed into Marine Parade GRC.)

The Election Department has, however, released safety measures for voting. These include an increased number of polling stations, time-bands to prevent crowds and queues, temperature screening, the use of SafeEntry, a digital service where people can check the situation at their polling station before heading over, putting on gloves before getting one’s ballot paper, etc.

While all this is going on, ministers have kicked off a series of broadcasts on Singapore’s post-COVID future, even though, if you look at the number of daily reported cases, it’s quite clear that we’re not “post-” anything yet. These ministerial broadcasts are of course positioned as a messages from the government to encourage and rally the nation, but many have already observed that they might as well be de facto rally speeches for the People’s Action Party even as all other parties are kept in the dark as to when and how they will be able to campaign.

Who gets to exercise POFMA powers?

In another sign that the elections are approaching, alternate authorities have been appointed as allowed under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). After the dissolution of Parliament — which would mean that there are no longer ministers to issue POFMA orders — these alternate authorities will be able to exercise the POFMA powers instead throughout the election period.

The alternate authorities appointed are permanent secretaries of various ministries and departments (you can find the notice in the e-gazette here). I’ve looked up all their names, and, as far as I can tell, they’re all Chinese — revealing that, apart from representation in politics, we should also pay more attention to diversity and representation in the civil service.

I don’t know if these alternate authorities will end up exercising POFMA powers; in any case, they’re supposed to be non-partisan and therefore neutral parties. But anyone who’s paid attention to how the PAP recruits will know that the party grooms talent through, and draws from, the civil service. Michael Barr documents this process fantastically in his book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence (I understand this book costs a bazillion dollars and your firstborn child on Amazon, so here’s a link to Gerakbudaya’s website where it costs less than RM90, you’re welcome). If you don’t have time to read the whole book, here’s a review of it that quotes from the book:

“A young man needed to win a top scholarship that bonded him to the civil service. He then needed to perform at a high level of competence and demonstrate that he was highly attuned to the needs of not only his administrative masters, but also his political masters. There was normally a period — usually years — when he found himself working in close physical and professional proximity to a very senior member of the elite, with the optimal pathway for someone without a blood or marriage relationship being a close professional association with Lee Kuan Yew or, later, Lee Hsien Loong. From there one could be expected to rise through one or more of the crucial ministries around which power pivoted: the Prime Minister’s Office, and the ministers of Defence, Education, Finance, Trade and Industry, and Home Affairs. If Lee and his inner circle judged that the youngish mandarin had the potential to go into politics, he was invited to join the PAP, run for parliament and if he made the cut, be appointed to the Cabinet in short order.”

(One such example: Heng Swee Keat, currently deputy prime minister and widely expected to be Lee Hsien Loong’s successor, used to be Lee Kuan Yew’s Principal Private Secretary, and Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He then became managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore until he entered politics in 2011.)

Given this, people might be forgiven for wondering if these permanent secretaries are truly non-partisan, and how they might exercise POFMA powers during an election, if some of them might be required to be “highly attuned to the needs of… his political masters”.

Who’s afraid of the TraceTogether Token?

GovTech has awarded a locally-based electronics maker the S$6 million tender to make 300,000 wearable devices to be deployed as TraceTogether Tokens. This tender was awarded almost a month ago, although we seem to be only hearing of it now.

The token will first be prioritised for people without mobile phones. It’s meant to work like the TraceTogether app, using Bluetooth to ping close contacts. If you test positive for COVID-19, government officials will then ask you for access to your device/app, from which they can retrieve the list of people you’ve been in close contact with. It’s meant to speed up contact tracing efforts, although the app hasn’t worked as well as hoped because only about 25% of Singapore’s population has downloaded it, when they need about 75% before it will work effectively.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the Smart Nation initiative, has assured people that the TraceTogether Token won’t have GPS or Internet connectivity, and won’t track people’s location. But GPS isn’t the only way to track people, and location isn’t the only thing of concern here. There are also concerns about the normalisation of (even more) surveillance, with the needle on what is acceptance shifted gradually over time. As a case in point, the new update for the TraceTogether app requires users to re-register with their National Registration Identity Card number — more personal data than was previously required.

And that’s all before we take into consideration the argument that these electronic contact tracing methods might not even be a worthwhile trade-off.

Be warned! There are also fake contact tracing apps masquerading as official ones, embedded with malware.

Here’s A Nice Thing

I was recently told of the Films of Singapore Daily playlist on YouTube, where you can find films of, and about, Singapore. What a treasure trove! There’s also a Telegram channel to keep you updated.

Please watch this

Over the past week I sent out two special issues, one on Black Lives Matter and what we can/should be doing in Singapore. I’d like to share this from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. He’s talking about the police in the US, but there are some principles there that I think can be applied to our thinking about policing in general across the world.