Democracy is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport!

Over eight years ago, I helped out a political party by volunteering to being their Polling Agent. It was a wonderful learning opportunity in addition to having a chance to participate.

The lessons I learned included the following:

  • The entire voting process is very well documented, very professionally run and trust worthy.
  • The elections engine needs many actors. There are candidates, political parties, election department officials, political party promoters, journalists, bloggers, photographers, videographers and, contractors, just to name some.
  • What most people don’t quite realise it that there is a baseline of participants who are not necessarily aware that they are needed – the citizens themselves.

It is true that only citizens eligible to vote, can vote during an election. That’s just how it is. In the case of Singapore, voting is, like Australia, compulsory. Even though it is compulsory, you can still decide NOT to vote which would mean that your name would not appear in the voters register for the next time around. You can get your name reinstated by applying to the Elections Department and providing a reason for non-voting.

A Citizen’s Role

What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? There are many roles and expectations placed on a citizen as well as privileges and rights bestowed on a citizen by the state. Among the various responsibilities of a citizen, the exercise of one’s right to vote in elections is a very important one.

Throughout human history, many societies had to fight for the right to vote for all of those in the society. It used to be only for a very small group, and almost exclusively only men. It took many people, around the world, and it is enshrined as Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

I am glad that we, in Singapore, honour that right to vote for all (even though Singapore never signed the UDHR – disgusting isn’t? – I can’t find anywhere in information of all treaties that Singapore has signed and ratified. I will be happy to have this updated)

Participate, not Spectate

To make good the human right of voting, one has to participate and not spectate. Democracy is a messy procedure. It takes lots of efforts, lots of heartaches, lots of convincing, disagreements, debates, discussions before we can come to some form of a consensus for what we, as a country, want for our collective future (only to repeat that process every few years).

I believe Singapore is worth fighting for. Our collective future is our responsibility not some one else’s.

Promoting Participation

The ancient philosopher, Socrates, was not in favour of democracy, if democracy is exercised without education. The video suggests that he “hated” democracy. I would instead want to say that it is not about hating, but if democracy is exercised by people who have:

  • not understood the topics at hand,
  • not contemplating the issues,
  • not being able to weigh in the various options before deciding,

then I would tend to, partially, agree with Socrates.

We cannot, however, go down the path of denying people their right to vote just because they don’t understand or have not thought through stuff. That would be very regressive.

What we must do is to educate. Get voters to participate. Engage with the issues. Challenge ideas. Be thoughtful in exploring the various aspects before voting.

They should not be coerced into a decision by fear, incentives or threats (FIT).

In the Singapore context, FIT has been used from the very earliest of elections to good effect. That’s how the ruling party has been able to “sway” the voters to vote for them (threat of no HDB upgrading, communist threats etc). This FIT model worked well until 2011.

We need Singaporeans to step up and participate in the election process. Participation is the innoculation needed against the FIT modus operandi. Voters should be confident that their choices and votes are indeed secret and that they are voting for what they truly believe is the right choice. We must acknowledge that voting is a very hard decision to make for it is both selfish and altruistic at the same time.

In 2011 and later in 2015, I was a polling agent and a counting agent (respectively), both for the Singapore People’s Party (Chiam See Tong’s party).

To do either of those roles, one needs to first volunteer to be a polling/counting agent. Naturally, if you are a member of a party, you could help out to do those tasks on election day as well.

Volunteering DOES NOT MEAN you are joining the political party.

Very few people know that volunteering to help out in an election process (as a polling/counting agent) does not require party membership – I certainly did not know that in 2011, and I bet lots of people reading this post are in that category as well.

I repeat, you DO NOT HAVE TO JOIN a party to be a volunteer during the election season.

Naturally, political parties would want members, but during the run-up to an election, they need access to as many people as possible for all of the various bits of work that needs to be done – such as polling and counting agents.

In the 2011 and 2015 election season, it was very obvious to me that the ruling party has a whole army of members, volunteers, sycophants (perhaps), who were able to man the various polling centres, polling places and counting centres. But the other parties – in my case the SPP – had relatively fewer and were hard pressed to have a full slate of volunteers for all of roles/work that was needed to be done.

Therein lies a perception, resource and an infrastructure problem.

In the two rounds of participation on my part, it was very clear and evident to me that the vote is SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL. Your vote is not known to anyone but you. You are also free to tell anyone what your vote was (in my case, I always voted for the competition whoever they are). It is YOUR SECRET to be shared if you decide to.

When someone tells you that “hey, there is a serial number on the ballot, and there is a record of which ballot was allocated to you when you voted, so it can be traced” – it is only partially true.

I will let the Elections Department’s webpage explain:

Ballot Paper Serial Number

The serial number on the ballot paper is to protect the integrity of the democratic process. It enables strict accounting of all ballot papers issued and cast, and guards against counterfeiting and voter impersonation.

When the ballot paper is issued, the voter serial number is written on the ballot paper counterfoil to facilitate vote tracing if necessary. This is allowed only if there is an order from the Court arising from an election petition, and the Court must be satisfied that votes have been fraudulently cast thus affecting the result of the election.

Calling out the voter serial number and voter’s name allows voters to acknowledge that the Presiding Officer has identified the right name and makes the proceedings more transparent to polling agents who are representing their candidates to observe the proceedings.

Theoretically, it is possible for anyone with access to the ballot papers to identify who cast a particular vote. The link between the ballot paper number and the voter serial number on the counterfoil does facilitate tracing from a ballot paper to a voter’s identity on the Registers of Electors in the event there is an election petition.

So, in order for a vote cast to be traced to the voter, there has to be a court order before the ballot boxes can be opened, the vote searched for, counter checked against the counterfoil of the ballot book. The ballot book is like a cheque book. Each page in the ballot book is a ballot in two parts: one is the stub and the other the ballot. Ballots are torn via the perforated region and handed to the voter exactly how a cheque is taken out of a cheque book. If, in the process of removing the ballot from the ballot book it gets torn or damaged, the next ballot in the book is issued. The damaged one is cancelled, recorded and kept away separately. All of this is done in full view of everyone at the polling place/centre.

Now that you’ve read this far, you could ask, why is this being written up now?

It is time

I believe it is time for a grassroots driven, Singaporeans for Singapore, non-partisan effort to build up a community that participates actively in the election process. We need friends to bring friends along to sign up as volunteers when the time comes to signup.

We can expedite the process by being proactive and to start the process now.

I am in the process of doing exactly that. My friends and I are kickstarting what we are calling Election Kakis. This is an effort to educate, train up and make available willing and enthusiastic Singaporeans as volunteers as polling and counting agents when the time comes. This way, we will have a growing, educated, participatory group of voters who can bring greater accountability, transparency and visibility to the entire voting process and democracy for all.

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