From Yawning Bread...
My guess is that most bloggers do not know that certain laws restricting what can be said over the internet kick in once a parliamentary election is called. Some bloggers will be surprised that some of the things they say about Singapore politics may expose them to prosecution.
The last time there was a parliamentary election (also called a general election) in Singapore, which was on 3 Nov 2001, blogging was not yet a household word. Some of today's most prolific bloggers were probably not yet out of school.
In 2001, websites offering political content were relatively few, and news about the amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act, amendments which specifically dealt with internet communications, were still fresh in webmasters' minds, having been passed only in August of the same year.
Today, blogging has exploded, and unlike webmasters in the early days of the internet, most bloggers are writing without looking over their shoulders at Big Brother. While the Sedition Act is no doubt well known among bloggers due to the publicity about the 3 guys recently charged and sentenced, their offences related to foul language stirring up race and religious hate, not political news or commentary.
The coming general election will thus be the first time that bloggers will have to watch what they publish with regard to electoral politics. It may also offer a test as to the boundaries of the law, for, in my opinion, the law is poorly drafted. In a number of ways, it is not appropriate to the nature of the internet.
Needless to say, it is much too sweeping, and thus injurious to Singapore's political maturity. If some bloggers respond with civil disobedience, we're in for some interesting times.
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The Parliamentary Elections Act
The law in question is the Parliamentary Elections Act, particularly Sections 78A, B, C and D.
Section 78A devolves to the 'minister' -- I think the specific minister is the Prime Minister -- the power to make detailed regulations. Since these regulations would be made pursuant to the law, they would have the same force as the law. Yet the Regulations are nowhere to be found on the freely accessible part of the government website.
I sent an email enquiry to the Elections Department on a Monday, asking them to point me to the Regulations. Four working days later, when I commenced writing this article, I still had not received a reply.
It was only through the assistance of a lawyer friend of mine that I obtained a copy of the Regulations. He found it on Lawnet, a database generally accessible only to lawyers.
No election advertising
Section 78A of the Parliamentary Elections Act says,78A.—(1) The Minister may make regulations —
(b) regulating election advertising and the publication thereof during an election period on what is commonly known as the Internet by political parties, candidates or their election agents and relevant persons, including prescribing the features that must or must not appear or be used in any such election advertising.
(2) Any person who contravenes any regulations made under subsection (1) (b) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.
The bold italics have been put in by me, since these terms will be explained below. These explanations are based on the definitions contained within the same Act.
This is a very broad term to mean any material that can reasonably be regarded as intended "to promote or procure the electoral success ... for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates", or may "enhance the standing of any such political parties, candidates or groups of candidates with the electorate in connection with any election."
This seems to suggest that even praise for a candidate's wit, eloquence or sartorial flair would fall within the meaning of this term, let alone more substantial discussion that makes a party or candidate look appealing and vote-worthy.
This is the period beginning with the day the writ of election is issued by the President for an election and ending with the close of all polling stations on polling day.
In the Act, the definition is very wordy, but basically it means every person or group of persons (other than political parties, candidates and election agents) who publishes anything on the internet.
As I've mentioned above, Section 78A devolves the details to the Regulations. So now, let's take a look at what the Regulations say.6. For the purposes of section 78A (1)(b) of the Act, no election advertising may be published or caused to be published on what is commonly known as the Internet during the election period by or on behalf of any relevant person.
-- Parliamentary Elections Act (Chapter 218, Sections 78, 78A and 102) Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations
That's it! And since the definition of "election advertising" is very broad, and "relevant person" means you and me, there's not a lot that we are allowed to say!
No election advertising on polling day
Next, let's look act Section 78B of the Parliamentary Elections Act. This section is titled "Election advertising ban on polling day".
You may wonder why there needs to be a special section that bans election advertising on polling day when it is already banned since the notification of elections.
This is because the ban effective since the notification of elections is only on "relevant persons", i.e. you and me. Political parties and candidates can still transmit election advertising during the election period except on polling day.
In that sense, Section 78B does not really affect those who aren't standing for election, but there is still something there that may interest us, for it limits the meaning of "election advertising".
Section 78B (2) provides a few permissible communications on polling day. These include:(d) the transmission by an individual to another individual, on a non-commercial basis on what is commonly known as the Internet, of his own political views;
(e) the publication of any news relating to an election in a newspaper in any medium or in a radio or television broadcast;
If these are permitted on polling day, it stands to reason that they should be permitted on all other days through the election period, despite the broad definition of "election advertising". This suggests that you should be able to express your own political views or report on rallies and what candidates have said in their speeches (being "news")
But don't write in a such a way that looks as if you're helping to promote them. This is easier said than done though; see the section 'Ridiculous' below.
Sections 78C, D and E
Section 78C of the Parliamentary Elections Act says "No person shall publish or permit or cause to be published the results of any election survey."
This can reasonably be assumed to forbid any online poll on your website or blog.
Section 78D extends the ban to exit polls from polling booths on polling day.
Section 78E softens the law somewhat by saying that if you have exercised due care and taken reasonable steps to comply with the law, or if the breach happened due to circumstances beyond your control, you can use those as your defence.
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The extremely broad meaning of "election advertising" will no doubt have a chilling effect, once again, on speech. Its catch-all meaning is ridiculous. What if you really, really agree with a particular party's position? Can't you express those personal views?
What if you think another party is talking rubbish? If you point out that the party is spouting rubbish, won't you in effect be promoting their opponents?
What if you report on what you saw first-hand at a political rally, and described how the audience was huge, cheering every word of a certain political candidate? This may be factual, but the transmission of these facts will naturally tend to "enhance the standing" of the candidate or party, which is covered within the meaning of the disallowed "election advertising".
What if you had a hyperlink to someone else's blog, which contains an online poll?
There are so many areas where the law flies in the face of reasonableness, let alone free expression.
The way the law is worded, it seems to be based on a model of politics where political parties and their candidates may speak, but ordinary folks can only listen. The spoken-to should more or less gag themselves. It's kind of the like the model Confucian classroom, where the teacher may speak but all the kids have to keep quiet or simply recite after the teacher. By banning the expression of analysis and commentary, the effect is to delegitimise analytical thought.
Is this the best way to encourage political awareness and participation? Will citizens feel engaged or disengaged as a result?
In any healthy democracy, citizens try to persuade each other of the course to take and the leaders to favour. This naturally includes persuading each other whom to vote for. It is absurd that this is against the law in Singapore.
Pushing the envelope
Some bloggers may want to push the envelope, and indeed, Singapore will be better off if brave souls expand the space for political expression.
It is possible to exploit some grey areas in the law, though at what point taking advantage of a grey area becomes civil disobedience is difficult to discern.
One grey area I can immediately think of comes out of the time-fence of "election period". If you write anything that is ardently in favour of a certain party or candidate before the election is called, it should be fine.
Yet, blogs often contain an archive of postings. What if you had written a political commentary before the election is called, but it still remains accessible during the hustings?
Others may take this grey area further. They may write their commentary after the election is called but change the time-stamp to before the election period. Of course they will need to be smart to do this. For one, they will have to ensure that the article does not reference any event or statement that only occurred after the election is called, for that will be proof that it was written within the election period. For another, they will need to reserve some item numbers before hand, because even if one changes the time stamp, the item numbers still run in chronological order. Naturally it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this can be achieved by writing a short, non-political item now (before the election is called), and then later editing the item to hold the future political commentary.
Then there may be others who think the easiest way may be to try to slip past the "relevant persons" rule. They may quickly set up an anonymous blog on a foreign server, making very sure that it is not traceable to them, but when the time comes, establish hyperlinks from their known blog to the anonymous blog. That way, they can put fearless election commentary on the anonymous blog, maybe even an online poll.
Of course you can be fearless without going through so much trouble, continuing to write for your own blog. Naturally, you should always take care not to endorse any party or candidate, nor ask readers to vote in any particular way. Write about the rallies you attended; report on the speeches and audience reactions you saw. Declare that as "news!" Stay within first-hand reporting and commentary, the latter being "transmission.... on a non-commercial basis.... of [your] own political views." If the effect is to make one side look good, so be it. Let the chips fall where they may. Argue, if necessary, that it was not "intended" to promote or enhance, but merely to express your personal views and observations.
Whichever route you wish to take, bloggers, start making preparations now!
© Yawning Bread