Damaso G Magbual
May 25, 06 2:23pm
Overseas voting was introduced in April 2001 ‘to provide Singaporeans with strong links to Singapore to have their say through their votes’.
However, a cursory reading of the provision of the law on overseas voting will tell us that it does not enfranchise overseas Singaporean citizens as a whole but only those who have direct (government employees) or indirect (employees of international organisations of which Singapore is a member) affiliation with the government.
There definitely is merit in the observation of a student in Canada when he said that there is “…unequal rights to vote for all Singaporeans … who are not associated with any government or public agency” referring to himself and all Singaporeans who are similarly situated.
Voting is a basic human right and not a privilege, which the state grants to its citizens. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of suffrage as universal, it means all citizens of a given state, who are not reasonably restricted by law, have the right to vote. A primary concern of the right of suffrage is participation and international norms favour expanding rather than restricting this right.
Principle of non-discrimination
Hence, Singaporeans who have no direct or indirect affiliation with the government staying overseas and are not allowed to vote are arbitrarily denied a basic human right. This violates the principle of non-discrimination in the treatment of voters’ eligibility, which is an essential characteristic of a free and fair election.
Some jurisdictions/democracies (India, Taiwan, Chile) do not grant their citizens residing outside the country voting rights. There are two basic reasons for this.
First, the setting up of systems and procedures on how the overseas citizens can vote on election day is in itself an administrative nightmare to the electoral body. Then there is the difficulty of designating the electoral district/constituency to which the votes will be assigned. Both reasons may not apply to Singapore. It is a known fact that the technological advance of Singapore is the envy of its Asian neighbours. Hence, setting up systems for overseas voting that will cover all Singaporeans should not pose any problem.
Secondly, the city/state has a limited number of districts/constituencies (23 SMCs and GRCs), unlike India, which is the biggest democracy in the world. Again, designating the district of an overseas voter should not present any problem given Singapore’s level of technological sophistication.
Some countries have certain restrictions on overseas voting but these restrictions are not on the right of citizens to vote. The restrictions are on their participation in a given election. France and the Philippines for instance, allow their overseas citizens to vote in some elections (national elections as against local elections) or for some positions (national versus local constituency). This avoids the difficulty of designating specific constituencies for the overseas votes.
Singapore restricts the rights of certain voters; the two examples cited restrict the type of election and the position to be voted upon. The former violates the basic principle of equality before the law and therefore discriminatory. The other two do not.
The provisions of the Parliamentary Election Act that defines overseas voting is not only discriminatory to the overseas citizens but denies the political contestants who do not belong to the People’s Action Party a level playing field. Voting rights to overseas Singaporeans are limited to those with ties or affiliations with the government.
The PAP has been the dominant party - a virtual hegemony - since Singapore became independent. Those allowed to vote, since they are overseas by reason of their ties to the government are presumed if not expected to vote for the PAP. This certainly places the other parties at a distinct disadvantage.
The restriction on overseas voting to Singaporeans with ties to the government tends to confirm the perception that the PAP as the ruling party, has thrown at the opposition every possible obstacle to grow and develop as viable parties.
Too often changes in policies have almost always made it more difficult for opponents of the PAP to compete. The provision of block voting for the Group Representation Constituencies, the redrawing of political districts, and now the discriminatory provision of the overseas voting, all tend to confirm the impression that indeed the PAP has done everything to discourage support for the opposition.
The graduate student in Vancouver, Canada has a legitimate grievance in that the law is discriminatory. Hence, either the law allows all overseas citizens the right to vote or confine the right of suffrage only to citizens residing in the country. This is equality before the law!
DAMASAO G MAGBUAL is attached to the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel).
No wonder Singapore is the 83rd most democratic country in the world!