Parliament debates election coverage of mainstream and alternative media

April 28th, 2010

Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, who used to cover elections for Singapore’s national broadcaster in his first career as a current affairs television producer, said in Parliament that the “cooling off” period should apply to his old employers and other mainstream media, and not just to the political parties. Their news coverage was inherently “subjective in nature”, he said. Law Minister K Shanmugam defended the credibility of Singapore’s national media before the House passed the Bill that would ban campaigning – but not news reports – on the eve of Polling Day.

  • Read Today’s report here.

Extract from Second Reading speech by Law Minister K Shanmugam on the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill, 27 April 2010.

Currently, after Nomination day, there will be a period of campaigning, followed immediately by Polling day when Singaporeans cast their vote. The Bill proposes to increase the minimum period between Nomination day and Polling day by one day, and to use that extra day as a Cooling Off day.

The reason for a Cooling Off day is clear. During an election campaign, various parties and their candidates will put forward their manifestos and ideas to the electorate. They will engage in debates across the island on national policies and local issues, and seek to appeal to people’s hearts and minds. There will be political messages during this period, at election rallies and door-to-door campaigning, on television and in print, from lorries driving around blaring political messages from loudspeakers, and in the future via the new media.

The Cooling Off day will give everyone some time after the excitement and emotion of campaigning, to reflect on the issues and the arguments made, analyse logically and rationally what is at stake, and then go to the polls the next day to cast their votes. This is important because in a General Election, each one of us will be making very significant decisions about our future and Singapore’s future.

Another reason for having a Cooling Off day is that, if emotions do run high between contesting groups of supporters during campaigning, the risk of disorder, on the eve of Polling day, and on Polling day itself will be reduced.

The concept of a Cooling off period for voters to reflect on issues is not novel. Sometimes referred to as ‘campaign silence’ or ‘election silence’, it exists in various forms in several other countries. In Australia, the law imposes a three-day blackout on election advertising via broadcast media (i.e. television and radio) before federal polls. In Indonesia, there is a three-day cooling off before legislative elections, and a two-day period before presidential elections. Polling in the Philippines, Italy, Russia and Mexico, among other countries, are also preceded by a period of cooling off.

Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill amend the Act to increase the minimum period between Nomination day and Polling day by one extra day; this extra day being the Cooling Off day. The minimum period of campaigning will therefore not be affected in any way as a result of the introduction of the Cooling Off day.

Currently, the PEA prohibits the publication or display of election advertising on Polling day. There are a number of existing exceptions to this under the Act:

1) First, publication of news relating to the election in the newspapers, on radio and television may continue on Polling day;

2) Second, the continued lawful display or posting of banners and posters is allowed;

3) Third, Internet election advertising lawfully published before Polling day does not need to be taken down on Polling day;

4) Fourth, individual transmission of personal political views on the Internet, on a non-commercial basis, is permitted; and

5) Fifth, the distribution or promotion of a book for not less than commercial value is acceptable on Polling day if the publication had been planned regardless of whether there was to be an election.

Clause 29 of the Bill amends the Act to extend the existing prohibition of election advertising on Polling day, to Cooling Off day. The exceptions to the ban that I mentioned earlier will similarly be extended. There are two additional points that I will make.

The first is that instead of allowing only individual transmission of personal political views on the Internet (on a non-commercial basis), we have widened the exception to cover any form of telephonic or electronic transmission of personal political views by individuals, to other individuals (on a non-commercial basis). This is to take into account new forms of individual personal communication. This wider exception will apply both to Cooling Off day as well as Polling day.

The second point is that Party Political broadcasts on television, which have traditionally been aired on the eve of Polling day in previous General Elections, will be permitted on Cooling Off day. This exception will be prescribed.

The Bill also makes other amendments to give effect to the Cooling Off day. The Act currently prohibits any person from wearing, using, carrying or displaying political propaganda, such as flags, banners, badges and placards on Polling day. Candidates may, however, wear their party political badges. Clause 27 of the Bill extends the prohibition, and its exception, to the Cooling Off day.

Canvassing and door-to-door visits are banned on Polling day. Clause 34 extends that to the Cooling Off day.

In previous General Elections, permits for election rallies would not be granted on Polling day. Clause 35 of the Bill expressly prohibits the holding of any rallies on both the Polling day and Cooling off day. It also clarifies that, during an election period, rallies at Speakers’ Corner will be subject to the same permit regime as election rallies held at any other place in Singapore.

To summarise, with the exception of Party Political Broadcasts, which will still be permitted on the Cooling Off day, what is presently prohibited on Polling day will also be prohibited on Cooling Off day. And what is currently allowed on Polling day will also be allowed on the Cooling Off day.

Some people have questioned why Singapore needs a Cooling Off day, when Singaporeans are, by nature, rational. The argument they make is that Singaporeans are rational – so they do not need an additional day to think. There is a logical disconnect to this argument. Rational people do not suffer from being given an extra day to think and reflect on serious issues.

Sir, for us good governance is both fundamental and vital. We do not have the luxury of resources or strategic depth, or size. We cannot, like some other countries, endure a period of poor governance without suffering considerable damage. We survive and prosper as a city state, in an ever changing international political and economic environment, by having good governance. All that we have around us – our peace and security, our infrastructure, our world-class institutions, and our cosmopolitan skyline – could not have been achieved without good, strong and consistent governance, working in partnership with a hard-headed, rational and hardworking people.

We therefore have to take the electoral process very seriously because the direction that a government takes in its five year mandate, after an election, will have a disproportionately substantial impact on Singapore. We must therefore encourage everyone to vote rationally and logically. Our voters must be able to sift out misinformation and rhetoric. They must be able to distinguish policies and manifestos that sound good but are actually hollow, from those that are really in the best interests of Singapore. The integrity of the electoral process, which underlines the proposal for a Cooling Off day, is part and parcel of our political morality; a political morality which also includes principles such as the integrity of our public service and Government, meritocracy, as well as racial and religious harmony.

It is for these reasons that the Government has decided to introduce the Cooling Off day.

Liberalisation of Internet election advertising

The third set of key amendments in the Bill relate to refinement of Internet election advertising.

Under the existing law, only political parties, candidates and election agents are permitted, during an election period, to campaign on the Internet by putting up election advertising.

Specifically, under the PEA, a person (other than a political party, a candidate or his election agent) will be considered a ‘relevant person’ if:

1) he operates a website under the class licence scheme run by the Media Development Authority (MDA); and

2) he is required under the class licence to register with MDA, on account that he engages in or provides any internet programme for the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore.

Under the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations, a “relevant person” is not allowed to engage in any Internet election advertising during the election period.

Members may recall that in 2007, the Government had set up an Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, or AIMS, to study the implications of new media on society and to recommend appropriate ways that the Government could address the impact.

On 9 January last year, MICA announced that the Government had accepted a number of recommendations that AIMS had made. MICA also announced that individuals would be allowed to participate in Internet election advertising during the election period.

Clause 29 of the Bill gives effect to that commitment, by removing references to “relevant persons” from the Act altogether. This means that the current blanket prohibition on individuals operating non-party political websites will be lifted. I hope netizens will act responsibly when running such sites.

While the rules on propagation of political views on Internet have been liberalised, nevertheless, foreign interference in our politics will remain prohibited. Clause 38 amends the Bill to make it an offence for any person, other than a Singaporean, to knowingly publish or display any election advertising during the election period. The prohibition applies in the real world as much as it does to the virtual world. This is partly a technical alignment, since the law already makes it an offence for foreigners to take part in election activities in Singapore.

In another significant move to liberalise Internet election advertising, MICA had also earlier announced that candidates, their political parties and election agents will be allowed to use new media as election advertising during the election period. This will be done by expanding the positive list under the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations. More details on the expanded positive list will be announced by MICA in due course.

Be the first to comment on "Parliament debates election coverage of mainstream and alternative media"

Leave a comment