11 July 2006

Is Our Vote Secret?

In almost every elections in Singapore (at least those recent ones I can remember and still hear about), there is always, definitely, the question of the secrecy of our vote. Without fail, there will be letters to the newspapers questioning if the government knows what each individual votes or asking the Elections Department to take steps to ensure confidentiality. And despite assurances from the numerous government officials that they do not peep at people's votes, hearsay would arrive from various sources about people who voted for the PAP because Big Brother is watching.

Despite the question recurring periodically alongside with every Progress Package and its various manifestations, the Elections Department has never seemed to give a completely satisfying answer. It's always the old answer of accountability of the ballots. (Somehow doesn't that make you wish that the old NKF had similar zeal?) Of course, I must admit that I have not doggedly followed every single argument that the Elections Department or the government uses to justify the presence of the innocently threatening serial number (which, allegedly, can be further traced to one's identification number), but as far as I can recall, it never seem to venture far from the same old line.

(However, it is rather worth mentioning that, there might be a subtle shift in the replies by the Elections Department over the years. Like I've said, I do not read every reply the department sends out defending their lovely numbers, but according to a rather sharp and well-educated friend, their replies have been moving from the lines of "your vote is secret" to "why I should know your vote, but rest assured, it is still secret". Since I did not personally read this, I shall treat it as, for now, unfounded rumour.)

So, the holy question in Singapore, akin to the global equivalent of "does God exist?", is "is our vote secret?".

Personally, I used to think it is. That's based on the reasoning that, despite what some may label as naïvety, I doubted that PAP will stoop so low as to scrutinise every single vote or a particular individual's vote. In spite of the fact that PAP sometimes employ questionable tactics, I doubted that it'll behave like a scrooge over his money.

However, recent reflections about it, together with opinions from many intellects, lead me to modify this opinion. I still doubt the PAP will track down each individual's vote, but the crux is that they can do it if they want to. They have the power and ability to do so. They probably have never done and will never do it, but it doesn't matter so long as they have the potential to do it.

The rationale behind this is that, if they track down what each person votes, and somehow it was exposed by the public, the Elections Department will be chest-deep in shit. Tons of problems will suffocate them like corrosive flatus in a small, sealed room. The country will suffer considerable social and political backlash. Support for dissidents like Chee Soon Juan will skyrocket as if he had just won the Singapore Idol contest. But if there is no evidence that the Elections Department goes around snooping the ballots, anyone can say whatever they want and it can easily be dismissed as coffeeshop talk. And the best way to achieve this absence of evidence is to not do it at all.

So how do they affect the votes to their favour? It is via the fact that they have the capability to. It is this fear that they mobilised to their advantage. And this is a very influencing factor to many Singaporeans who are pragmatic, who are more concerned with whether they get promoted in their civil jobs than whether Hougang gets its upgrading. So on one hand, the PAP can say that they don't know what each individual votes, yet they stand to gain from this system.

But how true is this belief of mine? To me, it's pretty logical, but others may have their reservations. It is hard for me to convince others, just as it is difficult for others to convince me of another conjecture. The easiest way to collapse my argument is to remove the serial number or all other possible traces, but realistically speaking, I doubt that'll ever happen soon.

Naturally, it'll be impossible for the Elections Department to convince every single soul in this island that their vote is secret (think Benjamin of Animal Farm). There will be skeptics no matter what the Elections Department does, critics who will accuse that the PAP is not being honest with our votes. However, first steps can be taken. The Elections Department can be disconnected from the Prime Minister's office. While this move may not prove that the Elections Department is independent of the influence of any political party, at least it is a step towards transparency. Also, serial numbers can be removed from the ballot, so that there is no clear and easy method for one's ballot to be linked with his/her identity.

But since there is inertia in the system, there will be some grounds for my suspicion to grow.

No comments: