PEA allows “transmission of personal political views on the Internet” – or does it not?

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The ongoing police investigations into the alleged Cooling-off Day breaches are puzzling for several reasons. I would like to highlight one of these here, and it is what I would argue would be at the centre of any court trial if the accused – Teo Soh Lung, Roy Ngerng, in particular – are charged.

But first, the Elections Department (ELD) and the Singapore Police Force (SPF) issued a joint-statement on 1 June 2016, “in response to media queries”. (See here.)

That in itself is puzzling for very obvious reasons. Let us remember that it was the ELD which had filed the complaint with the SPF.

So, why would or how could the supposedly neutral SPF, which is still conducting its investigations, issue a joint-statement with the complainant (ELD)?

Such a thing would give rise to charges of bias, that the SPF – in standing with the ELD, as it were – has already compromised its own neutrality.

Justice, as they say, must not only be done but be seen to be done.

Would the SPF issue a joint-statement with Ms Teo or Mr Ngerng if it was found later that the two are not guilty?

It is quite troubling.

But the main issue I want to raise here is this one: what EXACTLY is permitted and not permitted on Cooling-off Day?

I thought it was quite clear – that election advertising is not permitted, where political parties and candidates continue to promote themselves on Cooling-off Day.

This is not allowed and is clearly spelt out in the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA).

And there are exceptions too – including that for individuals who are not involved in any campaigning for the parties. That is, members of the public.

In April 2010, when the amendments were being debated in Parliament, Law Minister K Shanmugam spelt this out clearly – or so we thought. (See here.)

He provided a list, explaining what is allowed, one of which was:

“Fourth, individual transmission of personal political views on the Internet, on a non-commercial basis, is permitted.”

There. Simple. Clear. Understandable language.

Mr Shanmugam went further.

“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 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.”

While it was a more detailed explanation, Mr Shanmugam’s points were clear – individual transmission of personal political views on the Internet on Cooling-off Day is allowed.

It is permitted.

The only caveat is that such transmissions must be “on a non-commercial basis”.

The only exception to this, one would understand, are the individual transmissions of personal political views by election candidates. And indeed, this would be the main target of Cooling-off Day, so that emotions are not fanned by politicians or candidates on such a day.

So, the question now is this: what exactly did Ms Teo or Mr Ngerng do that have contravened the PEA?

Do their posts on their own personal Facebook pages not constitute “individual transmissions of personal political views”?

As far as I am aware, Ms Teo and Mr Ngerng do not write for commercial interests, and as far as I am aware, they were not paid for their postings.

But even if they were, surely to harass them the way the police have done is unnecessary – especially when Ms Teo, for example, has admitted to having created and published that post. (According to some reports.)

It would indeed be interesting to see how the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) will interpret the provisions in the PEA and, perhaps more importantly, the parliamentary words of Law Minister Shanmugam.

It looks like the law needs some clarifying.

Until then, the PEA allows “transmission of personal political views on the Internet” – or does it not?

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