The more things change
PUBLISHED ON 05 Mar 2017
I couldn’t help feeling a wave of déjà vu as I listened to the Committee of Supply (COS) debate for the Prime Minister’s Office a few days ago.

Workers’ Party NCMP Mr Leon Perera called on the Government to educate new citizens that their votes were secret, claiming that he had met several new citizens who were afraid of losing their citizenship if they voted against the People’s Action Party.

I am reminded of what transpired more than 40 years ago, when Mr JB Jeyaretnam, who was Secretary General of the Workers’ Party, wrote to Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In his letter of 17 Dec 1976, Mr Jeyaretnam called on the Government to affirm the secrecy of the ballot. He wanted Mr Lee to “make a public announcement that the ballot in Singapore is absolutely secret…and to give…assurance that [the] government has no intention whatsoever of finding out how any single voter has voted and…would never even attempt to do so”.

Mr Lee replied the next day to confirm that “ballot has always been and is secret”. He noted that it was “members of the some opposition parties, who have sought to cast doubts on the secrecy of the ballot” and that the Workers’ Party was not “free from blame”.

Two years later in Nov 1978, cross-examined in a defamation case, Mr Jeyaretnam said under oath that he accepted Mr Lee’s assurance that the vote was secret. But a few months later (in Feb 1979), after losing the Telok Blangah by-election, Mr Jeyaretnam changed tack and called for the removal of the serial number on the ballot papers.

One of our founding leaders Mr S Rajaratnam could not understand why the Workers’ Party kept hammering away at this point.

He remarked the opposition was shooting themselves in the foot by repeating the canard that voting was not secret.

Some opposition politicians clearly felt the same.

The Vice-Chairman of the United People’s Front Mr Darus Shariff acknowledged that by “harping on that the vote is not secret”, Mr Jeyaretnam had “harmed the cause of the opposition parties in the next general election” (Straits Times report of 18 Feb 1979).

Perhaps all this is now a distant memory.

During the COS debate, Mr Low Thia Kiang said he could not remember the Workers’ Party ever saying that the vote is not secret.

Mr Low may not be familiar with the 1976 letters. But I remember in 1998 Mr Jeyaretnam moved an adjournment motion in Parliament on the “removal of fear in people’s life”.

In his speech, Mr Jeyaretnam again highlighted the “fear of voting for the opposition, even to cast their vote”, which he claimed “stems from the fact that the serial number of the Register of Electors is entered on the centerfoil”.

Mr Low supported the motion.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After 40 years, Singapore has progressed, but Mr Leon Perera is still parroting what Mr Jeyaretnam had said in 1976.

Where will we be, 40 years from now?

Charles Chong
Member of Parliament, Punggol East SMC