Police investigating Straits Times’ Punggol East by-election poll

From ‘Police looking into ST publication of by-election poll’, 13 Jan 2013, article in Today online.

The police is looking into the Straits Times’ publication of the findings of a poll on the Punggol East by-election, said the Elections Department today. The article, published on Jan 10, polled 50 Punggol East residents on which party they were rooting for in the by-election.

Under the Parliamentary Elections Act, publishing the results of any election survey from the day the writ of election is issued until the close of all polling stations on polling day is not allowed. The writ of election was issued on Jan 9. In a statement today, the Elections Department said: “In response to media queries about the poll on the Punggol East By-Election published in the Straits Times on 10 January 2013, the case is currently being looked into by the Police.”

Since the article was published, netizens have questioned the legality of the report in online forums and social media.

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 9.33.09 PM

The Jan 10 article in question was titled ‘ST poll: More rooting for PAP’, which is misleading because out of the 50 Punggol residents surveyed, 19 supported PAP vs 10 for Opposition, and the remainder were ‘UNDECIDED’. It seems rather premature to say anything about the Punggol sentiment on the ground from such results, in particular something like ‘the EDGE that the ruling party appears to hold may be a reflection of  the incumbency advantage it has always held in a middle-class, traditionally PAP-leaning ward’. No details were given from the article on how the poll was conducted, but it appears that it was done through interviews of random residents. ST Editor Warren Fernandez confirmed my suspicions:

“Our reporters spoke with residents in Punggol East to get their comments and a sense of the ground for our election reports. This was not a full-scale survey, or scientific poll, by any means.

One would question the bias inherent in such straw polls where participants have to respond to a team of ST reporters who’re more than happy to publish your name and your OPINION for the whole country to see. It would be interesting, if it weren’t illegal, to see instead how Punggol residents would vote anonymously, through an online poll rather than having someone from a government-endorsed national paper approach you with a notepad and stuffing an audio recorder in your face. Maybe the 21 people weren’t ‘undecided’. They just didn’t feel comfortable, or afraid even. It’s as scientific as having Ah Long San going around asking what you think of graffiti. But that’s not quite the point is it? Does a straw poll have to be ‘full-scale’ and statistically rigorous before it is considered illegal? Here’s see what the Law says:

Blackout period for election survey results 78C.

—(1)  No person shall publish or permit or cause to be published the results of any election survey during the period beginning with the day the writ of election is issued for an election and ending with the close of all polling stations on polling day at the election.

[31/2001]
(2)  Any person who contravenes subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.
[31/2001; 10/2010]

(2A)  The offence under subsection (2) shall be an arrestable offence within the meaning of the Criminal Procedure Code 2010.

[10/2010]

(3)  In this section, “election survey” means an opinion survey of how electors will vote at an election or of the preferences of electors respecting any candidate or group of candidates or any political party or issue with which an identifiable candidate or group of candidates is associated at an election.

Nowhere in this section of the Parliamentary Elections Act does it specify how thorough a survey must be before it’s allowed. But if you generate absolute numbers as to how many ‘rooted’ for PAP or Opposition, that sounds more than just an ‘opinion’ to me. You’re saying 19 people will vote PAP vs 10 for anyone else, clearly a statement of voter preference.

Such tightening of election laws was imposed in 2001 by Minister of Information and the Arts Lee Yock Suan, in response to the Internet facilitating such polls and this ‘crystal ball gazing’ having the potential to ‘sway voters’ or even influence election results.  In the last GE, Temasek Review’s Dr Ong Chor Teck was ARRESTED for conducting an exit poll on Polling Day. No idea what happened to him since. I doubt this was a ‘full scale’ or ‘scientific’ poll either, but I wonder what would have happened if he wasn’t behind a ‘socio-political’ PAP-bashing website, but from ST or Mediacorp instead.

What exactly is so dangerous or subversive about publishing pre-election polls? How is this more illegal than posting a personal opinion or how you voted on your Facebook page or blog, especially if you’re someone influential with a large following, a celebrity for example? Xiaxue is an unabashed PAP supporter, should we allow her to gush about her favourite political party during and after elections? So what if the ST thinks the PAP has an ‘advantage’ based on a crappy survey; don’t we ALL know that already? Not only is a ST pre-election poll illegal, it is also redundant in my opinion. If I want to know what Punggol residents think of the rising ‘son of Punggol’ or ‘unity candidates’, I’d access forums or eavesdrop on uncles at kopitiams, not scour the ST for anything remotely insightful. If the ST were let off with a mere warning on a technicality of ‘scientific rigour’, imagine the floodgates opening for the online random polls that would follow. If the premier mainstream paper can get away with it, what’s stopping me from publishing an informal poll on my Facebook, this blog, or via email to family and friends?

There were a trio of reporters responsible behind the article, a team consisting of Elgin Toh (who also wrote a breaking follow up ST article hours after this titled ‘Elections Department says police looking into ST report‘), Lim Yi Han and Chia Yi Min. But it’s senior management who needs to step into the firing line ( if anything even comes out of this) for allowing it to go to print. In the spirit of colorectal surgeon butt jokes, may the police PROBE sufficiently into this poll so that justice is served, and let’s hope some otherwise decent journalists don’t get their asses fried over this fiasco.

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