Opinion polls – an asset to the democratic process

Whether or not Joseph Ong Chor Teck is guilty of breaching the Parliamentary Elections Act is an empirical question. But it will suit the government for people to see it as a moral one. In this, they may have Singaporeans’ track record on their side. Many people here cannot distinguish between a criminal offence and a moral transgression. Many would find it mind-boggling that laws can be immoral, and consequently, to defy the law is the morally superior position –  such is an impossibility in their conception of the universe.

Here of course, I am using the word ‘moral’ in a very broad sense to mean something that is right. The right thing to do. That which benefits the greater good.

I will argue that banning opinion polls is wrong.  However, it should be noted that the news story triggering this essay concerns an exit poll, and a distinction can be made between the two. Exit polls are surveys of people after they have voted, conducted on Polling Day itself. I will first discuss opinion polls in general before a specific discussion of exit polls.

The Sunday Times reported:

The man who has been linked to the Temasek Review sociopolitical website was arrested last month for offences under the Parliamentary Elections Act.


The Sunday Times understands that Dr Ong was arrested on Sept 3 for conducting an exit poll during the general election on May 7.

The Temasek Review Facebook page had asked participants to share how they had voted.

Under the law, it is illegal to publish opinion polls during an election, and exit polls on Polling Day before the election results are declared.

If charged and found guilty, Dr Ong can be fined up to $1,500 or jailed for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both.

— Sunday Times, 16 October 2011, Man arrested over election exit poll on website

The track record I referred to in my opening paragraph is the way Singaporeans have come to perceive the late J B Jeyaretnam and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan. Jeyaretnam and Chee have been found guilty in our courts of violating one law or another for doing what would be normal in any democracy. Yet, by and large, Singaporeans treat (in the case of Jeyaretnam, treated) them like lepers, as if they have been guilty of such heinous moral transgression that there can be no political redemption. Recent calls on the SDP to abjure its history and promise never again to break laws against protesting will serve to prove my point.

With Ong’s case, our mainstream media will report with scrupulous attention to the facts. I half-suspect however, that reporting will end at the facts and go no further. Conveniently (for the ruling party), there will be great hesitation to editorialise whether the law itself is the problem.

* * * * *

Why is banning opinion polls the wrong thing to do? Because it deprives voters of a valuable kind of information, and to the extent that voters have to decide on their vote with information deliberately denied, it impairs the democratic process.

The government will no doubt argue that that is not how voters are SUPPOSED to decide their vote; voters should judge candidates on their merits and not bother with how others might vote. This is paternalistic rubbish again. It is not for the government to tell us how we should go about making up our minds. If Dolly Yip wants to vote for Samson Howe because Samson reminds her of her old beau (regardless of his empty manifesto), so be it.

Other ways of making a vote choice are equally legitimate. Negative voting is one. We ourselves do that all the time. For instance:

Tricia: OK, I’ll get the drinks. Celine, what do you want?

Celine: Anything. Gassy, not gassy, doesn’t matter. Just don’t get me soyabean milk. I don’t like the beany taste.

As you can see, Celine cast a negative vote.

Another legitimate way of making a decision is based on network benefits.

Kurt: Hey, you’re buying a flat, is it?

Jerome: Yup.

Kurt: Which area?

Jerome: Somewhere along the northeast corridor, like Sengkang or Punggol. My parents live in Hougang and my sis is in Ang Mo Kio. Just more convenient that way.

Jerome maximised the benefit of his selection with reference to where others are.

Opinion polls allow us to do just that. If we want to vote against one party or candidate, it will be useful to know which other candidate or party stands the best chance. So, why do we deny voters the necessary information for their decision?

It won’t surprise me if the argument is unearthed that opinion polls may mislead. Yes, this can happen, especially as some pollsters will surely fail to take the necessary precautions to ensure a robust survey, but then again, the risk of misleading others is no more or no less than reporting and media commentary. When a reporter or commentator exercises his judgement (or selectivity) as to what to report or what to discuss/speculate about, voters’ impressions of a candidate or party may be changed as a result. If the report or analysis is without basis or highly skewed, the impression so broadcasted would be something we’d call misleading. Yet, we recognise that on the whole, people have their native wits with them and that they will quickly learn to judge what sources to trust and what not to. In other words, the “it may mislead” argument holds little water.

While I feel that there is no moral case for banning opinion polls, with exit polls it is somewhat different. The reason is that exit polls impact voters unequally. Those who, for work or personal reasons, have to vote early on Polling Day will not have the benefit of exit poll information while those who vote late on Polling Day will. Inequality of information disturbs the equality of voting weight, and can be argued to be anti-democratic.

But this is the kind of conversation we should be having – what laws are justifiable and what laws are not. If a law is not justifiable, we should not hold in disgrace he who, at great personal cost, breaks it. To do so without reflection is once more to behave like sheep.

21 Responses to “Opinion polls – an asset to the democratic process”

  1. 1 Chow 16 October 2011 at 22:16

    Dear Alex,

    I agree with your point that we should not necessarily make a person out to be a pariah simply because he has been charged in court for some act or another. I believe what you are really calling for is that we should not stop and abdicate critical thinking to others, which is the case in many situations. Will this happen? I doubt so, since most people will not take the trouble to stop and think about issues that seem far removed from them. For example, I doubt that you would have noticed or perhaps even thought about the implications that it was recently reported that scientists may have demonstrated that the speed of light is not absolute. Of course this does not mean that we cater to the lowest level of intellect among voters. This article (which you may have seen) puts it quite nicely:

    “The [Canadian] Supreme Court stated that the government “cannot take the most uninformed and naïve voter as the standard by which constitutionality is assessed.” Rather, the ban sends the message to voters that the media can be constrained by government not to publish factual information.” (Taken from: http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/opinion-polls-paper.pdf )

  2. 2 George 17 October 2011 at 01:08

    Basically, we know the govt’s reason -kiasu, that’s all.

    But, in my opinion, it needn’t worry at all because, it is NOT typical of the average Singaporean to reveal to others apart from close family members, information of this nature. Perhaps, 95-99% would demur when asked.

    We are not like real democracies elsewhere, many still very the ‘kia cheng hu’. The climate of fear and being persecuted for your believe is still very much alive, esp. you knoe who is still alive!

  3. 3 allthatjazz 17 October 2011 at 03:22

    one can talk abt the morality of the law, about the fact that the PAP itself held a poll during the campaign period but tt its results were not published here, about the fact that a PAP MP broke the Cooling Off Day rules but faced no consequences for it, about any no of things.

    for some watching this political play, the bottom line is that the PAP was gunning for joe ong and that it finally found a reason to tekan the fellow, just like it found reasons to get JBJ and chee and francis seow and… small inconsequential reasons were found in all these cases.

    look at it as just a step in cleaning up the debris of the closing down a much read website that was anti PAP, and of trying to get the wild cowboy towns online under control and colonised.

    it’s all been rather effective hasn’t it? not too many people commenting these days, TKL’s social political website hardly updated anymore, and no one turning up for a certain protest on the weekend. not even the organisers went!

    new normal? actually things seem just like the old normal. who was it who said people get the govt they deserve?

  4. 4 ricardo 17 October 2011 at 03:45

    Negative Voting is entirely justified.

    If a citizen goes to the polls with the sole intention of preventing one party or candidate getting elected, that is his wish and he is entitled to whatever help is needed for him to exercise this choice.

    Polls, pre-election and during the voting period are his best sources of information.

    Some countries, eg Australia, have more complicated voting systems, where your ballot paper has second, third, … choices. If you main choice is not the winner, your secondary choice is counted and so on.

    Sadly, the Australian Electoral Department doesn’t explain to voters how to use this system effectively to both vote in their favoured candidate as well as prevent evildoers from getting in. This is after all, their Democratic right and Duty.

    A young friend, intelligent, well read and university educated, expressed surprise when I told him that the Government, Civil Service and Judiciary were supposed to be independent. He’d discussed political systems with his foreign friends and was ashamed not to be able explain Singapore’s system to them. It had never been discussed or taught in school.

    Perhaps the Ministry of Education might consider a greater emphasis on how our political system is supposed to be even if it doesn’t quite meet this .. ooops .. I mean … so our young citizens can defend our political system to their foreign friends.

  5. 5 John Muhamad 17 October 2011 at 06:41

    Apart from maybe north korea, is there a nation on the face of this earth which jails its citizens for conducting an exit poll.

    Have we gone mad?

    • 6 Gazebo 19 October 2011 at 00:22

      Exit polls are routinely criticized. And Singapore is not the only country that has banned them. New Zealand has too.

  6. 7 Tan Tai Wei 17 October 2011 at 09:31

    First time I am reading of such a “ban”.

    Could it be that it falls under the “cooling day” ruling? Doesn’t make sense to have a “cooling day” the day before the polls, and then allow for campaigning on the day itself. There is indeed the ban on campaigning on polling day, and on partisans’ coming within the vicinity of polling stations. (Does this ban refer also to internet postings?) So the complain against Ong is that he published his “exit poll” on polling day and therefore was campaigning on polling day?

  7. 8 Straightened Times 17 October 2011 at 10:02

    The ruling party’s basic assumption is that people do not know what is good for them. A fallacy. Never underestimate the collective intelligence of the people, especially an educated bunch like Singaporeans. (Educated yes, also, a bunch of sheep). Notwithstanding, the people have spoken loud and clear. And their wishes are for more democracy, less BS from the government. When the ruling party decides to stop being so condescending, maybe, just maybe, people might just like them. Fat chance of that happening because they’re utterly convinced they are right, and the rest of us are fools. I believe the word they’d use is stupid.

  8. 9 Old Singaporean 17 October 2011 at 10:21

    “But this is the kind of conversation we should be having – what laws are justifiable and what laws are not. If a law is not justifiable, we should not hold in disgrace he who, at great personal cost, breaks it.”

    I cannot agree with you more, But I am not optimistic that the government will bother. They have already prevented the law society from commenting on legislations put before parliament, the body that is most qualified to comment, why would they even bother with conversations of the justifiability of any bits of the law?

  9. 10 Alan Wong 17 October 2011 at 10:38

    When NTUC affiliated unions, business representatives and clan associations committees declared openly their unilateral support for Presential candidate Tony Tan recently, isn’t that a kind of opinion polls albeit indirectly made to influence the voters ?

    And this is despite the fact that these committees never called upon their respective members to vote for such a resolution as to whether they really declare their true support for TT as President and without their mandit actually went ahead to mislead their members ?

    And ironically when it is not in their interests, opinions polls suddenly become illegal, what kind of message is our PAP govt sending to us ? That in reality it is actually a paranoid and insecure govt that have no qualms in practising double standards while preaching they are whiter than white ?

  10. 11 Simon 17 October 2011 at 12:19

    Our government is fighting a losing battle for the control of the minds of its citizens – and they know it. The arrest of Joseph Ong are only some of the tactics of intimidation which they employ from time to time to keep their more vocal citizens in check. In fact in recent times, with Malaysia doing away with the ISA law, our government’s hands are being forced to some extent.Our government continue to defend their position by pointing out that in Singapore’s context – it is still relevant. If our government lay claims that what Joseph Ong did with his polling of the people’s preferences during the Presidential election was a violation of the law, then in the same light it rubbishes their own support for Tony Tan as their preferred candidate during the run up of the campaign process. What about the same polling being done by Yahoo Fit To Post? Are there going to be further arrest of Yahoo’s personnel following Joseph? our government throw in its entire media apparatus to boost Tony Tans chances in the Presidential race, and if this is not undue influence on the people’s choices then what is?

  11. 12 teo soh lung 17 October 2011 at 12:39

    It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong. ~Voltaire

    My complaint is that we have too many immoral laws. Unless people are willing to jam up the jails, the authority will just need to slaughter one chicken. It is more than enough for all of us.

  12. 13 Geoff 17 October 2011 at 15:32

    Looks like PAP is very afraid that strategic voting might result in a “freak election”. Is there any other country that bans opinion polls?

  13. 14 Cassie 17 October 2011 at 16:36

    Dear Alex,
    you might want to add that laws criminalising the publication of exit polls before the end of an election are not a Singaporean anomaly – they exist in the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, and in many other countries. This report details it very well: http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/opinion-polls-paper.pdf

    • 15 Chow 18 October 2011 at 22:31

      Cassie, I think if you read it right the report states that exit polls are not allowed in Canada and France. So if you poll voters on how they voted after they have cast their votes you are breaking the law. Australia, India, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States have no restrictions on opinion polls and exit polls. The UK forbids exit polls being published before voting closes but that does not mean the conduct of exit polls is forbidden. You may conduct exit polls but may not publish the results till the polling closes. You may have gotten mixed up between opinion and exit polls. An exit poll is a poll of voters who have already voted whereas one may ask a voter before he votes and that will be considered an opinion poll technically. What happens here is that we have banned both the collection of opinion and exit polls for the entire duration of the campaign period!

      • 16 yawningbread 18 October 2011 at 23:36

        Please, let’s get our facts right.

        Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act bans the **publication** of opinion polls and exit polls during the period after the writ of election has been issued and before the close of polling. It does not ban the collecting of such information in a survey, only the publication.

        Sections 78C and 78D of the Parliamentary Elections Act say:
        (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.
        (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.

        (1) No person shall publish or permit or cause to be published on polling day before the close of all polling stations on polling day —
        (a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted; or
        (b) any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.

  14. 17 yuen 17 October 2011 at 16:54

    was the Temasek Review polling day survey an “asset” to democracy? given that TR’s contents and reader comments were ridiculously biased, I wouldnt expect the survey results to be any different

    in fact, the way the group running the TR website suddenly disappeared without trace on 28 August, the day Newpaper published an interview with a former TR moderator, does not put them in a very heroic light; further, there was no accountability for the money they raised, through advertising, TR debit card issue, sale of TR flash drives etc, and outright donations; the people who operate the Paypal account that received the funds to be used for website server fees, ought to provide some information on the facebook and twitter accounts maintained by TR supporters

    I point out that in USA elections, not publishing exit poll results is just a convention followed by all the major news agencies, newspapers and broadcasters, rather than due to illegality; however, websites like drudgereport have not always toed the line; whether such publication has influenced subsequent voting is however unclear

  15. 18 Democracy 18 October 2011 at 09:20

    Who pass the laws? The ruling party of 2/3 majority MPs in Parliament, right?

    Who voted in these MPs? The majority voters, right?

    So who is ultimately responsible for what laws are justifiable and what laws are not?

    So if the laws are not justifiable, the people rightly deserves it. You reap what you sow.

    This is called democracy – of the people, by the people and for the people.

    • 19 Old Singaporean 19 October 2011 at 07:28

      @Democrary, your argument is valid when the PAP was voted into power. However, to use that power to control the media so as to control information released, to not release vital information, to spin information in their favour etc., so as to modify the thinking of the citizens in their favour, if that is democracy, then I don’t agree. Democracy depends on access to information.

      In addition, when that power is also used to modify laws, to institute a civil service culture of preserving one’s rice bowl through a stick and carrot approach, to create a general climate of fear of the authority, then again I have to disagree with you.

  16. 20 dolphin81 19 October 2011 at 08:52

    Becos of overwhelming PAP dominance, release of opinion polls & exit polls results b4 the actual election can help the PAP more.

    This is becos many of the opp supporters are only anti-PAP & not really pro-opp. The PE2011 shows clearly. Real core opp supporters only form 25% of the electorate.

    Anti-PAP only persons voted for Dr TCB to vent their frustrations on the PAP, but not to support the opp.

    They want to reduce PAP vote share but not necessary to kick PAP out in their constituency. An unofficial poll showing high opp support (>40%)means some anti-PAP only voters will back down & vote PAP on polling day.

    These anti-PAP only persons are still scared an opp takeover will cause property prices to drop.

  17. 21 Marikita 21 October 2011 at 09:50

    Whatever that may remotely disadvantage pap is considered illegal.

    This is Singapore – a democratic one party government

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