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.
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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?
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.