Monday, February 16, 2009

The right to vote redux

It’s actually quite a pleasure reading what the Law Minister speaks or writes about. Few of our ministers are as erudite or eloquent, but I suppose that comes with the territory of being a lawyer by training. 

Just this past Friday, the Law Minister answered Thio Li Ann’s question on whether voting in Singapore was a constitutional or statutory right.

The answer was that voting is indeed a constitutional right and it enjoys the highest possible legal protection, and this was also affirmed by the Attorney-General.

He also made the excellent point that guaranteeing the right to vote in a constitution, as North Korea and Myanmar do, may nonetheless have no meaning as seen in the practical realities of those two pariah states today. The Law Minister continued by stating that on voting, what was important was that the government was committed to the rule of law, an educated populace was aware of its rights and responsibilities, and that stable institutions exist that provide for a democratic polity. 

All very true, and I agree completely.

On hindsight, while the question on whether voting was a right protected by the highest law of the land still had to be asked (at least at some point), worrying about whether voting is a right that can ever be taken away from Singaporeans is probably unnecessary.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that no government in the world will overtly take away a pre-existing right to vote when the costs for doing so are extremely high (social unrest, international condemnation, trade sanctions etc.).

The second reason is a far more cynical one, and, a little disclaimer here, I’m not saying that this is a reason why we need never fear that the right to vote will be taken away from Singaporeans. Consider this a reason that applies to other countries and historical contexts.

As nations throughout history from South Africa to Zimbabwe to North Korea to Myanmar have shown, instead of taking away the right to vote and abrogating the democratic process entirely, it is far easier to rig an election or at least to unfairly influence its process, for instance, through gerrymandering or vote-buying.

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