21 Aug 2020

How Singapore carried out its Covid-19 election

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 August 2020
A voting queue in Singapore during the country's 2020 elections in July

A voting queue in Singapore during the country's 2020 elections in July Photo: CNA/Screenshot

Hand shakes, hugs and mass rallies are out, and online campaigns are in for pandemic elections.

Our own election delay of a month may or may not avoid it taking place during a lockdown of some degree. But even if that’s the case, other countries have successfully conducted voting.

Singapore's general election last month will be remembered for masked voting queues, polling officials in protective gear, trouble with gloves, and inroads by the opposition.

New Zealand journalist, Jamin Jamieson, who works for Rice Media and has lived in Singapore for eight years says it was dubbed a social media election.

"There was a huge surge in traffic towards opposition (parties’ online) pages as if that was mimicking the rallies that were previous held by the opposition. They got far more free air time ... their videos went more viral, that kind of thing," Jamieson says.  

Singaporeans were already living under strict pandemic rules when the prime minister Lee Hsien Loon announced the election would go ahead on 10 July. Mask wearing was mandatory, gatherings restricted to five people, the country had just emerged from lockdown. So come election day, voters knew what to do.

"Every voter was given a two-hour slot that they were asked to come and cast their vote within," says Reuters Singapore bureau chief John Geddie.

"It was to try and avoid there being huge long lines at polling stations."

The elderly were encouraged to come in the morning, everyone else was allocated an afternoon slot, people with special needs or disabilities voted last.

Every voter's temperature was taken and by law everyone wore a mask. New Zealand journalist Jamin Jamieson describes seeing polling booth officials in "post-apocalyptic PPE gear".

Everything was running smoothly until midmorning.

"So you had to go to the polling station then take your identification card, lower your mask to show who you were, then put it back up, then you were given rubber gloves for handling the ballot paper," says Geddie.

But that's when things went awry. Geddie tells The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly how the well-planned election day didn't go as expected, forcing officials to make last ditch changes and keep polling booths open for longer.

For Jamin the build-up to the election, the nine-day campaign, was markedly different to previous election rallies when stadiums filled with tens of thousands of voters.

"It’s like a social occasion going out with the family to a public rally, it’s quite fun," he says.

This time voters briefly met the candidates in "walkabouts" and "door-knocking" but the rest of the campaigning was on screen. It made stars of some interesting characters, including the 80-year-old candidate who attracted tens of thousands of Instagram followers with his "hypebeast" messages.

"This is the kind of thing where if he had to do a rally it would be very different," Jamieson says. "It wouldn't have those kind of playful antics."

But it will be remembered for more than being a pandemic election. It shook up Singapore's democracy, shook up the ruling PAP or People's Action Party and for the first time the main opposition the Workers Party got official recognition as the opposition.