09 May 2011

Modelling the Singapore elections I: A call for electoral law reform

Why do Singaporeans vote the way they do? What goes on in their heads when they cast a vote? Is the Singaporean voter a rational voter? Or did the Workers' Party and the general opposition call for a First World Parliament flounder embarrassingly, 81 to 6, because there isn't exactly a First World Electorate?

Despite being a parliamentary democracy based on regular, free, and fair elections, the psychology of the Singaporean voter has remained a black box for decades, preventing the scientific modelling of voter behaviour and trends. This is in part due to laws which prohibit the publishing of polls conducted during the elections period.

If information is a resource, this law prevents the monetisation of particular voting knowledge and hence excludes the participation of major polling organisations. In other words, there is no incentive for a polling organisation to conduct regular snapshots of the electorate.

If this information does not flow freely, the overall intelligence of the electorate is suppressed. In other words, the absence of regular, published, scientific polls reinforces the political illiteracy of an electorate; no one knows for sure - aside from parties who can afford their internal polls - what are the important issues, how the ground stands against various parties. No one knows for certain which demographics are truly in play, what the voter psychodemographics are, the issues pertinent to each demographic, and how to reach out to them.

Embarrassingly enough, Minilee and Goh Chok Tong had to admit that they didn't know what the young voter was thinking and that they didn't know the extent of the anger in the electorate until the election period was under way. From this, we can surmise that even the People's Action Party either does not possess adequate  resources to accurately poll the electorate or the polling organisation it hires privately was frankly incompetent.

Taken together, this legal arrangement reinforces the political apathy and illiteracy of the average voter. Without access to knowledge on which national issues are at play, the average voter is atomised and individualised. This privileges election strategies that cater to the voter as a narrow-minded, selfish individual who responds to bribes such as housing upgrading, "grow and share packages", and so on.

The Straits Times and other mainstream media by default are the only entities in Singapore that can get away with conducting informal, unscientific polls and pass them off as credible studies during the elections period. These have very little credibility to academics and statisticians, while having the maximum sway over the average reader due to the pretensions to credibility of these studies.

The electorate, the ruling party, and the opposition parties need access to regular, published polling data so every side can make informed decisions in an election.
I therefore call on our legislators in parliament to end the ban on the publication of polling during the election period in Singapore, and hope you too can join me in this call.

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