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The Problem with Teo and Ngerng’s Arrests? Not Abuse of Police Powers but Election System Flaws

HAROLD CHAI: Scary stuff, the arrest of Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng. But there’s something more frightful than the perceived abuse of power by the police. That’s the vulnerability of the system of “Cooling Off Day” to abuse, by individuals and higher powers.

Let’s get to the gist of the arrest and the outcry. Teo and Ngerng were arrested after the Elections Dept filed a police report against them. They were accused of violating the rules by posting political content on their Facebook page which could sway the voting choice of Bukit Batok voters. Police officers searched their homes and confiscated their computers and handphones.

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There’s anger that the police overstepped the limits of their authority with the seizure Teo and Ngerng’s electronic devices. There’s also worry about the rights of individuals. After all, in a civilised society, why should anyone be hauled to station for sharing their comments on Facebook?

They could have been paid to spread those opinions.

If you look at the whole ELD complaint, you’ll see that there’s no restriction on individual right to share opinions, but only if they’re not paid to do so. Given that Teo and Ngerng have both written for socio-political website, The Independent, there could be the suspicion there that they were paid to be what young people today call “social influencers”.

This is one of the exceptions regarding election advertising during the “cooling-off period”, i.e you can do this without fear of being arrested:

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And this is what you cannot do as an individual:

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I’m not accusing them of doing something like that –accepting money to sway opinion in their personal capacity – but police will have to investigate and one way to do that is to check their computer logs. The Independent is also being investigated for the same offence. As to whether police are using the arrests and seizures as a means to, as Goh Meng Seng says, “snoop or get more information on these activists which is totally irrelevant to the charges,” I wouldn’t know and I don’t want to speculate on that.

Need there be a worry? Of course, but the worry extends to the feasibility of the “cooling-off” period. How will election authorities monitor and decide who should be prosecuted? With the flurry of comments streaming in on social media (millions in a day), can it even keep up? Surely, socio-political websites aren’t the only ones capable of shutting up while paying “social influencers” to do the “dirty cooling off-day work” for them?

For example, if I’m a business owner and a PAP loyalist, what’s stopping me from offering rewards to my staff to share their opinions about who should win in any constituency? And, how is it possible to monitor this? Whistle-blowers? Not unless I’m David Ong and I slept with your wife, I’m afraid. You see how this is getting pretty tricky?

On the other hand, organisations officially recognised as the “press” in Singapore have a free reign to report “news” on election happenings. And if you’re monitored the headlines on Cooling Off Day, the slant in the media is very obvious. The biggest “social influencers” don’t have the same curbs applied on them.

Also, people are definitely going to ask why current MacPherson GRC MP Tin Peiling and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Vivian Balakrishnan were not punished for Cooling-Off Day violations during GE2011 and GE2015 respectively.

That’s why though the suspicion is fair, it appears unfair that Teo and Ngerng have been targeted for “persecution”. Of course, I believe they’re innocent until evidence shows otherwise. But this is going to continue to be perceived as a tool to curb individual rights until the flawed “cooling-off” system is improved.

Or, scrapped altogether.


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