Singapore sets rules for online election advertising amid pandemic

SINGAPORE — The government of Singapore on Monday set out new rules for internet election advertising, as the coronavirus pandemic is expected to push more campaigning online ahead of the general election that must be held by April 2021.

Effective immediately, paid election ads on social media and other websites must state who funded them — be it the candidate, a political party or an authorized third party.

Moreover, candidates will need to declare to the returning officer — the official overseeing the election — whether they are using such paid advertising. If so, they will have to divulge detailed information about the publishing, timing and financing of their ads.

The ad rules were unveiled as part of a package of new guidelines and plans for electioneering under the threat of COVID-19.

With the election highly likely to be held before the pandemic is over, opposition parties have been calling on the government to clarify requirements for safe campaigning. But the¬†announcement on Monday did not answer one of their key questions — how precautionary restrictions on gatherings will affect rallies — and the ad disclosures may raise concerns about discouraging sponsors who are reluctant to openly support opposition groups.

The government’s election department contends that the rules will “increase transparency and accountability” related to online political messaging, regardless of the virus situation.

Other measures include increasing the number of polling stations to 1,100 from 880, to reduce density, along with a plan to encourage citizens to vote during allotted two-hour periods. Voters will be asked to put on disposable gloves when casting ballots.

The government had already amended the election act so that citizens who are quarantined in hotels or hospitals can vote outside their assigned districts. Potential candidates, who by law must file their nomination papers in person, will be allowed to have a representative file on their behalf.

Speculation about an early election has been heating up, especially after the country eased its coronavirus restrictions last week.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat late last month told state broadcaster Channel News Asia that “elections are coming nearer by the day, and you have to be prepared for it.”

Opposition groups argue it is difficult to prepare without knowing all the rules. But when it comes to rallies and walkabout campaigning, the election department only said it would draw up guidelines later depending on how COVID-19 develops.

“Should prevailing health advisories restrict large group activities, [the election department] will ensure that voters have access to the campaigning messages of all political parties and candidates,” such as additional television broadcast time for candidates and political parties, the department said in a press release. It added that it “strongly encourages candidates and political parties to plan for modes of campaigning that minimize large group gatherings.”

Voting is compulsory for Singaporeans aged 21 or older, and 2.6 million people are eligible for the upcoming election. Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong’s People’s Action Party, which has never lost, won the vast majority of seats contested in the last election in September 2015.

Lee has expressed his intention to step down after the next poll, paving the way for a younger generation to lead the country.

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