Monday 20 July 2020

I have been invited to SDP thank you dinner: Confessions of a polling agent vol 2

Last night, I received an unexpected message on WhatsApp.

It was from SDP. Yes, the Singapore Democratic Party.

Why is SDP inviting me to a thank you dinner?

Well, if you read my column last week, you know that I was a polling agent on Polling Day. But I didn't say for which party.

Here are some details I left out.

It all started one day when I was walking home and noticed a QR code on the SDP poster hanging on a lamp post.

Out of curiosity, I scanned the dotted square with my phone. I was disappointed that the QR code just led me to the SDP Facebook page.

But the first thing I saw on the page was a call for polling agents. That was when I first had the idea of becoming one.

One thing that concerned me slightly was that being a polling agent meant that I was representing the political party that appointed me. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable to appear to be supporting any particular party.

Since the People’s Action Party (PAP) was also contesting in my constituency (duh), I went to the PAP Facebook page to see if PAP was also recruiting polling agents. It wasn’t.

To ensure a fair election, all parties should have their polling agents at all the polling stations. I rationalised that if SDP needed people, I could volunteer to help SDP even though I’m not necessarily an SDP supporter.

I would be doing it for democracy.

So a couple of days later, I went to the SDP office in Link@AMK to register to be a polling agent.

I expected to get some training but was just given a list of instructions and told to watch a YouTube video.

Then I signed an Oath of Secrecy, which sounded very scary, but it just meant I couldn’t “communicate” to “any person” certain voter information.

Sadly, I did not get to meet Dr Chee Soon Juan or Prof Paul Tambyah. I did see plenty of SDP merch though, including Dr Chee’s books. I was tempted but didn’t buy any.

I read somewhere online that parties might give volunteers a party shirt, but I didn’t get one.

One of the instructions on the SDP list was: “If possible, wear red polo and khaki pant/skirt, which is our party colours, BUT DO NOT wear any shirts with party logo or campaign materials. That is not allowed.”

I thought this was a bit contradictory. You couldn’t wear party symbols, yet you could wear the colours that represent your party? Wouldn’t the end result be the same? Even without the party logo, you were telling people what party you’re representing with the colours you were wearing.

Then I read this on Reddit:
“You are there as a party representative to show the public that the polling station is a neutral zone, with equal representatives from both sides.

“frequently (especially in the past), polling stations will be dominated by PAP representatives wearing the party colour - white. while the opposition party contesting in that ward will not have enough volunteers and therefore be unrepresented.

“and voters walking in might see the whole place decked out with volunteers in white get the impression that ‘this is a PAP place’ and it might cloud their minds. you are there to ‘show’ people that the electoral process is fair and equal.”
So the party colours do serve a purpose and that was why every party should be equally represented at the polling station.

I wondered if I could wear a red singlet and khaki shorts with slippers.

Unfortunately, the Elections Department (ELD) has its own dress code for polling agents: “Polling agents should be properly attired. Polling agents dressed in singlets, shorts, slippers or other inappropriate attire may not be allowed into the polling station.”

So on Polling Day, I wore a dark pink polo and olive green cargo pants with brown slip-on shoes. Close enough, I thought.

When I got to the polling station (which was in a primary school just beside my block) at 1.30pm to start my shift, there was no other SDP polling agent working the morning shift for me to take over.

It appeared that if I hadn’t volunteered, SDP would have no polling agent at all at that polling station.

Two PAP polling agents were there, all dressed in white. I wouldn’t have been able to be a PAP polling agent because I don’t have white pants.

I asked one of them if they were given lunch. He said he had a curry puff.

Before 2pm, two white-clad women arrived to replace the two men.

One woman sat with me – while maintaining social distancing, of course.

She was friendly and we chatted a bit at first, more as the hours wore on. She even talked about getting her wisdom tooth taken out.

I learnt that the PAP polling agents were residents’ committees volunteers living in the neighbourhood. She said that I might be the oppostion, but we were all the same.

She insisted that they were not PAP members, yet was surprised when I told her I was not an SDP member too.

She asked if I had noticed that people coming into the polling station were all looking at me because they wanted to see what an opponent member looked like. I hadn’t.

My constituency had always been under PAP, so I guess an openly opposition-supporting resident was not something they saw every day. I mean, if I saw someone in a red top watching people vote at the polling station, I would be checking him or her out too.

So my initial concerns came true. Everyone thought I was an SDP supporter. (Thank god I was wearing a mask to hide my face!)

The PAP polling agent couldn't believe that all I was doing for SDP was be a polling agent for that day and nothing else.

I was amused that I gave people such wrong impressions.

The voters came in waves. Sometimes there was a queue. Sometimes there was no one at all.

Some time after 5pm, my phone rang. It was an unknown number.

I hesitated to answer it because the ELD guide for polling agents said we were not allowed to use mobile phones within the polling station. But my PAP counterpart told me to answer it.

The caller was someone from SDP who wanted to know where I was. What a weird question. Where did she think I was? I was where I was supposed to be. I wondered if someone complained that I was a no-show. I replied at the polling station.

The woman on the phone asked whether I was following the ballot boxes to the counting centre. I said I hoped to, but I didn’t have the required Indemnity Form to do so. She said that someone was bringing “the letter” to me and told me to wait for it.

Around 6.30pm, the assistant returning officer (ARO) came to tell us polling agents that at 7pm, we should leave the polling station as that was when the people on stay-home notice (SHN) would be coming in to vote. It was for our own safety. The presiding officers were already putting on their protective gear.

But weren’t we (the polling agents) supposed to observe the sealing of the ballot boxes after the polls closed, I asked. The ARO said we could come back at five minutes before 8pm to do that because he was going to seal the 8pm regardless of our presence.

And then the ARO received a call and found out that voting had been extended to 10pm.

I was confused by this.

Were these two extra hours for people on SHN or non-SHN people? Did it mean that the SHN people could still vote from 7pm or two hours later? Were non-SHN people allowed to vote after 7pm or only after 8pm?

Meanwhile, I was still waiting for my Indemnity Form. I was worried that I was going to miss the person coming to the polling station with my “letter”.

To my relief, just before 7pm, I saw a guy in a red polo and khaki pants rushing into the polling station.

He spotted me in my dark pink polo and green cargos, and knew right away I was the person he was looking for.

He gave me a fist bump and the Indemnity Form to sign. He was one of the SDP candidates running in my GRC.

I don't remember anyone else ever giving me a fist bump.

When he learnt that I had been told to leave the polling station for the special voting hour, he went to tell the ARO that at the other polling stations, the polling agents were allowed to stay “around” the polling station during the period.

The ARO said he was unaware of such an arrangement, but the SDP guy insisted that the ballot boxes should not be out of sight of the polling agent at all times.

The ARO made a couple of phone calls and eventually agreed to let me stay in the school but moved my seat just outside the cordon tape where I could still keep an eye on the ballot boxes but not technically in the polling station?

Satisfied, the SDP guy departed, leaving me with a styrofoam box of chicken rice and a bottle of water for dinner, which I didn’t consume because ELD forbade polling agents from consuming food and beverage at the polling station.

Although I might have been technically outside the polling station then, I didn’t want to take the chance.

Both the PAP polling agents had left at 7pm. Unlike SDP, PAP apparently didn’t feel the need to have its polling agent keep an eye on the ballot boxes at all times.

I was the only one there not wearing protective gear, but I wasn’t worried about getting infected.

You know why?


No one on SHN came to vote. No one not on SHN came to vote. No one. The last person to come to vote was maybe around 6.45pm.

So the ARO and presiding officers put on their protective gear for nothing.

One of the PAP polling agents came back at 8pm, not knowing about the 10pm extension. She was shocked I hadn’t left the polling station all this time.

We chatted a bit as we waited for another two hours. It was kind of surreal. Like someone threw an election and nobody came.

As 10pm approached, the presiding officers started packing up. I watched as the collapsible voting booths were folded up and put away.

After the ARO declared the polls closed, I stood by to observe the sealing of the ballot boxes. This was the moment I had waited more than eight hours for.

Even more exciting, I got to sign one of the boxes while the PAP polling agent signed the other.

We then boarded the bus with the boxes accompanied by police officers who had also been at the polling station all day.

No one asked for my Indemnity Form.

The bus picked up ballot boxes from two other polling stations nearby before heading to the counting centre in a secondary school.

There, I met the SDP guy again. He gave me another fist bump and thanked me for my help.

By the time I left the counting centre, it was 10.45pm.

I ate the chicken rice after I got home and showered.

It was one of the longest days of my life.

In the end, PAP won my constituency again.

The guy who gave me the chicken rice and fist bumps lost. I feel a little bad for him. He seemed like a nice guy. And not just because he brought me chicken rice.

If I go to the SDP thank you dinner, I may see him again.

Even though I am notoriously unable to resist free food, I don't think I will be attending because I’m afraid I could be breaking some social distancing rule.

And if I go, people will really believe I support SDP.

EARLIER: Not everyone working at polling station was a polling agent (but I was)