Monday 13 July 2020

General Election 2020: Not everyone working at polling station was a polling agent (but I was)

For the first time in my life, I volunteered to be a polling agent.

Not that I knew what a polling agent was or did.

But since Polling Day would be a public holiday, I thought, hey, maybe it was time for me to contribute to the democratic process.

All I needed was to be a Singapore citizen, not under detention, not a discharged bankrupt and neither a primary nor secondary school student.

Wait, since there’s no age requirement, does that mean that bankrupt kindergarten pupils who have not been discharged can be polling agents?

But even if they can, I don’t think they would wanna.

Being a polling agent meant six gruelling hours of sitting down and watching people vote.

But because I’m a rebel, I would stand on occasion as I was getting sleepy and my butt was getting numb.

Yet, I was so committed to my role that I avoided drinking anything that day so that I didn’t have to leave my post for a pee break. (Confession: I went once. Cannot tahan.)

There were two shifts, one starting at 8am and the other at 2pm. I didn’t take the morning shift because I didn’t want to wake up at 8am on a public holiday for this.

Also, my allotted time-band for voting was noon to 2pm, so that worked out nicely.

Yes, I struggled with the disposable gloves like many did. After putting them on, not only was I ready to vote, I was also ready for some Korean fried chicken.

And yes, I voted at the same polling station where I was a polling agent.

My shift was supposed to end at 8pm, but just before 7pm, word came down that voting was extended to 10pm.

And so my six hours of fighting off sleep and butt numbness turned into eight hours of fighting off sleep and butt numbness.

If only I had taken the morning shift!

Someone gave me an Old Chang Kee sardine puff for sustenance. I didn’t eat it because I couldn’t wash it down with anything since I wasn’t drinking that day.

At least I got to “escort” the ballot boxes on the bus to the counting centre after the polls closed, which made me feel like a guardian of our future government, even if it was just for about half an hour.

At the end of a long day (made longer by two hours), I was happy to have done my small part for democracy.

And then I read that someone posted on Facebook about her elderly mother who was “coerced” by a “polling agent” to vote a certain way. I was shook.

The post said:
“As she is 80 years old, my sister brought her to a polling station and was told by an Indian polling agent at the entrance that she will assist her from there on.”

Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Polling agents are not supposed to talk to voters. It’s more likely that the mother was assisted by a presiding officer.

To the public, probably everyone working at the polling station was a “polling agent”.

All of a sudden, I was very defensive about my profession, if you can call it that.

The post continued:
“I was appalled by what my mum shared with me about what happened inside. The Indian polling agent who assisted her insisted her to vote for PAP, that is, showing her where to stamp.”
That is, of course, wrong.

And it was what polling agents like me representing the parties contesting in that constituency were at the polling station to prevent from happening.

The post went viral enough that the Elections Department (ELD) responded:
“These are serious allegations.

“All polling agents are confined to a specific area in the polling station to observe the polling process and they are not allowed to assist voters.

“However, for voters who need assistance, our election officials may explain the method of voting to a voter who requests for an explanation.”
So there’s a chance it could be a misunderstanding?

The Facebook user later posted on the social media platform that she had contacted the ELD, who said “they will look into it”.

The allegations were shocking to me because from what I saw, everyone working at my polling station took their job seriously.

If a presiding officer had to explain to a voter how to use the self-inking pen, he would make it a point to step away from the voting booth to let the voter vote in private.

Presiding officers worked longer hours than I did. They were there when I started my shift and some remained after I left.

Being a polling agent made me appreciate the work done by thousands of men and women on the ground and behind the scenes all over Singapore to make the election possible under less than ideal circumstances (side-eye coronavirus).

Their dedication warms the “see hum” of my heart.

The numb butt was almost worth it.

- Published in The New Paper, 13 July 2020