The Personal Data Protection Comission (PDPC) has argued that the existing customer exemption was introduced to give consumers the choice of receiving promotional messages and also that other countries such as the UK had similar exemptions. These arguments are red herrings: Even without the exemption, individuals always had the choice of giving consent to receive promotional messages and the UK “soft opt-in” rules for existing customers require that individuals must be given a chance to opt out at the time their data was initially collected.

Had they wanted to, the PDPC could have implemented a “soft opt-in” in Singapore even without an exemption order. Considering that businesses had more than a year to prepare for the implementation of the DNC after the Act was passed, the PDPC could have encouraged businesses to make use of that window to get consent from their customers. Instead, the PDPC created a permanent exemption which inverts the basic premise of Data Protection that individuals have the right to control how their personal information is used. Instead of the default position being that businesses should not use a person’s data without permission, the default has been inverted such that the company has the right to send promotional messages until consent is withdrawn.

Granted, the fact is that most businesses did not prepare in advance and did not get express or implied consent to send marketing messages even to customers with whom they had an on-going relationship.  A hard stop once DNC kicked in may have been quite disruptive to many companies. Had a public consultation been held, I could have lived with a time-limited exemption under which businesses would be given a limited time, say one year, to get consent from their existing customers to send marketing messages. This would not be unduly onerous to businesses – If they claim to have an “ongoing relationship”, they should certainly be contacting that customer at least once a year anyway. Unfortunately, there was no public consultation so now we are stuck with a permanent exemption which subverts one of the basic principles of Data Protection.

Six MPs have submitted questions for Monday’s Parliament sitting regarding the implementation of the Do Not Call registry. Unfortunately, none of the questions directly address the fact that the government changed the regulations at the last minute without any public consultation. To recap, the government announced in 2011 that it would finally be introducing Data Protection legislation, some 22 years after the government first created a committee to study the issue. A Do Not Call (DNC) registry was to be included in the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) and three rounds of public consultation were held before the Act was passed by parliament in 2012.  The DNC registry opened for registration on 2 Dec 2013, but one week before the DNC rules were due to come into effect on 2 Jan 2014, the government announced an exemption that would allow businesses to SMS and fax existing customers. Telemarketers cheered but individuals were shocked and dismayed by the sudden weakening of a long-anticipated law that Singaporeans had hoped would protect them from junk calls and messages.

We can argue over whether the exemption is in fact “pragmatic” and “reasonable” or similar to other country’s rules, but the fact is that the government changed the rules at the last minute, without warning and without any public consultation, in stark contrast to the far more open and transparent manner in which the PDPA and DNC rules were originally drafted. Three rounds of public consultation were held, and unless the commenter requested otherwise, all comments were published on the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), now Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), website.  It was very much the open, transparent, consultative approach to policy making associated with the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and which Singaporeans hoped to see more of.

Yet once the rubber hit the road, the government fell back to its old, familiar method of formulating and implementing public policy.  The government decided what was best for us behind closed doors and that was that. In other words, it’s the Population White Paper all over again.  Just as the government views us as economic digits in calculating its target population for Singapore, the PDPC refers to us as “consumers” rather than as “individuals”. But of course, to be “consumers”, we have to consume and companies have to have a way to sell to us.  The PDPC’s repeated claims that the exemption was made in the interests of consumers is at best paternalistic and at worst an attempt to turn black into white, just as they initially claimed that businesses never raised the issue of existing customers until after the close of public consultations. Ironically, one of the members of the PDPC had suggested that a public message board be created to take in ideas, views and comments as part of the National Conversation. In Arun Mahizhnan‘s words, “Such transparency will go a long way to pacify the widespread perception that the government is selective in its hearing and self-serving in its sharing. After decades of careful orchestration of what the public says or hears in public, the completely transparent modus operandi on the part of the government will be refreshing and reassuring.” He goes on to say, “If the government explains its rationale for selecting only certain ideas for further consideration clearly and carefully, the fallout should be manageable.”. While not completely open, the Data Protection public consultations held in 2011-2012 were fairly close to this ideal. In contrast, the process by which the existing customer exemption was created in 2013 was policy-reversal by fait accompli. The PDPC only grudgingly acknowledged there was even a policy reversal at all, let alone give a rationale for making the change. We most certainly were not given any chance to present counter-arguments against the exemption.

We have seen in 2013 two contrasting faces of the PAP. There was the PAP of the White Paper – arrogant, paternalistic, top-down – and the PAP of the OSC – open, consultative, touchy-feely.  Much as the DNC exemption is, on the scale of things, a storm in a teacup, we can again see both sides of the government. During the initial public consultations for the Data Protection Act, we saw the open, consultative PAP of the OSC but when the DNC exemption was inserted without prior warning, we saw again the old arrogant, paternalistic, top-down and secretive PAP . So which is the real PAP ? Come 2016, which PAP will be voting for ?

During my first year at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, I sat chatting one day with some classmates about the program’s difficulty. A professor overhead us and tried to allay our fears. “Don’t worry too much about grades,” he said,

When you think you know everything, they give you a Bachelor’s degree. Then when you realize that you don’t know anything, they give you a Master’s. And when you find out that you don’t know anything, but neither does anyone else,” he continued, “they give you a Doctorate.”

Reader’s Digest, May 1991, p145, “Humor in uniform,” contributed by Blake D. Huguenin

A “23-year-old North Korean [who had never left North Korea] told us shyly that she was besotted with Brad Pitt”. Sigh.

An Economist Bureau Chief’s take on conducting workshops with Choson Exchange in North Korea:

Photos and notes from my trip to North Korea in March 2013 to conduct two seminars on Lean Production for a Women in Business workshop and on Inflation for Ministry of Finance officials. The workshops were organised by Choson Exchange, an NGO that aims to promote economic development in North Korea over the long-term through business and economic exchanges.

Got Milk? You Dont Need It –

Hmm… Skim milk has same calorie load as soda.

Looks like the Elections Department has released its’ Guide for Counting Agents in the Hougang by-election, and the sampling check for “the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place” remains in place. Seems fairly pointless to check “against the result of count” given that there’s no way to change what’s on the ballot papers even if the final results don’t agree with the sampling check.

The real question is whether the AROs will disclose the results of the validity check to Counting Agents at the time that it is carried out, and who receives the “sampling check” information after it is compiled by ELD HQ, but before the announcement of the vote counts at the counting centres.

Background here:

Where Bears Roam Free: Lies and misrepresentation in Green Campaign.

The End is Nigh but Singapore’s Got Talons

In all honesty, I never order shark’s fin simply because I find it over-priced and I don’t get much utility from it. The way things are going, though, I might start ordering it simply to spite the anti-shark’s fin people. I am happy to see that there has been a stronger reaction against the anti-plastic bag campaign, possibly because Singaporeans have been raised out of their stupor by the anti-shark’s fin campaign.

As recounted in my earlier posts, I served as a Counting Agent in both the General Election and Presidential Election last year. One of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 elections was the number of Singaporeans who stepped forward as volunteers to assist the different parties and candidates in campaigning and to serve as Polling Agents and Counting Agents in both elections. Polling agents are appointed by candidates to observe the polling process while Counting Agents observe the counting of ballot papers. Unfortunately, I think the smaller parties were overwhelmed by the response so the administration and training of their volunteers was less than ideal. Still, it is a good sign of the health of Singapore’s political development that so many did step forward to serve.

The Elections Department (ELD) also helped by publishing for the first time two guides for Polling Agents and Counting Agents. Unfortunately, these guides were only released three days before polling day so it was too late for the candidates to use them in their training sessions. Hopefully, the Elections Department will update these guides for future elections and release them earlier so that candidates, agents and voters will have a clearer understanding of the procedures and rules regarding the casting and counting of votes.

By and large, I think both elections went off smoothly and by the time of the Presidential Election, both elections officials and Counting Agents were already familiar with the procedures and in some cases, with each other, because they had met previously during the General Election. The Elected President is intended to be above party politics and I was pleased to find that at least in the counting centre that I was assigned to, there was a high level of co-operation between the Counting Agents representing all four of the candidates. Apart from Tony Tan, the other candidates did not manage to recruit enough Counting Agents to cover all the Counting Places. Nonetheless, Counting Agents for the other three candidates informally spread themselves out among the tables and held watching briefs for each other. In any case, there were few disagreements between the Counting Agents and Assistant Returning Officers (AROs) or among the Counting Agents over adjudication of ballots.

Counting Procedures

The counting procedures for both Parliamentary and Presidential Elections are substantially similar and ELD’s Guide for Counting Agents provides a good overview. One of the interesting features of the process is what ELD calls in its guide a “sampling check”

Sampling checks

5.16 During the counting process, the ARO will conduct a sampling check to obtain a sample of the possible electoral outcome for that counting place, for the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place.

What I observed was that after the ballot boxes were opened and the contents mixed together on the counting table, one of the counting assistants would randomly select 100 ballot papers and do a quick tally of the votes on that sample and then report the results to the Assistant Returning Officer in charge of that Counting Place. The results of the sampling check were not formally announced to those present but Counting Agents could observe the recording of the results by the AROs. As I mentioned earlier, there was very good co-operation and sharing of data between the Counting Agents representing all four candidates so I managed to collect the sampling check data for all the counting tables at our Counting Centre (Table 1).

Table 1 – Sampling check results for Presidential Election, 27 August 2011
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place Polling District Polling Station Tan Cheng Bock Tan Jee Say Tony Tan Keng Yam Tan Kin Lian
1 GK01 MA27 Nanyang JC 33% 25% 36% 6%
2 GK02 MA24 Braddell Heights CC (B) 22% 34% 39% 5%
3 GK03 MA23 Braddell Heights CC (A) 30% 28% 38% 4%
4 GK04 MA22 419 Serangoon Central 35% 21% 34% 10%
5 GK05 MA26 305 Serangoon Ave 2 21% 32% 43% 4%
6 GK06 MA25 240 Serangoon Ave 2 26% 30% 35% 9%
Overall for Counting Centre

27.8% 28.3% 37.5% 6.3%
Sampling is conducted by taking a sample of 100 ballots at each Counting Place after mixing of ballot papers but before commencement of counting. The overall share for each candidate was computed by simply averaging the results for each polling district without adjusting for the different number of voters in each polling district.

Tony Tan came out ahead in all the polling districts in the sampling check, just as he did in the final tally (Table 2) though there was some difference between the final result and the sampling check (Table 3).

Table 2 – Actual results for Presidential Election 27 August 2011
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place Polling District Polling Station Tan Cheng Bock Tan Jee Say Tony Tan Keng Yam Tan Kin Lian Total number of valid votes

1 GK01 MA27 Nanyang JC 34.1% 26.6% 34.0% 5.3% 3,237
2 GK02 MA24 Braddell Heights CC (B) 32.5% 28.6% 33.0% 5.9% 3,074
3 GK03 MA23 Braddell Heights CC (A) 31.5% 28.7% 34.8% 5.1% 3,198
4 GK04 MA22 419 Serangoon Central 32.5% 26.0% 35.8% 5.7% 3,539
5 GK05 MA26 305 Serangoon Ave 2 33.5% 25.3% 36.4% 4.9% 2,946
6 GK06 MA25 240 Serangoon Ave 2 32.7% 24.8% 36.6% 5.9% 3,434
Overall for Counting Centre 32.8% 26.6% 35.1% 5.5% 19,428
See for more polling-district level results.
Table 3 – Difference between actual vote share and sampling check
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place Polling District Polling Station Tan Cheng Bock Tan Jee Say Tony Tan Keng Yam Tan Kin Lian
1 GK01 MA27 Nanyang JC 1.1% pt 1.6% pt -2.0% pt -0.7% pt
2 GK02 MA24 Braddell Heights CC (B) 10.5% pt -5.4% pt -6.0% pt 0.9% pt
3 GK03 MA23 Braddell Heights CC (A) 1.5% pt 0.7% pt -3.2% pt 1.1% pt
4 GK04 MA22 419 Serangoon Central -2.5% pt 5.0% pt 1.8% pt -4.3% pt
5 GK05 MA26 305 Serangoon Ave 2 12.5% pt -6.7% pt -6.6% pt 0.9% pt
6 GK06 MA25 240 Serangoon Ave 2 6.7% pt -5.2% pt 1.6% pt -3.1% pt
Overall for Counting Centre 5.0% pt -1.7% pt -2.4% pt -0.8% pt
e.g, in polling district MA27, Tan Cheng Bock actually received 34.1% of the vote compared to 33% in the sampling check, a difference of 1.1 % points.

The sampling check is not specifically called out in the Presidential Elections Act or Parliamentary Elections Act though it does not appear to be prohibited either. I did not observe the counting assistants carrying out a sampling check during last May’s General Elections. However, I did observe the ARO at a different counting centre personally pick up a stack of ballots and scrutinize them very closely. When I asked him what he was doing at that time, he answered that he was checking the validity of the ballot papers. Possibly, he was referring to Section 50(1)(a) of the Parliamentary Elections Act under which ballot papers must bear an official authentication mark to be considered valid. Given the thoroughness of ELD’s pre-election preparations and the scrutiny of Presiding Officers and Polling Agents, not to mention voters, during polling, I find it very unlikely that any unauthenticated ballot papers could slip through. In any case, the ARO is required under Section 50 to check the validity of every ballot paper when it is counted so a validity check on a subset of the ballots appears to be superfluous.

Regardless, the validity check or sampling check cannot affect election results because they are only conducted after polls have closed. Conceivably, the sampling check could be construed as being a form of exit polling and while Section 78D of the Parliamentary Election Act prohibits the publication of exit poll results on polling day, this prohibition only applies while polling stations are open. Even if a sampling check were conducted during a Parliamentary Election and the results leaked out, there would not be any violation of the Act because polls would already have closed by the the time the sampling check is conducted.

Sampling check as predictor of election result

The ELD Guide for Counting Agents says that the purpose of the sampling check is to “obtain a sample of the possible electoral outcome for that counting place, for the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place.” This sentence is quite awkwardly constructed and doesn’t make a lot of sense since the the final vote tally will be the official result regardless of whether it agrees with the sampling check. Presumably, what they really meant to say was that the sampling check is used to predict the outcome of the election early in the counting process.

As can be seen in Tables 1 to 3, the sampling check predicted correctly that Tony Tan would come out on top at Nanyang Junior College, though his actual vote share was 2.4% lower than that in the sampling check. The sampling check result for Tan Cheng Bock in polling district MA24 stands out as it was 11 percentage points lower than his actual vote share. I estimate a slightly more than 1% chance of this occurring by chance, which is a low probability but not exceptionally low. Of course, it’s also quite possible that the Counting Agent at that table just made a mistake because the ARO did not officially announce the sampling checks results over the table.

For this election, analyzing the sampling check results is quite challenging because there were four candidates so the problem is a multiple comparison problem rather than the usual comparison of two proportions. In a normal two-horse race, we would just have to predict whether the votes for one candidate exceed 50% and that would tell us the outcome of the race. In this case, however, we would have had to predict the vote shares of at least two, perhaps three, candidates, but the vote shares of the candidates are not independently distributed, which makes the problem rather difficult. If any more statistically-inclined reader has a good method for estimating probability distributions for this type of problem, please contact me.

Four-way elections will hopefully remain rare in Singapore, so I present a simplified analysis of the sampling check in a standard two-way election instead. There were 782 polling stations in the last election and if 100 ballots are sampled from each one, there would be a total of 78,200 ballots in the sampling check for a nation-wide election such as the presidential election. We assume that each polling district has the same number of voters, and using the normal approximation to the binomial distribution, the 95% confidence interval for the sampling check is roughly ±0.4% points. If we don’t need to estimate the actual vote share and only need to know whether a candidate has won (i.e., received > 50% of the vote), we can be 95% confident that he has won if he receives over 50.3% of the votes in the sampling check (one-tailed test). For the elections officials, what counts perhaps is not who won but rather whether there would be a recount. To avoid a recount, the winning candidate must receive at least 51% of the final vote (2% winning margin over his opponent) so if the sampling check reveals that one candidate has scored at least 51.4% in the sample, the elections officials can be 99% certain that they would not have to stay overnight. In reality, the number of voters varies from about 2,000 to 3,500 per polling district and since voter turnout will be known by the close of polls, we could make some adjustments for polling district size and voter turnout to improve the accuracy of the forecast. Of course, there is no way to estimate the number of spoilt votes, which could affect the results, but I don’t think those would have a large effect in most circumstances.

Because the sample size is large in a presidential election, the forecast made by the sampling check is quite precise. In parliamentary elections, however, there may be as few as five polling districts in a single-member constituency (SMC) such as Potong Pasir so the sample would be smaller and the uncertainty in the sampling check larger. Assuming a sample of 500 out of a total of 15,870 valid votes in Potong Pasir, a candidate would have to receive at least 53.7% in the sampling check to be 95% certain of winning the election (one-tailed test). Hougang is larger and has nine polling districts with 23,000 voters. For that constituency, a candidate would have to poll at least 52.7% in the sampling check to be 95% certain of winning the election. Again, I’m assuming equal polling district sizes in these analyses but adjusting for polling district size and turnout would be more important in small constituencies.

Purpose of the sampling check

A rather obvious question is what ELD does with the sampling check data. As described above, one possible use of the sampling check is to predict whether recounts would be necessary and to prepare the elections officials accordingly. I do not know whether this was done during the presidential election, but I presume not, because I did not observe the elections officials at my counting centre start to make preparations for the recount until very late in the night. Since the sampling check takes place after the close of polls it cannot affect voter turnout and it cannot have any effect on the ballot papers which have already been poured out and mixed together on the counting table. The only possible effect that I can conceive is that if a candidate learns that the results are close in a particular counting centre, he could redeploy his more persuasive Counting Agents there in the hope of swaying the ARO into interpreting unclear ballots in a more favorable manner. This has less of an impact in Presidential Elections where every vote has the same weight regardless of location, but in a General Election, political parties may be able to use sampling check data to reposition Counting Agents from safer seats to more contested constituencies where they might be able to make a difference. Smaller parties in particular could benefit more from this information in that they could make more effective use of their smaller pool of volunteers whereas larger parties already have an excess of Counting Agents so have lesser need to redeploy them even in the event of a close fight. To ensure the appearance of impartiality, however, ELD should formally announce the results of the sampling check rather than leave it to Counting Agents to look over the shoulders of the AROs. While the AROs at my counting centre did not prevent the Counting Agents from jotting down the results of the sampling check, they did not explicitly announce the results in the same way that they announced the final vote count over the table.

On reflection, however, it is not really clear to me what purpose the sampling check serves. ELD does not appear to use the results to prepare its officials for recounts, and it does not officially share the results with candidates or media. Hopefully ELD would be able to explain the purpose and use of the sampling check when it prepares its Guides for Candidates and Counting Agents for the next election — whether General Election or by-election. While I can appreciate it if ELD has concerns that revealing sampling check results could raise temperatures in close elections, I also don’t think it is tenable for them to conduct a sampling check during the course of counting without being more open and transparent as to the procedure and the use of the data generated by the sampling check.



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