10 Facts About the Role of a Returning Officer, The ‘Head’ of the Elections

Here’s what we think people are like when PM Lee mentioned he wants to talk at 4pm, realises it’s not about Covid-19, then understood that it was about elections:

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If you’re one of those panicking, you probably know very little about the General Elections, so you might want to check out the chim election terms simplified first.

Done reading? Good. Then we can talk about the Returning Officer (RO), who is this guy for this year’s elections:

Image: Jurong Port

Our RO is Mr Tan Meng Dui, who is currently the CEO of the National Environment Agency (NEA), former deputy secretary (technology) at the Ministry of Defence and held the rank of Brigadier General (BG) in the SAF.

Although, I just made you read that for no reason since his experience doesn’t really matter.

We’re more interested in why he’s called the head of the elections. And if there’s only one thing you get out from this article, let it be this:

1. The RO Oversees The Entire Elections

This might make it sound like the position is a big deal, but in practice, the role of the RO is more like saikang.

Simply put, the RO is the referee for the elections and ensures the impartial and smooth conduct of elections.

As the RO, Tan needs to be more familiar with the elections than anyone else. But last we checked, nobody really likes referees or bothers to remember them.

Image: Memecenter

And for the purpose of a General Election, as long as the RO is properly doing his/her job, it probably doesn’t even matter if you don’t care who or what the RO does.

Sad, I know.

2. RO Position Is Appointed Way Before The Actual Elections

Just in case you think the RO is anyhowly decided when the election starts: this role is actually filled all the time. As for Mr Tan, he’s actually been the Returning Officer since Dec 2017.

If you think carefully about that date, you’ll realise that this was after the Presidential Election. Which means this will also be the first election that Mr Tan is overseeing.

ROs also have to oversee the Presidential Elections and smaller elections like the by-elections, which happen when a seat in the parliament become empty for whatever reason.

3. RO Starts The Election After Writ of Election

On 23 June 2020, the Writ of Election was issued. What happens is the long document basically reads: “k, election start liao. Oi, RO aka referee, do your job leh“.

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So the RO has to issue a notice telling us the date, time and place for the nomination of candidates.

This year’s General Election nomination day is on 30 June, and polling is 10 July.

4. On Nomination Day, RO Asks For Nomination Papers

Simple version: RO says, “come, write your name here if you want to fight in GE.”

This day is when the RO asks candidates to submit their nomination papers and certificates, in duplicate and in person at the nomination centre between 11am and 12 noon, accompanied with their proposers, seconders and at least four assentors.

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The RO then needs to check their nomination according to the long list of rules and for errors and whatnots.

Until they are accepted by the RO, we technically don’t have the full list of candidates. Which means that although parties announce their candidates way before the nomination day, it’s still possible for changes. (But that doesn’t usually happen.)


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If there’s only one candidate or one group of candidates, then the RO declares a walkover AKA default win.

If there’s more than one, then the RO needs to oversee the next stage: Polling Day.

But before that, he needs to set the stage.

5. RO Gives Notice Of Contested Election

With two or more candidates/group of candidates, the RO will then tell us:

  • date of polling
  • names of candidates, symbols, proposers and seconders
  • names and locations of al polling stations

And with this, the candidates can start campaigning just until one day before the polling day.


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6. RO To Make Sure Campaigning Is Fair

Candidates are not allowed to advertise over television, newspapers, magazines or periodicals, or in a public place unless authorised by the RO.

And the max amount a candidate can spend on election expenses is:

  • SMC Spending capped at $4.00 for each elector in that electoral division
  • GRC Spending capped at $4.00 for each elector in that electoral division divided by the number of candidates in the group

Basically, the RO needs to do this to the candidates:

Image: Giphy

7. Polling Day: Make Sure All Votes Accounted For

On polling day, where it is a holiday, electors can cast their votes between 8 am and 8 pm.

For people in Singapore, that’s easy. But those overseas? That’s now a responsibility for the RO.


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He has to make sure the ballot boxes are brought back to Singapore within 10 days after Polling Day. If not, those are no count.

But the RO has the discretion to extend this by another 7 days if he doesn’t think the box can reach within 10 days and the number of overseas electors is material to the election outcome.

8. Count Votes

And this is where the boring part starts but obviously, the RO won’t be doing all the counting.

Instead, the chief saikang warrior has his army of saikang warriors doing the counting for him, including an Assistant Returning Officer who is not even mentioned in the press release for GE2020.

Fun fact: RO Mr Tan was Group Assistant Returning Officer before becoming RO.


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The Assistant RO sends the results of counting to the RO, then the RO compiles the results from all counting centres in Singapore.

Then the RO decides whether to include the overseas votes depending on whether they impact the outcome, and announces the votes cast.

9. Announce The Votes

This is when most people care about who the RO is because he/she is the person announcing the votes.


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And this is the most important part.

The real audition, which depends on how well the RO announces the results, will determine whether he/she gets a club mix dedicated to them.

And then becoming an overnight star, like Yam Ah Mee:

The part where we get to see who won in the elections.


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Nah, that’s like, just a small part of the election.

But the job of the RO isn’t over yet.

10. Returning Of Election Expenses

This last step is when the candidates account for their election spending and submit declarations to the RO within 31 days of the election results being published in the Singapore Government Gazette.

Then, these will be open to the public for six months, so we can inspect.

As per tradition, the RO is then forgotten for 4 to 5 years. And I have to emphasise this again: unless you’re Yam Ah Mee.


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