COVID-19: No decision has been made on timing of next GE – Teo Chee Hean

PHOTO: Screengrab from YouTube channel
PHOTO: Screengrab from YouTube channel

SINGAPORE — While it is not “impossible” to hold an election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, no decision has been made on the timing of the next General Election, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on Wednesday (25 March).

Speaking in Parliament, Teo alluded to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s earlier remarks about the GE, which must be held by 15 April 2021. “The longer we wait, the more unpredictable difficult and dangerous it will be,” Teo said.

He added, “Alternatively, the country can go for early elections. Settle who will lead the country through this major crisis. Give the new government clear and fresh mandate.”

Teo was responding to Holland-Bukit Timah MP Christopher De Souza’s query on whether an election should be held while the country continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. As of noon on Thursday, there have been a total of 558 confirmed cases in Singapore.

He told the House that it was vital to have an elected government that has the people’s mandate. “Today, more than ever, we need a government that the people has expressed confidence (for it) to take us through this unprecedented health crisis and stabilise the economy and safeguard our people's lives and livelihoods.”

He added, “When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is, and that he will not be changed, halfway. You want to make sure that he's there, together with you, working with you, guiding through the storm.

“However, we should not close off any options.”

‘Misleading and unhelpful’

De Souza also asked about recent comments by opposition politician Tan Cheng Bock, who urged the government to postpone the election till after the pandemic is over. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief also suggested that if the pandemic is still an issue at the end of the government’s current team, the President can form a caretaker government consisting of some of the current Members of Parliament.

Responding to De Souza’s query as to what the Singapore Constitution prescribes on this issue, Teo called Dr Tan’s suggestions “misleading and unhelpful”. Having sought the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers, Teo said that delaying an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional.

Teo stressed that the only circumstances in which an election can be delayed beyond the required date is when a state of emergency is declared. “Although Singapore has weathered many crises, since our independence, we have never extended government’s term beyond the constitutional limit.”

Even if there is a caretaker government or state of emergency, it would, by definition, be a caretaker, Teo said.

“It would be hobbled by the fact that it lacks the explicit mandate (from) voters and would therefore not be in a position to take major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans.” It is the reason why constitutional convention requires that a caretaker government not make any far reaching or long-term measure, he added.

Addressing Dr Tan’s suggestions, Teo said, “This shows a disregard for or lack of understanding of the Constitution. Putting forward constitutionally unworkable proposals at a time of serious national crisis can only confuse, and mislead Singaporeans to the detriment of Singaporeans.”

Safety precautions can be taken

Teo noted that a whole range of precautions can be taken for both campaigning and voting, such as live streaming of speeches on the Internet and adequate TV time for candidates. “For voting, we already have special express lanes for seniors and those who need them. We can also have social distancing in queuing, proper hand hygiene for voting paraphernalia, hand sanitisers for voters.”

Stressing that any measures taken will affect all political parties equally, Teo added, “We will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections, even during this ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.”

Separately, Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh also noted that political parties have stepped up their outreach to residents, in light of the Electoral Boundaries. Such activities can easily lead to the formation of large social gatherings in excess of 10, with individuals in close proximity to each other.

“Does the minister not agree that such continued outreach could potentially interfere and contradict the directives of the taskforce, particularly yesterday's new (social distancing) directives?”

In response, Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce on the pandemic, stressed that the rule on gatherings being restricted to 10 or less must be strictly adhered to by all. “All political parties in this House, outside of this House, would therefore have to abide by these and make adjustments to their activities.”

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