Presidential Election 2017: Should there be a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee?

Speaker of Parliament and prospective presidential candidate Halimah Yacob at a National Day celebration event on 6 August. PHOTO: Safhras Khan/Yahoo News Singapore
Speaker of Parliament and prospective presidential candidate Halimah Yacob at a National Day celebration event on 6 August. PHOTO: Safhras Khan/Yahoo News Singapore

Speaker of Parliament and Marsiling-Yew Tee Member of Parliament Halimah Yacob’s intention to run for President of Singapore, which requires her to resign from both positions, has thrown up an important question: is a by-election needed to fill her position in the Group Representation Constituency (GRC)?

“I will ask the Prime Minister to ensure that there are proper replacements for me quickly, especially in the Marsiling division, so that there is no disruption to you, the residents in Marsiling,” said Halimah when she announced her candidacy at the Marsiling National Day Celebration event on Sunday (7 August). The other MPs in her GRC are Lawrence Wong, Ong Teng Koon and Alex Yam, with Halimah serving as the minority MP.

Is the government constitutionally required to hold a by-election in her ward? The issue was seemingly answered by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing in February, when he told Parliament that if a minority MP were to leave a GRC to run for president, a by-election would not be called.

But academics and residents in Halimah’s Marsiling ward whom Yahoo News Singapore spoke to were divided on the issue.

Dr Kevin Tan, an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) law faculty, noted that the necessity of a by-election hinges on two pieces of legislation: section 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act and Article 49(1) of the Singapore Constitution.

Article 49(1) says, “Whenever the seat of a Member, not being a non-constituency Member, has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy shall be filled by election in the manner provided by or under any law relating to Parliamentary elections for the time being in force.”

Meanwhile, section 24(2A) states, “In respect of any group representation constituency, no writ shall be issued under subsection (1) for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament.”

Tan said that the government has interpreted section 24(2A) to qualify Article 49(1), such that in respect of a GRC, no by-election need to be called unless all the seats in the GRC are vacated. For this reason, there was no by-election when former Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Balaji Sadasivan passed away in 2010, he pointed out.

“I believe this reading to be erroneous,” Tan added.

The wording of Article 49(1) is clear, according to Tan. “It specifies the vacancy of ‘the seat of a Member’ – which must necessarily refer to a single seat, and to a collection of seats as in a GRC. Article 49(1) requires a BE to be carried out whenever a single seat is vacant, and section 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act cannot qualify it.”

Practical considerations

Law lecturer Benjamin Joshua Ong took a different view from Tan. “While the matter has not been authoritatively settled by the courts, I am of the view that the law leans in favour of the position that a by-election cannot, or at least need not, be held.”

Ong pointed out the two possible ways to hold a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee. One would be to remove all MPs and call a by-election to fill their seats, or to call a by-election to fill only the seat of the MP who has left. The former runs the risk of “upsetting the established scheme as regards the timing of elections”.

With the latter, “one may argue that this is undesirable too because a voter has voted for a particular set of MPs, and that if one MP steps down then the remaining set of MPs is a different set from what voters voted for”. The issue would be further complicated if the MP elected in a by-election is from a different political party than the remaining MPs.

Ong added, “It does not follow that holding a by-election will lead to a result that will be more in line with the principles of representative democracy, compared to simply allowing the seat to remain vacant. It may well be that not holding a by-election can, in principle, be the best way to maximise the level of representativeness of the set of MPs in a GRC.”

Ong noted that only the courts can provide an “authoritative interpretation of the relevant laws to determine whether the past practice was correct”. He also pointed to the 2008 parliamentary debate following the death of Jurong GRC MP Ong Chit Chung, when the House voted to reject NMP Thio Li-ann’s proposal to change the law to make a by-election compulsory in certain circumstances, including the vacation of a seat in a GRC by a minority MP.

In 2013, following a case brought by Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu, the Court of Appeal also ruled that the law requires the prime minister to call a by-election to fill a seat vacated by an elected MP within a reasonable time – but this applies only to single-member constituencies.

What do Halimah’s residents think?

Residents in Halimah’s Marsiling ward were also divided on the issue of whether a by-election is needed. While some said that a by-election was not necessary as the other MPs could cover her duties, others felt that it was about having a choice on who their MP should be.

Retiree Sandaran Segaran, 70, said, “We like Halimah very much. If Halimah goes, there should be a by-election. They must let us decide who we want to be the next MP. We need good people to come to this place, and they must be as good as Halimah.”

Segaran’s friend Mohan, 61, who has been living in Marsiling Drive for 25 years, agreed on the need for a by-election. “If there is no BE, the PAP will just nominate someone to come into this area, and we have to accept it. (Her replacement) can be any race. As long as they can understand the constituency’s problems and help people, we will be fine with it.”

One middle-aged Chinese resident, who declined to be named, said with a shrug, “I have no interest in politics. We have no control over it anyway. Maybe as Singaporeans, we are too used to it.”

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