Suit to hold by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee has 'no merit': Deputy Attorney-General

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
A banner in Marsiling-Yew Tee celebrating Singapore’s 52nd National Day, August 2017. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

An application to hold a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC in the wake of last year’s Presidential Election is constitutionally flawed, said Deputy Attorney-General (AG) Hri Kumar in the High Court on Monday (22 January).

“This entire application has no merit,” said Kumar of the petition by Marsiling-Yew Tee resident and author Dr Wong Souk Yee. Wong is also assistant treasurer for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Central to the case: differing interpretations of Article 49(1) of the Singapore Constitution and Article 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

Article 49(1) states, “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.”

Following President Halimah Yacob’s resignation as a Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee last year in order to run for president, SDP filed a lawsuit last September calling for a by-election in the ward. It maintains that the three remaining MPs – Lawrence Wong, Ong Teng Koon and Alex Yam – should vacate their seats in order to facilitate the process.

The SDP later withdrew from the suit as the Attorney-General maintained that the party had no standing in the issue.

The merits of the case

Arguing for the applicant, veteran lawyer Peter Low cited Article 49(1), claiming that it does not make a distinction between a Single-Member Constituency (SMC) and a Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

In response, High Court Judge Chua Lee Ming noted, “Where is the basis for requiring the rest of the members to vacate their seats?” He questioned Low repeatedly on this point, adding that he did not see the “legislative justification” for doing so based on a plain reading of the text.

Low said this could be implied from the text.

Historically, only one by-election has been held in a GRC. In 1992, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called for the contest in his own ward of Marine Parade after all four MPs, including himself, voluntarily resigned. One of the reasons for doing so was to bring in then-fledgling politician Teo Chee Hean, who is now Deputy Prime Minister.

Arguing for the government, Kumar cited Article 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act. This 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.”

Noting that 49(1) was promulgated before the GRC system came into place in 1988, he maintained that “different rules” apply to GRCs. To force the remaining Marsiling-Yew Tee MPs to vacate their seats for reasons unrelated to their conduct or circumstances within their control, would be unfair too.

The Deputy AG stressed that the application rested on a fundamental question: do the voters in the GRC have a voice in Parliament? Noting that Parliament has considered the question of what would happen if an MP in a GRC steps down, Kumar said it had concluded that it would not matter as the other MPs would continue to represent the GRC.

The case has been adjourned to a date to be set.

Related stories:

SDP files lawsuit against Singapore government for not calling Marsiling-Yew Tee by-election

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

Halimah Yacob resigns as Speaker of Parliament, Marsiling-Yew Tee MP