The recent expulsion of Yaw Shin Leong from the Workers’ Party and the consequent vacation of his seat in Parliament under Article 46(2)(b) of our Constitution have raised a debate over by-elections in Singapore, particularly regarding the Prime Minister’s discretion on whether and when to call a by-election when a Parliament seat is vacant. On one side there are arguments such as NMP Eugene Tan’s, which suggests that by-elections should be called within in reasonable time. The opposing argument is that Singapore has chosen a model of party and not individual representation, under which the ruling party determines the electoral agenda. MP Hri Kumar Nair SC has made this argument.
First, the legal technicalities. The PM’s discretion arises from Article 49(1) of the Constitution provides that vacancies “shall” be filled in accordance with the “law relating to Parliamentary elections”. This is the Parliamentary Elections Act, section 24(1) of which states that “for the purposes of the election of Members to supply vacancies caused by death, resignation or otherwise, the President shall issue writs under the public seal, addressed to the Returning Officer.” The President acts by default on the advice of the Prime Minister in areas where he has no express constitutional discretion. This being one of those areas, the Prime Minister has the sole final say on the issuance of writs for by-elections.
Professor Kevin Tan has argued that this is not an absolute discretion in that the Prime Minister must call for a by-election in case of a vacancy, because of the mandatory language of Article 49(1) (“shall be filled”) and of section 24(1) (“the President shall issue writs”). This, of course, does not remove the problem that no time limit is given. The PM can call a by-election at any time or, for that matter, not call one at all and wait till the next General Election, since Article 49(1) only requires that the seat be filled by an “election”, which can be a General Election.
NMP Eugene Tan in the article cited above also argues that a by-election should be called within a reasonable time or that reasons should at least be given if one is not called. One way of advancing this argument is through section 52 of the Interpretation Act which states that if no time is prescribed within which anything shall be done (as is the case in section 24(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act), “that thing shall be done with all convenient speed and as often as the prescribed occasion arises.”
More importantly, however, are NMP Tan’s arguments that leaving a constituency of 25000 voters without an MP in Parliament for an extended time - about 4.5 years in this case for Hougang, if no by-election is called - would undermine an inclusive and representative democracy.
MP Hri Kumar Nair countered that Singapore chose a party-based model of representative democracy, evidenced by Article 46(2)(b), which was introduced to avoid the type of party-switching that happened in the Legislative Assembly in 1961, where 13 PAP defectors almost stole the party’s hard-won majority. In this model, individual MPs cannot change Parliament’s composition or even the Government. This purpose would be defeated if they could still do so by forcing by-elections at any time. This is in contrast with Malaysia, where defections and by-elections often draw national attention.
There are a few questions that the PM’s discretion raises, however.
1) What if the seat is vacated by an independent MP? There will be no party to take care of the constituency as the Workers’ Party is currently doing for Hougang, and no party to represent the constituency’s interests in Parliament.
2) What if the seat is vacated by a sole opposition MP such as Mr Low Thia Khiang from 2006-2011? The constituency would have no proxy representation in Parliament as Hougang residents sort of have now in the other WP MPs. Surely it also cannot be right for voters to be covered by unelected party officials.
3) What if the seat is vacated by a minority MP in a GRC? The GRC system was implemented to ensure minority representation in Parliament. It would be a mockery of the system if minority representation is suddenly unimportant when a seat is vacated.
4) What if the vacant seat(s) affect the Government’s mandate? Consider this hypothetical scenario: the PAP has 44 seats in Parliament, the WP has 43. The PAP forms the Government. Two PAP MPs defect from the PAP and have to resign their seats. Now the WP forms the Government, because they have 43 seats to the PAP’s 42. The PAP is confident of winning the two seats back in the by-election and reclaiming power. But the WP Prime Minister, knowing full well his party cannot win, exercises his discretion and refuses to call a by-election and clings on to power for years. A constitutional crisis will likely ensue.
We can see that the PM’s discretion to call a by-election has the potential, however unlikely, to plunge the nation into a constitutional and political crisis. In the current, relatively stable political climate, some discretion prevents individual MPs from using resignations and defections as political tools. However, I propose a long maximum period for which a seat can be left vacant, say, one year, within which a by-election or general election must be held and the seat filled. This would ensure, without forgoing political stability, that all citizens are represented in Parliament, which is the minimum substance of a representative democracy.