The Court of Appeal, the highest court in Singapore, ruled today that a by-election is not required if a single seat becomes vacant in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) after it dismissed Dr Wong Souk Yee’s appeal against the High Court’s decision not to compel a by-election in the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.
Dr Wong, who is a resident in the GRC and the assistant-treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was among the SDP team that contested the ward in the 2015 General Election.
A seat in the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC became vacant in 2017 after then-PAP parliamentarian Halimah Yacob stepped down to contest the presidential elections. In August, ruling party politician Zaqy Mohamad was appointed to be the grassroots adviser in Marsiling-Yew Tee in Halimah’s stead.
The move drew public scrutiny since Zaqy was already serving as one of the elected Members of Parliament for Chua Chu Kang GRC.
Shortly thereafter, Halimah – who had also served as Speaker of Parliament before vacating her seat – won the presidential elections by means of a walkover, after the Elections Department disqualified presidential hopefuls Salleh Marican and Farid Khan from contesting the election that was reserved for Malay candidates.
Opposition party, the SDP, subsequently called for a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee since President Halimah stepped down from her elected role and filed a lawsuit to that effect. The suit also called on the three MPs who remain, Alex Yam, Lawrence Wong, and Ong Teng Koon, to step down as well, so that elections may take place.
When the Attorney-General said that the SDP, being a political party, had no standing concerning the election at Marsiling-Yew Tee, the party withdrew their suit before Dr Wong stepped forward to be the sole applicant since he is a member of the GRC.
At the heart of the lawsuit was the question of how to interpret Article 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act as well as Article 49 (1) of the country’s Constitution, which 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.”
The Article was not amended to require that all seats in a GRC must be vacated before a by-election is called.
In April last year, the High Court dismissed Dr Wong’s legal challenge calling for a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC and ordered him to pay over $10K in state costs.
SDP chairman Dr Paul Tambyah, who was present in the courtroom along with the party’s secretary-general Dr Chee Soon Juan, said that SDP is “very disappointed” with the ruling. The SDP argued that “the spirit of parliamentary elections…as spelt out in Article 49(1) must be respected.”
Dr Wong appealed the High Court’s decision. The media later reported that the panel of appellate judges grappled with the “conundrum” of how to interpret the law since the remaining MPs of the GRC had not resigned.
Mr Peter Low, representing Dr Wong, argued that it is not the court’s role to update or rectify the Constitution to suit the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) since only Parliament can amend the Constitution with a two-thirds majority vote.
Mr Low further argued that under Article 4, the Constitution reigns supreme and legislation (such as the introduction of the GRC system in the PEA) that is in conflict with the Constitution is void.
In a media statement, the SDP said that “Chief Justice Suresh Menon and Justice Andrew Phang expressed reservations with Mr Hri Kumar’s argument and grappled with the issue of using updating and rectifying construction to the Constitution.”
Despite this, the apex court dismissed Dr Wong’s appeal but reportedly granted him leave to commence judicial review of the PAP’s action and ordered no cost to be awarded to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Revealing that it “deeply regrets this decision by the Appeals Court,” the SDP said in a media statement today that the “decision whittles down yet more rights of Singaporean citizens – the present one being the right to replace an MP who has resigned with another elected one.”
The party added: “Singaporeans should be able to expect that each and every MP who vacates his or her seat should be replaced by an election. This is the bedrock upon which democracy is built.
“Absent such a practice, the ruling party can craft legislation to undermine the very spirit of parliamentary representation and render such a system utterly meaningless.”
Asserting that the “only way now for Singaporeans to safeguard their rights and interests against an increasingly insecure and un-moored PAP is to unstintingly support the SDP in the next general election,” the SDP said that it will discuss with Dr Wong on how to proceed.
The party said: “The matter is too important for our nation’s future not to be given serious consideration.”