Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar said yesterday (22 Jan) that the application to hold a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC is not mandated by the constitution. Kumar declared that the application filed by Dr. Wong Souk Yee – a resident of Marsiling-Yew Tee who serves as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s assistant treasurer – has no merit.
At the heart of the matter is how to interpret Article 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act as well as Article 49 (1) of the country’s Constitution, which reads, “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.”
A seat in the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC became vacant 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 at the time 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 party assistant treasurer Dr Wong stepped forward to be the sole applicant in the suit since he is a member of the constituency in question.
Noted lawyer Peter Low represented the applicants in High Court and argued that according to Article 49(1), there is no difference between a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and a Single-Member Constituency (SMC).
To this, Chua Lee Ming, High Court Judge answered “Where is the basis for requiring the rest of the members to vacate their seats?” Judge Chua said that there was no legal justification for this based on the text.
In Singapore’s history, the only one time a by-election was held in a GRC was in 1992, when former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called for one in Marine Parade, his own ward. He and the three other MPs stepped down from their positions voluntarily before contesting and winning the by-election. There is speculation that one of the reasons to call for this by-election back then was to make room for current Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean.
In court, the DAG used Article 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act to counter Low’s arguments: “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.”
The DAG further said that 49 (1) was put into effect prior to the implementation of the GRC system 1988, and therefore, rules are inapplicable for today. He also noted that it would be unjust to cause the MPs of Marsiling-Yew Tee MPs to resign just because of a situation that was beyond their control.
However, Low countered that the High Court “should not engage in constitutional interpretation in a manner that is tantamount to amending the Constitution.” Furthermore, he said that the courts does not have the authority to rewrite the Constitution.
According to DAG Kumar, the application to hold the by-election depended on the foundational question of whether or not GRC voters have a voice in Parliament. And, since Parliament has already tackled the issue of what would ensue should a GRC or MP resign their post, he said that it matters little, since the GRC would continue to be represented by other MPs.
The High Court has reserved its judgment on the case, which has has been adjourned to a later date.