SINGAPORE—Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 25), addressing earlier suggestions to delay Singapore’s General Elections because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and to have the president form a caretaker government. Both are “unconstitutionally unworkable”, the minister underlined.
Addressing questions on the timing of the next elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Minister Teo noted that elections must take place by April 2021, although he admitted that the current situation may not be ideal.
“We do not know when the COVID-19 situation will stabilise,” said Mr Teo, adding that an election “must take place by Apr 14, 2021”.
“Ideally, we would like to conduct elections in normal conditions. The present situation is not ideal for holding an election, but that does not mean it makes an election impossible,” said Mr Teo, adding, “The longer we wait, the more unpredictable, difficult and dangerous it could be.”
By law, Singapore must hold a general election by April next year, and that is one of the the points that Mr Teo, who is also the Coordinating Minister for National Security, is upholding.
Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza posed queries to the senior minister regarding the Government’s stance on suggestions made by Progress Singapore Party chief Dr Tan Cheng Bock. In a video statement posted on the opposition party’s Facebook page on Mar 14, Dr Tan suggested that the General Elections be delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and to have the president form a caretaker government.
At the time of Dr Tan’s suggestions, the COVID-19 situation in Singapore and the rest of the world had not deteriorated to the point it is at now. Still, Mr Teo called the suggestions “misleading and unhelpful” as well as “unconstitutional”.
“To delay an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional,” said Mr Teo, relaying advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).
He explained that the only time the elections can be postponed to after the required date is when a state of emergency is declared, and “the president’s power to declare an emergency can only be exercised on the advice of the Cabinet”.
The minister addressed the suggestion of the president forming a caretaker government, adding that even if the president does declare an emergency, “given that the incumbent Cabinet remains in office during an emergency, there is no legal basis or practical need for the president to form a new government”.
“It is not helpful to mislead people into thinking that such an option exists—to put off elections indefinitely and for the president to form a new government—when this goes against the Constitution,” the senior minister underlined.
“To suggest this shows a disregard for, or lack of understanding of the Constitution. Putting forward constitutionally unworkable proposals at a time of serious national crisis can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans, to the detriment of Singapore and Singaporeans,” he added.
Mr Teo said that even if a state of emergency was declared and a caretaker government formed, it would be “hobbled by the fact that it lacks the explicit mandate of voters and would therefore not be in a position to take major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans”, which is “the fundamental problem”.
“This is the reason why constitutional convention requires that a caretaker government not make any far-reaching or long-term measure,” explained Mr Teo.
In the midst of a global pandemic, which the minister called an “unprecedented global crisis”, Singapore’s problems are two-fold—health and economic. “Even after we deal with this pandemic, the economic repercussion will last longer, with significant and longstanding impact on both lives and livelihoods”, he said.
A caretaker government would not be the best for the country if what the country needs is a “government with a clear mandate to pull out all the stops in a crisis”, Mr Teo pointed out.
“Today, more than ever, we need a government that the people has expressed confidence in, to take us through this unprecedented health crisis, stabilise the economy, and safeguard our people’s lives and livelihoods,” he added.
Mr de Souza had also inquired after the government’s measures that will ensure the safety of Singaporeans when they vote, should the elections be held in the midst of a global pandemic.
The minister responded, saying that “necessary extra safeguards and precautions must and will be taken … at every step—nominations, campaigning and voting”. He went on to outline measures, such as “live-streaming of speeches on the Internet” for campaigning, “special express lanes for seniors and those who need them” for voting, “social distancing while queuing, proper hand hygiene and hand sanitisers for voters”.
Mr Teo said that “we will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections even during this ongoing COVID-19 outbreak”, assuring citizens that the “measures and precautions” the government has put in place are “required to protect Singaporeans”. /TISG