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High Court dismisses legal challenge calling for by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee; orders SDP asst treasurer to pay over $10K in state costs

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The High Court dismissed a legal challenge that called for a by-election to be held in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, yesterday. The application was filed by Dr. Wong Souk Yee – a resident of Marsiling-Yew Tee who serves as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s assistant treasurer. Dr Wong, who was not present in court during the ruling, was ordered to pay the state costs of $10,764.35.

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.

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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.

Yesterday, Justice Chua Lee Ming asserted that there is no legal basis to require the rest of the MPs to vacate their seats in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC. He said: “The applicant’s argument is simply that because Article 49 (1) has triggered a by-election in the present case, the remaining MPs must vacate their seats by resigning because otherwise a by-election cannot be held. In my view, this is a circuitous argument.”

Disagreeing with Dr Wong’s lawyer, Peter Low’s argument that a by-election must be held since voters have lost their right to be represented by an elected MP of their choice, Justice Chua said that it is the GRC team that represents the GRC in the House and that voters are still represented by the team, “albeit comprising one MP less”.

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.

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.

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