SINGAPORE — The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has gone to court to seek a declaration that a by-election must be called in Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC), to fill the seat vacated by Madam Halimah Yacob after she resigned last month to contest the Elected Presidency.
Law firm Peter Low & Choo is representing the opposition party in challenging Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to appoint Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a Member of Parliament (Chua Chu Kang GRC) as grassroots adviser in Mdm Halimah’s former ward, instead of calling for a by-election.
The SDP’s lawsuit was filed yesterday, the same day Mdm Halimah was declared President-elect after running unopposed in Singapore’s inaugural reserved polls.
A pre-trial conference has been scheduled on Oct 9.
Framing its legal challenge as a bid to block the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) from “(doing) as it pleases”, the SDP said in a press release: “It was the PAP that mandated that each GRC include at least one candidate from a predetermined minority race. But the same party is also the one who has arbitrarily decided that if that minority member resigns, there is no need to replace him or her in a by-election.”
It cited Article 49(1) of the 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 SDP, which had contested and lost in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC in the 2015 General Election with 31.3 per cent of the votes, added: “The PAP ... is just a political party ... And like any other political party, it must serve the nation by respecting democracy — especially in spirit — enshrined in the Constitution.”
The three remaining MPs in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC — National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Ong Teng Koon — have said they will take care of Mdm Halimah’s former constituents as a team.
This is the second time a legal challenge has been mounted in relation to whether a by-election is mandatory when a seat is vacated. In 2012, Madam Vellama Marie Muthu, a resident of Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC), filed an application to get the courts to declare that the Prime Minister does not have “unfettered discretion” in deciding whether and when to call a by-election.
She did so after then-MP of the ward, Mr Yaw Shin Leong, was expelled by the Workers’ Party (WP) over what it termed “indiscretions in his private life”, leaving his parliamentary seat vacant.
A High Court ruled later that the Constitution does not mandate that the Prime Minister hold a by-election to fill the vacated seat of an elected MP.
The ruling was overturned on appeal, with the Court of Appeal saying that the Prime Minister does not have “unfettered discretion” in whether to call a by-election.
However, the Court of Appeal also noted that in the Hougang case, it applied only to an SMC, “as there is a special provision where a vacancy arises in a GRC”.
The issue was also raised in Parliament in February this year during a debate on changes to the Presidential Elections Act.
Responding to a question from WP MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing said that a by-election will not be called if a minority candidate vacates a seat in a GRC.
Mr Chan cited an explanation by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on the GRC system decades back — that the intent was to ensure enough minority members in the House and that there would be no political campaign on issues of race and religion.
Mr Chan noted that these goals would not be affected if one minority member of a GRC left.