SINGAPORE - Singapore's apex court has dismissed an appeal for the remaining three MPs in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC to vacate their seats, and for a by-election to be called in the constituency.
But the Court of Appeal has reversed an earlier decision by the High Court judge for the appellant, Dr Wong Souk Yee, a resident of the GRC, to pay for costs of $10,764.35, noting that a serious question of constitutional law was being raised.
In its decision, set out in a 40-page written judgment released on Wednesday (April 10), the Court of Appeal said there is no duty on the Government to call a by-election when a single vacancy arises in a GRC.
This was also Parliament's intention when it amended the Constitution in 1988 to introduce the GRC scheme, the five-judge court noted.
The appeal for a by-election to be called in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC was filed by Dr Wong, who is also a Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) member, after the High Court dismissed her earlier case in April last year.
Dr Wong is contending that the GRC seat vacated by President Halimah Yacob, who resigned in August 2017 to run in the presidential election, must be filled under law.
Among their arguments, Dr Wong's lawyers turned to Article 49(1) of the Constitution, which states that when "the seat of a Member... has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy shall be filled by election".
The Court of Appeal, which heard Dr Wong's appeal in January, said in its judgment that the proper interpretation of the words "seat of a Member" refer only to the seat of an SMC (Single-Member Constituency) member.
The apex court found that Article 49(1) was "ambiguous in relation to whether and how it applies to GRCs", since it was enacted in 1965, when the concept of GRCs did not exist.
The Constitution is "conspicuously silent and does not expressly compel the other Members of the affected GRC to vacate their seats", in a scenario where a single seat in a GRC has been vacated, the Court of Appeal said.
Having all members vacate their seats is a necessary precondition for any by-election in a GRC to be held.
Looking at the relevant parliamentary debates in 1988, the Court of Appeal said it is clear that Parliament had decided there would be no obligation on the Government to call a by-election in a GRC, when a single vacancy arises.
This arrangement, it was decided then, was preferable to the alternative, of the possibility that one Member of a GRC team could hold the other Members of the team to ransom.
The Court of Appeal also rejected Dr Wong's argument that the purpose of Article 39A of the Constitution which governs the GRCs scheme would be undermined when a minority Member of a GRC vacates his seat and minority representation in Parliament would be diminished
The court said this argument ignores the fact that Parliament, in debating the amendments to the law, had specifically considered the risk of minority representation being diminished in this situation.
Parliament "had decided that this risk was an acceptable trade-off for preventing a Member of a GRC from otherwise being able to hold the rest of the Members of that GRC to ransom", the court said.
SDP chief Chee Soon Juan said of the judgment: "The SDP deeply regrets this decision by the Appeals Court.
"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," Dr Chee wrote in a Facebook posting on Wednesday.
Following Madam Halimah's resignation, the remaining three MPs in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC are National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, Mr Ong Teng Koon and Mr Alex Yam.
Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Zaqy Mohamad from Chua Chu Kang GRC has taken on the role of grassroots adviser to Marsiling, the ward that Madam Halimah served in.