Court of Appeal hears legal bid for by-election to be called in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC

The appeal, filed by Singapore Democratic Party assistant treasurer Wong Souk Yee (above), a resident in the GRC, comes after the High Court dismissed her application last April. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A legal challenge for a by-election to be called in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC was heard by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday (Jan 16), with sections of Singapore's Constitution coming under scrutiny.

The appeal, filed by Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) assistant treasurer Wong Souk Yee, a resident in the GRC, comes after the High Court dismissed her application last April.

Dr Wong is contending that the GRC seat vacated by President Halimah Yacob - who resigned in August 2017 to run in the presidential elections - must be filled under law. To do this, the remaining three MPs in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC should resign, and a by-election called.

In their submissions to the apex court, lawyers from the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), said Dr Wong's interpretation of Article 49 (1) of the Constitution "violates" its plain language.

Article 49 (1) 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 AGC team, led by Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair, said the Article provides for an election for the vacant seat only, and no other.

"It does not contain an obligation to call an election for all the seats in a GRC when a single seat falls vacant," they noted.

There is also nothing in the "plain words" of the Article which obliges the remaining GRC members to vacate their seats so a by-election can be called, the AGC said.

Dr Wong's lawyer, Mr Peter Low, argued that Article 49 (1) does not distinguish between seats in a GRC or a single-member constituency, and requires a vacant seat in a GRC to be filled.

Citing Article 39A of the Constitution, Mr Low said the law also requires that a GRC contains a member from a minority community until the dissolution of Parliament.

But AGC's lawyers said that Article 39A only requires that the GRC team have a minority member at the point of elections.

They also pointed to Section 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, which states that in the case of a GRC, no writ shall be issued for an election to fill any vacancy, "unless all the members for that constituency have vacated their seats".

Referring to a 1988 parliamentary debate on the GRC system, the AGC said this provision was to guard against one MP holding the other members to ransom with a threat of resignation.

The case was heard by a five-judge panel comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang, Judith Prakash, Steven Chong and Tay Yong Kwang.

Mr Low also argued that voters have rights to be represented by a full slate of elected MPs .

He said constituents in a GRC are "short-changed" when not all the seats are filled. For example, he said, each MP can file up to five questions in Parliament sittings. But Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC residents are short of one MP, resulting in less representation.

But Justice Chong said while voters in such a GRC may be "under-represented", it does not mean they are "unrepresented" in Parliament.

Justice Phang also said that whether there will be "political fallout" from having one less member in the GRC was not applicable to the current court proceedings.

Judgment on the case will be delivered at a later date. Dr Wong was not in court on Wednesday.

The three remaining 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 the ward Madam Halimah had served in.

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