Question of forcing MPs to quit comes up in suit for by-election

Deputy A-G responds to legal challenge calling for by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC

The question of whether sitting MPs can be forced to vacate their seats in Parliament - when only one spot has been left empty in their GRC - took centre stage yesterday during a legal challenge that called for a by-election to be held in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) assistant treasurer Wong Souk Yee had applied to the High Court for it after Madam Halimah Yacob resigned as an MP to run in last September's presidential election, which she won in a walkover.

Dr Wong's lawyer Peter Low, in making his case yesterday, asked for the three remaining MPs of the GRC - Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Ong Teng Koon - to vacate their seats and then for a by-election to be held.

If a by-election could not be ordered, Mr Low said, the Parliamentary Elections Act should be interpreted such that all MPs of the GRC have to leave their seats when one or more seats have been left empty, or when only one of the remaining MPs is a minority candidate.

He cited 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".

But Justice Chua Lee Ming, who heard the case, noted that the Constitution does not go so far as to require the rest of the MPs in a GRC to vacate their seats in such a situation. "Unless you can force the rest of the members to resign, how do these vacancies arise?" he asked, referring to the vacancies needed for a by-election to be called. "Surely, there must be some legal provision for that?"

Mr Low, in his arguments, noted that in 1992, a by-election was called for Marine Parade GRC.

Responding, Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair said all the MPs in that GRC had resigned voluntarily at the time and there was no choice but to call for a by-election. "There has to be a power to compel the sitting MPs to vacate their seats before an election can be called," he added.

He also said that in a 1988 parliamentary debate on the aim of the GRC system, Parliament noted that even when one MP steps down, the others will continue to represent voters.

Referring to arguments raised by then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Mr Nair said a by-election would not be called when one or more members of a GRC vacate their seats. If a by-election could be called in such an instance, it would allow an MP to hold the others in the GRC to ransom by threat of resignation, he said.

When Madam Halimah left the GRC to run for president, MP Zaqy Mohamad from Chua Chu Kang GRC was appointed to take on the additional role of grassroots adviser to her constituency.

Referring to Article 46 of the Constitution, which spells out the circumstances in which a seat may become vacant, Mr Nair said: "All these provisions have to deal with the conduct of the MP himself, where he misbehaves or absents himself... matters within his control, or which affect him personally."

What Mr Low is asking for, argued Mr Nair, is for the court to "legislate other grounds" for seats to be vacated.

The SDP has previously said that the People's Action Party's decision not to call a by-election when a seat is vacated in a GRC is unconstitutional.

Although the SDP pulled out of the legal challenge over Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC last November when the Attorney-General argued that it had no standing in the issue, Dr Wong, who is a resident in the GRC, remained as sole plaintiff.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and SDP chairman Paul Tambyah were present at the hearing. Judgment on the case will be delivered at a later date.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Question of forcing MPs to quit comes up in suit for by-election'. Print Edition | Subscribe