Need to prove legal basis to call for Marsiling-Yew Tee by-election: AGC

Former Singapore Democratic Party chairman Wong Souk Yee (second from left) exiting the High Court, where a hearing was held on whether a by-election should be called for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, on Jan 22, 2018.
Former Singapore Democratic Party chairman Wong Souk Yee (second from left) exiting the High Court, where a hearing was held on whether a by-election should be called for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, on Jan 22, 2018.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - 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 on Monday (Jan 22) in a legal challenge that called for a by-election to be held in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

The 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 the September presidential election, which she won in a walkover.

Judgment on the case will be delivered at a later date.

At the hearing, Dr Wong's lawyer Peter Low asked for the three remaining MPs of Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC - Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Ong Teng Koon - to vacate their spots and for a by-election to be then called.

If a by-election cannot be ordered, Mr Low said, the Parliamentary Elections Act should be interpreted such that all MPs of the group representation constituency have to leave their spots when one or more seats are left empty, or when only one remaining MP 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 application in the High Court, noted 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. "Surely, there must be some legal provision for that?"

Mr Low, in his arguments, said a by-election for a GRC had been called, in 1992, for Marine Parade GRC.

Responding, Deputy Attorney-General (A-G) Hri Kumar Nair noted that all the GRC's MPs 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. Doing so would allow an MP to hold the others in the GRC to ransom by threatening to resign, he said.

When Madam Halimah left the GRC to run for president, MP Zaqy Mohamad from neighbouring 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 when 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, he argued, is for the court to "legislate other grounds" for seats to be vacated.

SDP previously called the People's Action Party's decision not to call a by-election unconstitutional.

Although the party pulled out of the legal challenge last November when the A-G argued it had no standing in the issue, Dr Wong, who is a resident of the GRC, remained as sole plaintiff.

Also present at Monday's hearing were SDP's secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and its chairman Paul Tambyah.