Dr Ong Chit Chung was the MP for my former constituency, Bukit Batok. I felt that as a mark of respect I should refrain from discussing the issue of a by-election until after the passing of a week. I have met the man on two occasions. Once at a meet-the-people session and once when he made a house visit as part of gathering support for the lift upgrading programme. My condolences to his family.

Now that his seat is vacant, should a by-election be held? What is the legal position?

According to the Today paper, Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC MP) said that the constitution “does not require a by-election”.

Based on an earlier report from the Today paper, Dr Thio Li-Ann is supposed to have expressed the following views:

No by-elections need to held “until there’s no one left in the GRC”. But while there was no legal requirement, she was of the view that “when you elect a team, you elect a whole team; so since this is not the team anymore, you should see if people want a new team.” – Today, July 14 2008

Let us see what the Constitution says:

Article 49 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore
Filling of Vacancies
49. —(1) 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.
(2) The Legislature may by law provide for —
(a) the vacating of a seat of a non-constituency Member in circumstances other than those specified in Article 46;
(b) the filling of vacancies of the seats of non-constituency Members where such vacancies are caused otherwise than by a dissolution of Parliament.

Therefore, if a seat is vacant and it is not because Parliament has been dissolved (i.e. this is not a general election) then the vacancy shall be filled by election.
The Constitution requires that the vacancy be filled by an election. Therefore, when an MP has passed away and there is a vacancy, a by-election must be held.

What is the manner in which the election is to be held? Article 49 states that the election will be in the manner provided by any law relating to Parliamentary elections.

There is a law relating to Parliamentary elections in Singapore. That is the Parliamentary Elections Act (cap 218). The relevant provision of the PEA is as follows:

Writ of election
24. —(1) For the purposes of every general election of Members of Parliament, and for the purposes of the election of Members to supply vacancies caused by death, resignation or otherwise, the President shall issue writs under the public seal, addressed to the Returning Officer.
(2) Every such writ shall be in Form 1 in the First Schedule and shall specify the date or dates (referred to in this Act as the day of nomination) not being less than 5 days nor more than one month after the date of the writ and the place or places of nomination (referred to in this Act as the place of nomination).
(2A) In respect of any group representation constituency, no writ shall be issued under subsection (1) for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament.

Section 24 deals with the issuance of a Writ of Election. During a General Election or when a by-election is called, the President issues a Writ of Election. Section 24, Subsection 2A, states that no writ of election shall be issued for a GRC unless all MPs in that GRC have vacated their seats.

On a surface reading of s.24 of the PEA, one would get the impression that there is no necessity to have a by-election. But, isn’t this inconsistent with the Constitution?

Article 49 is clear that the vacancy ought to be filled by election. At most it merely makes allowance for the election to be held in accordance with a procedure prescribed for Parliamentary Elections. The PEA is a statute that prescribes the procedures for parliamentary elections. However, the PEA attempts to assert that no Writ of Election shall be issued in the case of a vacancy of a seat in a GRC. This is clearly inconsistent with the Constitution.

The Constitution does not allow Parliament the discretion to pass a law that would negate a by-election. It allows Parliament to pass laws that would prescribe procedures for the conduct of elections. The words in the Constitution are very clear: “in the manner provided by or under any law”. It does not say that Parliament is permitted to pass laws that prevent the filling of vacancies. It says that vacancies must be filled. The manner in which they are filled can be provided under the law. However, the PEA seeks to exclude a by-election altogether. By providing that the President shall not issue a Writ of Election, the PEA has effectively overridden the Constitutional provision that an election shall be held.

Hence, s.24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act is unconstitutional.

Article 4 of the Constitution:
This Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic of Singapore and any law enacted by the Legislature after the commencement of this Constitution which is inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.

So, my question to those who claim that the Constitution does not require a by-election or those who try to adopt a ‘practical’ approach to the question of looking after the constituency is this: Have you read the Constitution? If not, please do so. If yes,please explain how the s.24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act could be consistent with Article 49 of the Constitution.