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An opportunity lost, for S'poreans to get involved. By Andrew Loh.

By-election denial a sad case of irony

Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor

It is not unexpected that the Government has rejected calls to hold a by-election in Jurong GRC, following the death of Dr Ong Chit Chung. Many reasons have been proffered by both those who support a by-election and those who do not.

The Online Citizen’s result of a street poll of 478 people conducted in Jurong GRC last week was mentioned in Parliament by Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Siew Kum Hong (NMP). The results showed a clear preference for holding a by-election – with 60.1 per cent of those who had a clear opinion answering "yes" to the question of whether a by-election should be held in Jurong GRC.

This result is quite similar to those of another poll conducted by The New Paper of Bukit Batok residents, as reported here on 29 August 2008. In that poll, the paper reported that “more than two-thirds of those we polled who were clear in their opinion felt they wanted a by-election (70 out of 100).”

Yet, the Government has flatly refused to hold one.

And therein lies the biggest question which seems to have been ignored by the PAP Government: When the people of Jurong GRC, and the people of Bukit Batok in particular, feel they are not being adequately represented and want a by-election, is it right for the Government to dismiss their call?

In my opinion, the only credible reason against holding a by-election is the one expressed by MP Hri Kumar. He was concerned that MPs, especially minority-race MPs, would be bestowed with “extraordinary powers, including the power to force a by-election.” This is a valid concern. One MP should not be able to hold the rest of his colleagues – or even his party – hostage, by way of resigning in order to force a by-election for his own selfish purposes.

Having said that, however, I would argue that if an MP of any party goes to that length to resign and force a by-election, it would actually be a party problem – and not a national one – and it is for that party to sort things out within itself.

Thus, internal disagreements within a party should not preclude or take precedence over the principle of representative democracy, a point which was reiterated many times by both Professor Thio Li-Ann and NMP Siew in Parliament.

But even if we agree with Mr Kumar’s point and would rather prevent MPs from having such “extraordinary powers” to hold others ransom, an easy solution to his question would be to simply amend the law to state that only when an MP dies, and not when he resigns, should a by-election be held.

I am sure no MP would want to force a by-election by killing himself.

Alternatively, if an MP were to vacate his seat through resignation or other reasons, perhaps we should conduct a referendum in his ward and ask his constituents if they think a by-election should be conducted. This gives the power back to the people to decide – and takes it away from the MP who resigned or vacated his seat, thus resolving the problem of him having "extraordinary powers" to hold others hostage.

As for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s argument, I will leave it to a future piece on TOC to rebut his point. For now, suffice it to say that it is tiresome to hear PM Lee use our “turbulent past” to justify his refusal to call a by-election. To paraphrase what Mr Vivian Balakrishnan once said, please do not be ossified in the past, using it to justify all sorts of refusal and denials.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the most important question is this: For a Government which frequently cites its "electoral mandate" as a reason for its legitimacy, why is it so afraid to go to the people again when one of its members in a GRC team vacates his seat? What, really, is the reason?

Whatever it is, the Government is depriving the people of Jurong GRC, and Bukit Batok constituency, an opportunity to have a direct say in the running of their estates.

This goes against all those public statements and urgings by the same Government and its ministers for Singaporeans to be more involved – not just in politics in general, but also in how their constituencies are run.

Isn’t it ironic then, that when an opportunity presents itself to let Singaporeans do exactly that, the doors are quickly shut tight – by the same people calling for the public to be more involved.

*One wonders if Singaporeans are paying for redundant MPs if four MPs can do the work of five, as the PAP Government has been saying lately. (MPs get about $14,000 per month. That’s more than half a million for a 5-year term.)

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