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TOC Op-ed: New twist to the by-election question, but don’t hold your breath

Dr Balaji Sadasivan’s passing this morning inevitably raises the question of whether Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will call for a by-election to fill the now-vacant seat in his own ward. Dr Balaji was an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, in addition to his portfolio as Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

This issue was last raised after Dr Ong Chit Chung, an MP in Jurong GRC passed away in August 2008.

During the Parliamentary sitting following his death, then-Nominated MPs Thio Li-Ann and Loo Choon Yong proposed a motion calling for amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act to allow for by-elections upon the passing of an MP while still in office.

The motion was rejected 62 to five.

One of the arguments against having a by-election was that other Members of Parliament in the GRC were able to cover the constituency duties of Dr Ong. Madam Halimah Yacob noted that the other MPs in the GRC had covered the Meet-the-People’s sessions for Dr Ong.

This was the same approach taken in the case of Dr Tay Eng Soon, an elected Member for Eunos GRC who passed away in 1993 and in 1999 when Mr Choo Wee Khiang of Jalan Besar GRC resigned. Both MPs were from the PAP.

This time round Mr Lee will be hard-pressed to deploy the same explanation in Dr Balaji’s case. Due to his duties as PM, Mr Lee would already have had less time for constituency work than ordinary MPs; it is thus unlikely the Prime Minister can be tasked to make up for Dr Balaji’s constituency work.

Further, the assertion that the rest of the GRC MPs can cover for someone’s duties raises the obvious and uncomfortable question: are an MP’s duties really that important if he’s so dispensable?

More importantly, the government will have to revisit the question of electoral representation: the Ang Mo Kio team was voted in at the 2006 general election with 66.14% of the vote. Votes were cast for the whole GRC team, Dr Balaji being one of the members.

As former Nominated MP Mr Siew Kum Hong argued in the 2008 debate, voters give the mandate to the whole team in a GRC.

In his parliamentary speech, Mr Siew said, “And if the composition of the team changes for any reason, then it by definition becomes a different team. It ceases to be the team elected by the voters. In that situation, surely a fresh mandate from the voters is necessary.”

The GE consideration

Unfortunately, however untenable the PAP’s explanations are, the reality is that it is unlikely that a by-election will be called.

By law, the term of this Parliament does not expire until February 2012. However, there is a widespread expectation that the elections will be called as early as the end of this year or next year around March, just after the Budget is passed.

Given that a by-election in the PM’s ward will be a de facto referendum on the government, it is unlikely that a by-election will be called if a general election is indeed being planned in the coming months.

Regardless, Dr Balaji’s passing once again reflects that the question of when to call a by-elections and the broader issues of electoral accountability is far from settled.

Dr James Gomez, Executive-Director of Singaporeans for Democracy, told TOC he intends to publicly raise and discuss this issue at the organization’s upcoming Election Consultation Forum to be held on Saturday, 2 October at 2010.