No by-election if minority member of GRC steps down to run for president

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing has said that there will be no by-election called if a minority candidate leaves his or her group representation constituency (GRC).

This was in response to Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Mr Pritam Singh’s question on whether would there be a by-election if a minority candidate in a GRC decides to step down as a MP and contest in the upcoming Presidential Election (PE).

Using Mdm Halimah Yacob as an example of a MP who wishes to stand in the PE as a candidate, Mr Singh asked what will happen to the very existence of the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which by law requires a Malay MP as one of its political representatives in parliament.

He further asked if the introduced Bill will herald a new precedent in marked contrast to the scenario in Jurong GRC some years ago when the late People’s Action Party (PAP MP) Mr Ong Chit Chung passed on.

“Does the Bill, and the prospect of reserved Presidential elections change the Government’s thinking on this question: Would a by-election be called in a GRC when the minority member of a GRC steps down to contest in a Presidential election? Can the Government set its position out on this matter in light of the introduction of reserved Presidential elections?” said Mr Singh.

Mr Chan said that the GRC system has been in place since 1988, and requires each team to include at least one member of a minority race. Noting that when Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong explained the GRC system in Parliament decades back, he said its intent was to achieve two purposes.

One, to ensure enough minority members in the House and two, to ensure no political campaign on issues of race and religion. Elected members are expected to serve all residents, regardless of race, language and religion as well.

Mr Chan noted that these key goals would not be affected if one member of the GRC left and added that there are 25 minority MPs out of 89, “more than what you’d expect proportionately from adding up the percentage of Malays, Indians and other minorities”.

“Even if we have one less, that is 24 out of 89, which is 27 per cent of Parliament,” he said.

Motion to hold by-election if minority candidate vacates his or her seat, opposed in 2008

Back in 2008, two nominated MPs, Prof Thio Li-Ann and Dr Loo Choon Yong filed a motion to ask Parliament to call on the Government to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act, to provide for by-elections in certain circumstances.

On the point of holding a by-election in the event where a minority representative of a GRC vacates his or her seat, Prof Thio argued, “Given that the GRC scheme as a mechanism for guaranteeing minority representation is important enough to justify derogating from a fundamental liberty, how can there be no legal requirement to call a by-election to ensure that minorities in Parliament are at their maximum strength, where a minority GRC MP vacates his seat?

Thus, the PEA should be amended to require by-elections when the GRC minority MP vacates his parliamentary seat. This is to ensure that the constitutional purpose, the raison d’etre for having GRCs, is not thwarted.”

One of the MPs who opposed the motion was Mdm Halimah Yacob. she said:

“Prof. Thio also wants the law changed so that when a minority candidate vacates his seat for whatever reasons, then all the other MPs should vacate their seats too and a by-election held to elect a new team. If we accept this proposal, Sir, it will undermine and weaken the GRC concept. Let me explain why. Prof. Thio’s proposal would mean that minority candidates would wield considerable power and has great sway over the fate of the GRC. If, for whatever reason, the minority candidate resigns, then all the other MPs in the GRC would have to resign too. This would put the minority candidate in exactly the same position that the 1988 amendment wanted to avoid, ie, allowing one MP to hold the entire team to ransom. This is clearly not the intent or purpose of the GRC concept and is counter productive for minority candidates as there would be a lot of resentment at giving them so much power to undermine the whole GRC.”

Speaking at the last segment of the debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stood up and oppose the motion, saying the timing of the by-election is the prerogative of the Prime Minister.  “He has full discretion, and he is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed timeframe. ”

Mr Lee noted that within a GRC, under the Parliamentary Elections Act, it is explicitly stated that no by-election shall be called unless all members vacate their seats.  And if one member from a GRC dies or resigns, or even two, or three, or four members, in a GRC which still has members left, legally no question of a by-election arises at all, not even if the member is the minority member in that GRC.

The motion was eventually negatived with 62 in objection and 5 in support.