No by-election even if minority MP quits GRC? Shouldn’t the constitution trump the PEA?

Halimah Yacob’s announcement that she will contest the presidency has brought forth several issues that are worthy of debate and clarification.

Firstly, the inescapable quagmire of race has once again surfaced. To be fair, this has been the giant elephant in the room that has always been glossed over. As a meritorious society, should the politics of race even be a concern?

The ruling party brought in the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) ostensibly to protect minorities and to ensure that the minorities had a voice. What has never been satisfactorily clarified is why some constituencies are GRCs while some remain Single Member Constituencies (SMC). Aren’t minorities equally important across all constituencies? The seemingly arbitrary nature of the GRC and SMC construct have led some to question if the GRC was more about party protection and less about minority representation.

This begs the question – Unwittingly or otherwise, is the racial equation being used to ensure party power?

The changes to the Elected Presidency (EP) brought the politics of race into the forefront again with accusations ranging from reverse racism to tokenism. The EP does not really wield much power in Singapore’s political system. How then is carving it out for minorities deemed a means to protect minorities?

In my mind, a true meritocracy is based on merit. One’s race, gender or socio economic strata should have no bearing on one’s abilities or lack thereof. I am not suggesting that unconscious biases do not exist. But surely, the way to overcoming the problem lies in creating equal opportunities for all as opposed to carving out even more categories to divide society?

I have no quarrel with Yacob’s credentials as an individual. By all accounts, she is an outstanding candidate. Surely that should be what stands her in good stead. Her “Malayness” has nothing to do with it. However, because of the government’s insistence on the changes to the EP to protect minorities, her stellar qualities are forced to take back seat to her “Malayness”. This does not do Yacob any justice. Nor does it advance the position of Malays. All it does say (at least to me) is that a position that wields no real power is good enough for minorities. Does this serve to protect minorities? It seems to me is that all it does is to ensure that certain candidates who are deemed “anti establishment” do not qualify for this position.

Next, you have the by-election conundrum. It appears that there are ongoing discussions as to whether or not a by-election needs to be held. The pieces of legislation in question are Section 49(1) of the Constitution and Section 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA). While the former necessitates the calling of a by-election, the latter does not.

However, shouldn’t the constitution trump the PEA? Besides, isn’t it clear that the Constitution was drafted before the concept of GRCs was created?

To me, it seems obvious that the Constitution intends for an election to be called every time an MP vacates office. I understand the logistical permutations of GRCs – i.e. do all members of that GRC have to step down? What happens if an opposition member is elected? Can he/she work with the other GRC members?

This brings to the forefront the relevance of the concept of GRCs in the first place. Is this the best way to protect minorities? Or does it cause more problems than it purports to solve?

Editor’s note – In February this year, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing said in his reply to Worker’s Party MP for Aljunied GRC, Pritam Singh’s question on whether a by-election would be held in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC if Mdm Halimah runs for presidency, “Even if we have one less, there are 24 out of 89, which is 27 percent of Parliament.”, implying that there will be no by-election in the event Mdam Halimah vacates her seat. Mdm Halimah has since submitted her resignation on Monday and accepted by the Prime Minister.