Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament yesterday (25 March) that it would be unconstitutional for the General Elections (GE) in Singapore to be delayed despite the ongoing outbreak of the dreaded COVID-19.
This is in response to a question from his fellow party member, Christopher de Souza, who is the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Member of Parliament (MP), on the Government’s stance regarding a proposal mooted by former presidential candidate and current Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock.
Dr Tan suggested that in the event that the COVID-19 situation in Singapore does not ease by April 2021, which is the deadline for Singapore to hold the next general election.
Mr Teo replied from the pieces of paper that he had on hand, saying that he had asked the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for advice on whether an election can be delayed with the creation of a caretaker government formed by the President.
“The advice of the AGC is, to delay an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional,” he said.
The only exception to the rule, Mr Teo said, is when a state of emergency is declared.
Despite the exception, Mr Teo stressed that it is unhelpful to “mislead people into thinking that such an option exists to put off elections indefinitely” and to have the President “form a new government when this goes against the Constitution”.
“To suggest this shows a disregard for or a lack of understanding of the Constitution. Putting forward constitutionally unworkable proposals at a time of serious national crisis can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans to the detriment of Singapore and Singaporeans,” he added.
I find this line of reasoning rather curious.
Given that the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has a vast majority in Parliament, surely, they can easily amend the constitution if needed to delay the GE?
I am not suggesting that the constitution should be lightly amended. However, these are unprecedented times! We are in the middle of a global pandemic that has already claimed – and will continue to claim – thousands of lives worldwide. As countries all over the world are going into lock down, it seems rather strange for Mr Teo to cite the constitution as a reason for not delaying the GE?
Unprecedented times such as these call for exceptional leadership and decisions. The PAP-led government in Singapore has hitherto done an exceptional job in containing the virus. I am sure that the public are overwhelmingly grateful. Why undo the good work by going ahead with a GE that can easily be postponed?
GEs require walkabouts, rallies, and public interaction. These activities are clearly not compatible with social distancing. Even Tokyo has postponed the Olympics by an entire year! What is the point of closing borders if we are still going to run a GE?
Mr Teo has said that suggestions to postpone the GE are “misleading and unhelpful”. Why?
People are understandably nervous in these perilous times. Financial markets have plummeted, and the entire world is shutting down. No one will fault the government for defying the constitution at this time. Besides, it is not as if Singapore has never amended its constitution.
Since the constitution’s inception on 9 August 1965 , 46 amendments (according to Wikipedia) have been made to it.
- 1965. The Constitution was made amendable by a simple majority of all the elected MPs in Parliament.
- 1970. To safeguard the rights of racial and religious minorities in Singapore, the Presidential Council was established. Renamed the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1973, its main function is to scrutinize most of the bills passed by Parliament to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.
- 1979. The proportion of elected MPs required to amend the Constitution was returned to at least two-thirds voting during the Second and Third Readings of a constitutional amendment bill.
- 1984. NCMPs were introduced.
- 1988. GRCs were introduced. These are electoral divisions or constituencies in Singapore, the MPs of which are voted into Parliament as a group. At least one member of each GRC must be a member of a minority community.
- 1990. NMPs were introduced to bring more independent voices into Parliament. This is where Dr Tan Cheng Bock famously stood up and defied the PAP party whip to vote against the amendment because he believed that MPs must be elected and be held accountable by voters.
- 1991. The Constitution was amended to provide for a popularly elected President.
- 1994. The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore Tribunal was established to provide a mechanism for the President, acting on Cabinet’s advice, to refer to the Tribunal for its opinion on any question as to the effect of any provision of the Constitution which has arisen or appears likely to arise.
And who can forget the controversial amendment to Singapore’s constitution in 2017 which paved the way for a Presidential Election that is based on race.
Due to the amendments that were rammed through the Parliament with PAP’s overwhelming majority, Dr Tan Cheng Bock – who lost to PAP preferred candidate Dr Tony Tan by just a mere 0.34 per cent – was booted out from the competition as he is a Chinese.
Candidates who are Malay were also disqualified as they failed to meet the increased criteria for private candidates, leaving PAP’s preferred candidate who is also an MP who just stepped down from her ward – Mdm Halimah Yacob – to be “elected” as the new Singapore President uncontested.
Looking at the above, it is eminently clear that government can amend the constitution should it need to. Why not do it now?