SM Teo Chee Hean's reply in Parliament on the impact of COVID-19 on the General Election

SM Teo Chee Hean | 25 March 2020

Transcript of Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean's reply in Parliament on the impact of COVID-19 on the General Election on 25 March 2020.

Mr Christopher de Souza: It looks to be obvious - the COVID-19 outbreak will be long-drawn. Singapore’s next general election must be held by April 2021. However, Dr Tan Cheng Bock has suggested that the President can exercise her “soft power” and form a “caretaker government” with some of the current MPs. Then, Dr Tan says, call fresh elections “when COVID-19 is no longer a crisis.” In my view, having a caretaker government is not an answer to the long-drawn crisis. So, my question is, from the standpoint of the Constitution, what is the government’s position on such a caretaker proposal?

I have a second question: Should the GE be held while COVID-19 is still in Singapore, what measures can be put in place to ensure the safety of Singaporeans during the election?

SM Teo: Mr Speaker Sir, we have just heard from Minister Gan Kim Yong and Minister Lawrence Wong on what the situation is. It is a global pandemic, and an unprecedented global crisis. It is a difficult time for everyone. In Europe and the US, the virus still spreading at an exponential rate.

We have twin crises: health and economic. A global recession is imminent. Financial markets are in their worst turmoil since 2008. Hence, on 14 March, PM Lee warned that we face a grave and extended challenge. The pandemic “is likely to last at least this year, and quite possibly longer”. Even after we deal with this pandemic, the economic repercussion will last longer, with significant and longstanding impact on both lives and livelihoods.

In Singapore, the Government took early and decisive action to protect our people. We have managed the COVID-19 situation for now, with tremendous effort and cooperation from everyone. But the situation remains very serious, and continues to develop quickly. We are starting to see another wave of imported cases, mainly from returning Singaporeans. The Multi-Ministry Task Force has introduced measures to deal with this. But the situation may get worse, before it eventually gets better. Our focus now, of this Government, is on being prepared for the long haul, through the end of this year and beyond, and focus on solving this problem with Singaporeans and for Singapore.

Mr Speaker, the term of the 13th Parliament will end on 14 January 2021. An election must be held within 3 months of that, which means on or before 14 April 2021. Ideally, we would like to conduct elections in normal conditions. The present situation is not ideal for holding an election, but that does not mean it makes an election impossible.

As the Prime Minister said, no decision has been taken yet on the timing of a General Election (GE). In making such a decision, the overriding concern is what is best for Singapore, and for Singaporeans.

Some have suggested only holding elections when we see the “tail-end of the virus spread”.

This is indeed the dilemma that we face. The Prime Minister has laid out the choices clearly. We can hope and pray that things stabilise. But we do not know when the COVID-19 situation will stabilise - whether it will do so within the next year, by January, or by April 2021. What we do know is an election must take place by 14 April 2021. The longer we wait, the more unpredictable, difficult and dangerous it could be. Compounding this will be the uncertainty that comes with when the election will be held as we go through the year trying to face this crisis together.

Alternatively, the country can go for early elections - settle who will lead the country through this major crisis; give the new Government a clear and fresh mandate, a full term ahead, and legitimacy to take major decisions, tough decisions, in the interest of Singaporeans.

Today, more than ever, we need a government that the people has expressed confidence in, to take us through this unprecedented health crisis, stabilise the economy, and safeguard our people’s lives and livelihoods.

Mr Speaker Sir, when you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is, and that he will not be changed halfway. You want to make sure that he is there – together with you, working with you, guiding you through the storm.

It is not a good idea to place all our hope in the situation improving before April 2021, and add the uncertainty of when an election will be held to the uncertainties that are already ahead of us. However, we should not close off any options. We have been upfront and open with Singaporeans about the challenges we face, the dilemmas, considerations, and different possibilities, so that Singaporeans will understand why there might be a need to go ahead.

However, some suggestions about this issue have been misleading and unhelpful. For example, the suggestion to delay the elections beyond the required time-frame of April 2021 until the crisis is over, and to have the President form a “caretaker Government consisting of some of the current MPs”.

Mr Speaker Sir, I have sought the advice of the Attorney General’s Chambers on whether this can be done. The advice of the AGC is that to delay an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional. The only circumstances when the election can be put off beyond the required date is when a State of Emergency is declared.

Mr Speaker Sir, although Singapore has weathered many crises since our independence, we have never extended a Government’s term beyond the Constitutional limit. And Singapore is one of the only newly independent Commonwealth countries to regularly hold elections, and has never declared a State of Emergency since 1965. Declaring an Emergency and putting off elections indefinitely is not a precedent we should set lightly.

The President’s power to declare an Emergency can only be exercised on the advice of Cabinet. Even if the President proclaims an Emergency, given that the incumbent Cabinet remains in office during an Emergency, there is no legal basis or practical need for the President to form a new Government.

Mr Speaker Sir, It is not helpful to mislead people into thinking that such an option exists – to put off elections indefinitely, and for the President to form a new government – when this goes against the Constitution.

Even if there is a caretaker Government under a State of Emergency, it would by definition be a caretaker. It would be hobbled by the fact that it lacks the explicit mandate of voters, and would therefore not be in a position to take major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans. This is the reason why constitutional convention requires that a caretaker government not make any far-reaching or long-term measure.

This is the fundamental problem. Just when we need a government with a clear mandate to pull out all the stops in a crisis to implement strong mitigation measures; to mobilise our resources and reserves to implement strong economic stabilisation measures to save jobs and livelihoods; and to steer the country through the COVID-19 crisis – a caretaker government would not have a mandate to do so. So how can this be in the best interests of the country, and our people?

Sir, to suggest this shows a disregard for, or 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.

This discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on our elections is an important one. It goes to a matter of principle. This government is ever mindful that what is at stake are jobs, businesses and lives. Our decision must be based on what is in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we can move forward together.

On Mr de Souza’s second question – he asked about holding elections safely amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.

The safety of all Singaporeans is of utmost importance. To combat the virus spread, we have implemented comprehensive measures over the past few weeks at every level. You have heard Minister Gan and Minister Wong: travel restrictions, quarantines, social distancing measures, strengthening our healthcare institutions, workplace measures, protecting our students and schools, and supply of essential goods. If an election happens, it will not disrupt any of this. All these necessary measures will still be maintained.

But COVID-19 has created a new normal. Whether elections are held early or later, we will still have to work on the basis that the next elections will necessarily be different from past elections.

This means that the necessary extra safeguards and precautions must and will be taken – whether the elections are held early or held later – at every step: nominations, campaigning, and voting. We will make all the necessary arrangements to ensure that parties can campaign effectively; and people can vote safely.

For example, for campaigning, we can have live streaming of speeches on the internet, and adequate TV time for candidates. For voting, we already have special express lanes for seniors and those who need them. We can also have social distancing while queuing, proper hand hygiene for voting paraphernalia, and hand sanitisers for voters.

We will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections even during this ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

All these measures and precautions are required to protect Singaporeans. Whatever measures taken will affect all political parties equally.

As the Prime Minister said, no decision has been taken yet on the timing of the GE, but we have to plan on taking such additional measures to safeguard the health of Singaporeans. And I stress that these precautions and measures will be needed, whether the election is held early, or later. Thank you Mr Speaker.