Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reply in Parliament on calling a by-election in Hougang SMC

9 March 2012

Mr Christopher de Souza asked the Prime Minister if he is considering calling a by-election in Hougang SMC, and if so, when.

Mr Speaker: Before I call on the Prime Minister to give his reply, I wish to inform hon. Members that there is currently a suit pending in the High Court on the matter of the by-election in the Hougang Single Member Constituency. The suit seeks various declarations as to the extent of the Prime Minister’s discretion to decide on the said by-election.

I have allowed the Question filed by the hon. Member Mr Christopher de Souza to stand on today’s Order Paper because I am satisfied that it does not require an answer that ventures into legal issues raised by the court application nor does it impinge on the mutual respect and forbearance maintained between this House and the Judiciary.

I will, however, disallow any statement or supplementary question that will have the potential to concern matters that either impinge on the principle of mutual respect and forbearance mentioned or are sub judice and, following Standing Order 21(1)(h), will be ruled out of order.

The Prime Minister (Mr Lee Hsien Loong): Mr Speaker, Sir, the Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) seat is vacant after the Workers’ Party expelled Mr Yaw Shin Leong, following several weeks of media reports on Mr Yaw’s personal indiscretions. I intend to call a by-election in Hougang to fill this vacancy. However, I have not yet decided on the timing of the by-election. In deciding on the timing, I will take into account all relevant factors including the well-being of Hougang residents, issues on the national agenda, as well as the international backdrop which affects our prosperity and security.

As for the legal question of whether and when I must call a by-election, an application has been filed in court concerning this. So, the matter is now sub judice, that is, under the consideration of the court. While MPs enjoy parliamentary immunity in this House, as Mr Speaker has just reminded us, our parliamentary convention is that we do not talk about matters which are sub judice, for good reason.

I can, however, remind Members that Parliament debated this issue extensively in August 2008 when two NMPs moved a motion, proposing to require the Prime Minister to call a by-election within three months of a seat falling vacant, amongst other things. I spoke in that debate and stated the Government’s position fully, after taking the advice of the Attorney-General. And before answering today’s question, I consulted the present Attorney-General again to confirm his advice.

Let me summarise what I said in 2008 about the constitutional position. Article 49 of the Constitution states that when a seat falls vacant, it shall be filled by election. In an SMC, a seat falls vacant when the MP vacates his office, for example, when he is expelled from his political party, resigns from his seat or passes away. The timing of the by-election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed time frame. This absence of any stipulated time frame is the result of a deliberate decision by Parliament to confer on the Prime Minister the discretion to decide when to fill a Parliament vacancy.

Then Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew explained this when he moved the constitutional amendment in December 1965. In other words, immediately after Singapore became independent. I quote from his speech then:“This amendment revokes the clause which was introduced into the State Constitution of Singapore when it entered Malaysia. Members in this House will know that there was no such injunction of holding a by-election within three months in our previous Constitution. We resisted this particular condition being imposed upon the State Constitution at the time we entered Malaysia. But our representations were not accepted because Malaysia insisted on uniformity of our laws with the other States in the Federation, and with the Federal Constitution itself. Since we are no longer part of the Federal whole, for reasons which we find valid and valuable as a result of our own experience of elections and of government in Singapore, we have decided that this limitation should no longer apply.”

The Constitution, therefore, reflects a political philosophy that emphasises stable government and the view that in elections, voters are primarily choosing between political parties to be given the mandate to govern the country, rather than between individual candidates to become MPs. We have kept the constitutional provision because the considerations for enacting it in 1965 remain relevant today.

Mr Speaker: Mr Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied): Supplementary question, Sir. I am pleased to note that the Prime Minister has said that he has decided to call a by-election. That settles all the hypothetical speculation outside the House. He said that he would consider all factors before deciding when a by-election should be called. I would like to ask whether or not, after considering all the factors, would he be able to indicate a period in which a by-election would be called.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong: Certainly, Mr Speaker, I will do so as soon as I have finished considering all the factors.

Mr Speaker: Mr Low.

Mr Low Thia Khiang: Would the Prime Minister be able to indicate how soon and how much time he would need to consider all the factors and settle his urgent agenda?

Mr Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Speaker, Sir, I have said what I intend to say. And I shall announce when I have decided to call a by-election as soon as I have decided to do so.

Mr Speaker: Ms Sylvia Lim.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied): Mr Speaker, Sir, two supplementary questions for the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister not agree that with the Hougang SMC being vacant, there is actually an under-representation of the Hougang voters in this House? And second clarification is, he mentioned that there would be factors that he would consider in deciding when to call the by-election. In this particular instance, can he specify what are the matters which would delay calling the Hougang by-election?

Mr Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Speaker, on the first question of whether there is an under-representation of the interest of the voters of Hougang as a result of this, I do not know that. If that is an issue, I would have thought it is something which the Workers’ Party would have considered before deciding to expel Mr Yaw Shin Leong. Because the Constitution is clear. The rules are clear. How by-elections are called or not called is also completely clear. We debated this in the House. If we are in this situation today, it is because the Workers’ Party has caused this situation to happen, knowing the consequences. As for the second question, I have already answered Mr Low three times, and I think my answer stands.