Lee Hsien Loong and the art of making the worst possible move

Between the sensational case of dozens of men charged with paying for sex with a teenage callgirl and an enquiry into train breakdowns last December — even as more breakdowns hit the front pages of newspapers, the question of a by-election in Hougang is almost forgotten.

Hougang, a single-member constituency, was declared vacant by the Speaker of Parliament on 28 February 2012, with effect from 14 February. Yaw Shin Leong, the previous member for Hougang, had been expelled by the Workers’ Party.

That issue has landed in the courts, but the intricacies of the judicial process can be hard to follow. Striking out motions, arcane rules of procedure, and highly technical arguments to come, will make the case of Vellama d/o Marie Muthu versus the Attorney General rather less than rivetting. But the outcome will have a lasting importance.

It is unlikely that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong anticipated this turn of events when he first parried calls for an early by-election, using the excuse of there being other matters of national importance. He insisted from the start that the timing of a by-election was entirely his to make.

Even after Vellana’s court challenge had been filed, Lee stood his ground, as he told parliament on 9 March 2012:

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.

Hansard, 9 March 2012

He was reiterating a position he took on 27 August 2008, when, opposing a motion filed by then-Nominated Members of Parliament Loo Choon Yong and Thio Li-Ann, he said:

But 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.

— Hansard, 27 August 2008

Lee can perhaps be forgiven in not expecting a court challenge. In 2008, the debate arose upon the death of Ong Chit Chung, a People’s Action Party (PAP) member for Jurong Group Representation Constituency, but in the end, Loo and Thio’s motion was defeated. No by-election was ever held to fill the vacancy. More pertinently, Lee’s stand was not tested in the courts.

There is a difference this time — Hougang is a single-member seat, and the constitution is clear that there should be a by-election. The issue is whether the constitution allows the prime minister unfettered discretion as to its timing. In a comment on this blog by a certain Y H Cheong on 18 February 2012, it was pointed out that Section 52 of the Interpretation Act would govern the Prime Minister’s responsibility to call a by-election. This section says:

Provision when no time prescribed

52.  Where no time is prescribed or allowed within which anything shall be done, that thing shall be done with all convenient speed and as often as the prescribed occasion arises.
Unsurprisingly, Vellama’s lawyer is M Ravi, who has a penchant for launching constitutional challenges, over the death penalty, Section 377A of the Penal Code (which criminalises homosexuality in men) and now over by-elections. Each one is a foray into unexplored territory, each one tests the ingenuity of our courts in writing decisions that stay on the “friendly” side of the government. How long the government’s winning streak can last will be interesting to watch.
* * * * *
The puzzle that leaves many people I have spoken to scratching their heads is why Lee chose to paint himself into a corner. Why didn’t he just call a by-election right after the budget debate? Almost everyone I have put the question to believes that Hougang is for the Workers’ Party to lose. The PAP’s chances remain slim. Delaying a by-election is not going to make much difference.
This means that whichever way things finally turn out, it is hard to see him coming out looking any better than if he had done the right thing at the very outset. He is going to look damaged, one way or another.
The most serious blow would be if the court ruled against the Attorney-General, effectively striking down Lee’s interpretation of his powers. He would be compelled to set a date for a poll, but more importantly his authority would be in shreds.
He might think that if the court ruled in his favour, he would stand taller. But such a court ruling that effectively decouples Singapore from the convention in democratic countries, will only damage the credibility of our courts. It is going to be hard for anyone to believe that the court arrived at its decision without looking over its shoulder. Lee will be accused of destroying the independence of the judiciary.
One possibility would be for Lee to call an election while the matter was still before the courts. This might suit him best, for the court might quickly then declare the matter to be overtaken by events and drop the case (heaving a huge sigh of relief) — thus arriving at no determination of the merits of Vellama’s challenge. But even then, somebody is going to say Lee was doing so only because he feared losing his case.
But what if, whenever the by-election is called, the PAP actually wins back the seat? Wouldn’t Lee acquire some glory on his shoulders? Some, I would say, but the victory may still look tainted. Accusers will be out in force saying the PAP didn’t play fair, and point to various “bribe” schemes (which these accusers are sure to find) to win Hougang voters over while Lee played for time.
None of these outcomes would have been better than looking statesman-like and setting a by-election date at the start. It’s all part of a pattern that I have noticed before. Lee Hsien Loong is politically gauche. He does not know how to catch the wind; he flubs his opportunities; and he is driven by fear, not inspiration. Here he is at it again, making the worst of many possible moves over what should have been a simple uncontentious matter of calling a by-election.
* * * * *
So what if the Workers’ Party recaptures Hougang in a by-election? If that is what the public expects to happen, how is the PAP going to suffer for it? This question bugged me; the smallness of the cost to the PAP makes it hard to explain Lee’s reluctance to set an early date.
Is today’s feet of clay simply because he felt he couldn’t repudiate the words he had used in 2008?  I pondered this possibility — part of the rubric of a man driven by fear of being accused of inconsistency — but naturally I could reach no definitive conclusion. However, along the way, a thought occurred to me as to why Lee might be so adamant that by-elections should not be automatic.
Perhaps, it is not is fear of the Workers’ Party. Perhaps it is his fear of challengers from within his own party.
On 6 July 1999, after PAP member of parliament for Jalan Besar GRC Choo Wee Khiang vacated his seat on account of a criminal conviction, the government had also resisted calls to hold a by-election. Then-Leader of the House Wong Kan Seng argued the government’s case why losing one of a team of GRC members of parliament should not trigger a by-election:
The legislative intent then was not to allow any particular MP so elected as part of a group of MPs for the GRC to hold the rest to ransom through resignation or otherwise. The thinking then was that all the other MPs should not be forced to vacate their seats on account of one MP vacating his seat for whatever reason – death, resignation or whatever.
— Hansard, 6 July 1999
The word that got me thinking was “ransom”. If the precedent was set that by-elections, at least for single-member constituencies, should be called without delay, then a disgruntled PAP member might choose to resign his seat to force a popular vote, albeit in a localised area. Lee’s internal challengers might use this opening and appeal to voters for support, rather than work entirely within the party organisation. Not only would it give ambitious rivals within his own party a chance to overtake him in popularity stakes, it would also destroy the myth that Lee was in control. Given the way Lee has been traumatised by his election experiences, his self-confidence when it comes to polls is not exactly high. Such a prospect of an internal challenge to his leadership being forced into the open might blanche his complexion to a ghostly white.

26 Responses to “Lee Hsien Loong and the art of making the worst possible move”

  1. 1 Nice 21 April 2012 at 20:39

    Maybe you should post this question on his facebook.

  2. 2 fyi 22 April 2012 at 01:26

    The relationship between Interpretation Act and Constitution remains unconclusive given the hierarchy of laws. It is unclear whether the IA applies (and the effect of its application) on the Constitution, and this is even if it purports to do so, given the Constitution is the supreme piece of legislation in Singapore

  3. 3 Lye Khuen Way 22 April 2012 at 06:46

    I second your view that the PM dilly-dally over a by-election is due to some in-security complex. His fear, which he need to clarify with his father, is that the GRC arrangement has given any of his co partners in his GRC a chance to hold him to ramson, if it a by-election is automatic.!

  4. 4 Lynn 22 April 2012 at 09:51

    It is unlikely that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong anticipated this turn of events when he first parried calls for an early by-election, using the excuse of there being other matters of national importance. He insisted from the start that the timing of a by-election was entirely his to make.

    Maybe his so-called matters of national importance are facebooking & twitting. He had the time to launch his official facebook and twitter, but no time to call a by-election.

    Which one is more important, facebook or by-election? This only shows how “wayang” and hypocrite a person he – a spoilt narrow-minded small-person (xiao-ren). Is this the kind of leader Sinkies want or support?

  5. 5 ;ABC 22 April 2012 at 11:57

    To fyi.For your information (pun intended) the Interpretation Act was passed in the same session of Parliement as the amendment to the Constitution which deleted the requirement of holding a bye~election withinf 3 months of a seat falling vacant. and specifically applies to the interpretation of the Constitution.(See Article 2(9). Your assertion that is clearly uninformed.

  6. 6 Alan Wong 22 April 2012 at 12:48

    Remember they have always argued that the minority’s interests are important in a multi-racial democracy hence they invented the GRC constituency.

    But now his behavior is completely opposite, that is he couldn’t even be bothered about the urgency to protect the interests of the Hougang constituents, minority or otherwise.

    So what can we conclude about his father’s boasting about protecting the interests of the minorities in a GRC. That it was a lie, afterall ?

  7. 7 Anonymous 22 April 2012 at 15:47

    Re your last para, by-elections are not to be called in respect of a single member of a GRC so this can ONLY apply to SMCs… If a PAP SMC MP were to resign to force a popular vote, I think the PAP leadership would only be too happy as they can then substitute him(her) with a loyalist.

  8. 8 AYewTree 22 April 2012 at 16:20

    In retrospect, LKY’s utterances throughout his political life are half-truths or ‘situational truths’ that apply only because it was convenient for his political purpose at various point in time. He has demonstrated on countless occasions that he is perfectly capable of removing the bridge after he is across, never mind if many who have counted on his words and believed in him because of his words would be left abandoned high and dry sometimes in tragic circumstances.

    I recall just no too long ago, he had no remorse and even defended his actions of putting away people who challenged him for decades using the ISA by saying he had done it for ‘honorable’ reasons. To paraphrase a statement about WW2 US General Patton (‘old blood and gut’), it is his honour and at the expense of your complete loss of freedom behind bars for years which became decades for some victims of his abuse of the law.

    I would describe him as someone who often uses the truth to lie for him.

  9. 10 John Tan 23 April 2012 at 01:03

    I would say that LHL is dragging his feet to signal primarily to the workers party and possibly to any future detractors within the PAP that he alone sets the electoral agenda. The PAP is generally apprehensive about elections because it’s the only time when political rallies are allowed and the opposition movement is galvanized. There is also the fear that by-elections can used as unofficial referenda on government policies. Case in point is when five pro-democracy legislators in hong kong resigned and billed the by-elections as a referendum on political reforms. Overall, it’s a calculated risk on LHL’s part but as Alex says he can’t really win or look good regardless of the outcome so my money is on him signalling to both the opposition and to future challengers from his own party to think twice about using a by-election for any political purpose. Part of this assumption is that the court will rule in his favour. Therefore it’s unlikely that he’ll declare a by-election before the court rules. I would love to be proven wrong!

    • 11 ALL 9 May 2012 at 16:42

      John, the nomination day is now set on the same day as the court hearing. So you are proven wrong now.

  10. 12 Crap 23 April 2012 at 11:54

    1) No judge would dare rule against LHL after what happened to Francis Seow and Michael Kh**. CJ is carefully selected for a reason.

    2) During GE 2011, there were indications that there is a lot of infightings within PAP. Thus, it is not surprising that LHL doesn’t want automatic by-election, especially after his father passes away.

    • 13 yawningbread 23 April 2012 at 13:19

      More to the point, the example of Tan Cheng Bock almost defeating LHL’s preferred candidate for the presidency would have rung alarm bells. A revolt from within the PAP is a definite possibility — the PAP’s history is full of examples of dissention and revolt from Lim Chin Siong to Toh Chin Chye — and what Tan Cheng Bock showed is that dissenters can quite successfully appeal for popular support. Now we have Lim Chong Yah saying soemthing contrarian and getting enough public notice to put the government on the defensive.

  11. 14 leewsdaniel 23 April 2012 at 12:38

    By holding a by-election soon, PAP stands to lose that election.

    In a ‘damn if you do, damn if you don’t’ viewpoint, why not hold off the by-election till the 2016 General Election and absorb / breakup Hougang SMC? In either situations of a by-election or general election of 2016, the PAP reputation is still going to be trashed anyhow.

  12. 15 leewsdaniel 23 April 2012 at 12:40

    Why not just delay till General election in 2016 and breakup Hougang? The PAP brand still gets trashed regardless of losing the Hougang by-election or waiting out till 2016..

  13. 16 Roland Soh 23 April 2012 at 13:38

    This is what you get when we get a gahment called ” the Father, Son and Holy Gohst”

  14. 17 Rajiv Chaudhry 23 April 2012 at 14:29

    More than likely, the real reason is that LHL is afraid to step out of his father’s shadow, for more reasons than one. For a start, he is not a lawyer. Secondly, while his father is still around (from all accounts, he is still very spritely), he doesn’t want to be accused of going against precedents (there are at least three previous cases where by-elections were not held).

    The original reason for not holding BEs was probably to prevent floor-crossings, as YB has surmised.

    The root cause of LHL’s poor performance is that he is yet to demonstrate that he is his own man. In all the years he has been in power, he has not shown any original thinking, apart from the (rather dubious) distinction of setting up the casinos. It has just been more and more of the same, policies that have long ceased to work. Unless he shows a willingness to adapt the policies that worked in the first 25 years of independence in bold and new ways, there is little hope.

  15. 18 Robert L 23 April 2012 at 18:48

    I have a question which might provide an answer to your deliberations.

    Does anybody know whether HDB blocks under Hougang Constituency have been upgraded under the Main Upgrading Programme?

    If the answer is “No”, then it means that Hougang Constituency is not only “served last” as we had been told, but has been Denied altogether, because it was announced last week that the HDB has ended the MUP.

    If that were the case, then you could see that the PM has already won a major victory in ending the MUP while Hougang Constituency is unrepresented.

  16. 19 Robox 24 April 2012 at 00:14

    I don’t think that the PAP is stalling the BE in Hougang because it fears losing the seat; more likely than not, they have resolved that Hougang is an uphill battle for their party as it has been for two decades or so.

    I do however believe that the PAP fears – yes, I agree that it is a fear-driven consideration – having to witness, for the third time in the space of a year or so, what they have termed ‘divisions’ within the electorate. If you ask me, those ‘divisions’ were even more stark at the PE than it was in the GE because the PE also saw a split in the PAP’s vote base.

  17. 20 Rabbit 24 April 2012 at 01:56

    @ Rajiv Chaudhry

    Do you know why change is so difficult for LHL? Because, like infant, the old pillow that he is so used to, smell homely and has brought so much fond memories and protections. He used it to muffle his critics, whack those who go against him, hug it like a doll, drool and slept over it for decades. The ministers were forced to lie that his dirt coated pillow smells better in order to get paid handsomely. Ya, he is not willing to bend or let opposition members snatch it away from him, not that his filth is worth keeping. They are his,.his Precious.ssssssss. So Gollum.

  18. 21 The 24 April 2012 at 09:21

    Word is that there will not just be the Hougang by-election. They are considering having by-elections in several consituencies and replacing some of their worn-out MPs.

  19. 22 octopi 24 April 2012 at 15:07

    Vellama d/o Marie Muthu: the Rosa Parks of Singapore!

  20. 23 Joan Squib 24 April 2012 at 16:28

    The $64,000 question is what happens when the youngster must rule alone?

    The ruling party’s hierarchy is made up of those who owe their wealth and privilege to the old man.

    When the old man leaves the scene, the old guard may feel their privileges are under threat.

    This means that the youngster may be constrained, if not controlled, by his father’s cronies.

    If the youngster shows signs of independence, or if the ruling party starts to disintegrate, the old guard may feel it necessary to re-impose control using every country’s ultimate authority: the army.

    • 24 Poker Player 26 April 2012 at 16:33

      “the old guard may feel it necessary to re-impose control using every country’s ultimate authority: the army.”

      While this was possible in the 80’s and earlier, I doubt it today. Could end up disintegrating the Army instead.

  21. 25 kilroy 25 April 2012 at 16:38

    To The 09:21

    I find that highly unlikely…they will be hard put to find candidates!

  22. 26 Anonymous 27 April 2012 at 01:25

    I think there is another possibility – that Lee is thinking of redrawing boundaries again, and folding Hougang into a GRC.

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