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.
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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.
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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.