Firstly, let’s get the statutes out of the way: The constitution is silent on whether or not a By-Election must be held if a seat in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) is vacated.
39A that discusses GRCs does not say anything about this, it merely provides for the existence of a GRC.
49 does not say anything about this, merely saying that if a seat is vacated, an election must be called. But it does not provide for what to do with a vacated seat within a GRC.
It matters because Constitution supercedes all other statutes, no matter what they say. And if S.49 of the Constituion requires a vacated seat to be filled, we have to pay attention.
So if our Constitution is silent, we must then turn to other sources.
Following the sudden death of Dr. Ong Chit Chung (former MP for Jurong GRC) on the 14th of July 2008, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Thio Li-ann moved a motion in Parliament specifically to combat the scenario of a vacated seat in a GRC. She asked:
“That this House affirms the importance of representative democracy and calls on the Government to fine-tune the electoral system by introducing amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act such that-
(a) a writ for by-election shall be issued in the event;
(i) a Member of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) belonging to a minority community within the terms of section 8A(1) of the Act vacates his or her seat for any reason;
(ii) half or more of the Members elected on a group basis in relation to a GRC vacate their seats for any reason; or
(iii) a Member of a single member constituency vacates his or her seat for any reason; and
(b) all by-elections shall be called within three months from the date of vacancy unless the parliamentary term is due to expire within six months from the date of vacancy.”
The Prime Minister said no. And this was his reason: Singapore’s system of election focuses on political parties rather than on individual candidates. Candidates represent their respective political parties, and the party that attains the highest number of elected candidates forms the government.
The governing party then receives its mandate through its candidates. For this reason, the Prime Minister retains “full discretion as to when and whether to call a by-election as the vacancy does not affect the mandate of the government”.
Ok, that is a mouthful, I’ll shorten it for you: A government had already been formed, there is no practical need to fill that one vacancy. The Government of the day will decide on whether or not an election should be called.
That had been the precedence since 2008 and if it should ever be reviewed in Court, this will continue to form the precedent.
There is one other reason why a GRC should not be forced into a by-election: that one member cannot hold the rest of the GRC hostage. If ever a Member goes berserk, he/she has a very effective weapon – to threaten the others with a dissolution of the entire GRC. The country as a whole would then suffer because quite likely there is a Minister seated within a GRC.
What if the GRC had a Prime Minister? Can then a backbencher MP threaten the Prime Minister with dissolving the GRC and even causing a premature General Election (a premature…ok, nevermind…) ?
It would be quite silly if such a loophole was allowed into the GRC system. The Worker’s Party knows this very well – that’s probably why they’re keeping quiet about it. If say, Chen Show Mao was disgruntled with the party…he can easily threaten to leave…and thus risking the seats of Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang and the others.
So let’s round up the reasons:
a.) There is no practical difference one seat will make to the governance of Singapore
b.) It creates a dangerous mechanism for the entire system to fall apart
The risks are higher than the benefits and thus by-elections cannot be mandatory.