Bye bye by-elections

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In a motion filed by Thio Li-Ann and Dr Loo Choon Yong, the Government was called upon to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act to mandate by-elections under certain circumstances. In other words, this was a call for a reform of the procedure through which by-election are called for.

Under the status quo, a by-election is required only when all the members of its GRC vacate their posts, either because they resign, or are incapacitated due to death, disease or some scandal. On top of this, there is no deadline for when the by-election with the decision being left entirely up to the PM. (sounds quite open to abuse right?)

The proposed changes were to mandate a by-election should the minority member, or half or more members of a GRC slate vacate their seats mid-term. This by-election would then have to be called within 3 months unless a General Election is going to take place within 6 months.

The arguments in favour of calling for this by-election can be found in NMP Siew Kum Hong's speech here. (The real thing's best) This article will instead address the justifications provided by PM Lee for not allowing the amendment to pass.

Despite what I believe to be extremely compelling reasons for a by-election, this motion was voted 62 against and 5 in favour of. The reaons cited by PM Lee are as follows. (I quote these reasons from this article) I personally find these reasons rather disturbing. Here's why.

Reason No.1:
"After Singapore became independent in 1965, the Government opted for an electoral system focused on political parties, not individual candidates."
Indeed, an electoral system focused on political parties instead of individual candidates allows the government to function most effectively at the highest decision making level in Parliament. This is so that individual politicians who have a similar stance can congregate together, affording them various benefits.

For instance, they would have greater efficiency in propagating their message together as a party stance, and also voting together to achieve greater bargaining power.

However, it must be understood that ultimately each candidate within the party matters since the number of votes a party has in Parliament is determined by the number of MPs it actually has. Should one of the party's MP vacate his seat, we would be left with the situation whereby this party is left with one less vote. Maybe this
isn't too significant for the PAP, but it certainly is for the Opposition, and certainly for the future where hopefully the PAP doesn't have such a monopoly on power and where every vote actually matters.

Regardless of this, it remains necessary for individuals to have their own representatives in Parliament. While MPs of the same party would almost certainly follow the party line on major issues, maybe even be subject to the party whip, they are certainly not entirely identitical to other MPs. In fact, MPs within the same party could have conflicting views on various issues, the lawyer-MPs (from PAP) for instance recently voiced their displeasure over the liberalisation of the legal scene in Singapore. (while these differences in the status quo are not too significant, the ideal future does/should hold such possibilities) The loss of such an MP to represent the people on these matters would certainly be unfair for the people. Not only is it unfair, it is also undemocratic as well.

Reason No.2:
"MPs here cannot switch parties and still keep their seats. Neither can they resign to force by-elections at will, as their counterparts in Britain, India and Malaysia do.

That system has served Singapore well by ensuring stability, and a strong, effective Government, as it gives whichever party wins a timeframe of five years in which to deliver, Mr Lee said."

On switching parties and keeping their seats - Sure, let's not allow MPs to party hop and still keep their seats without a by-election. But I don't see what is wrong with allowing the MP who chooses to party hop to stand for elections again. It'll be free and fair, and the PAP will have 3 months to pick a candidate to run for it.

On top of that, it makes no sense to deny everyone from the outset from having their vacant MP seat filled just because such a policy is open to abuse. If anything, the rules could be tweaked such that an MP who vacates his seat is not allowed to run for by-election again. (Though I honestly wonder why a PAP MP would want to sever his ties with PAP midterm and risk losing his cushy job with such a nice pay, when he could simply wait for the next General Elections)

On abusing the system by resigning and forcing by-elections at will, Britain is somehow cited as an example maybe to point out how even an enlightened democracy could falter in this aspect. However, I do not exactly recall Britain suffering from massive resignations by politicians trying to force by-elections.

There is first and foremost a need for the government to point out exactly what the implication of such abuse would be and what the degree of propensity for such abuse is. (The following statement above hardly explains the process by which a new party would come into power and undermine the previous parties policies.)

In fact, it is quite unlikely that MPs in Singapore would attempt to force by-elections by resigning just so that another party might come into power. Firstly, I don't forsee PAP MPs doing something so suicidal as to jeopardize their own futures, that is unless they want to be an opposition MP during the next General Election. (in which case their future would already be jeopardized)

Yet should we reach an enlightened state of democracy in future, there should be no problem with a by-election that allows the candidate with the most popular support to win unless the PAP is somehow afraid that they would lose the by-election. The basis for this is a democracy. As mentioned earlier, it is the people's own future to jeopardize. Should this GRC vote for an MP from the opposition that might spoil the PAP's "timeframe of five years in which to deliver, it is ultimately their choice, their vote, their resopnsibility to bear. This is also the principle on which democracy functions, putting power in the hands of people and not dictating what would be right or wrong.

Ultimately, why should an opposition party be denied from coming into power via by-elections if these are free and fair ones?

On the other hand, PM Lee's attempt to sidestep the issue of democracy by focusing instead on how Singapore would be stable and bla bla bla, is reminiscent of a dictator. It is also an insidious attempt to glorify the PAP regime and weave baseless lies about the Opposition's ability to manage the economy. (I'm not going to bring up Hitler here, but if you would like to, you could make that comparison at your own risk. The revelations you find may bring you sleepless nights)

Reason No.3:

"In this system, if a parliamentary seat falls vacant mid-term, the party steps in to take care of affected constituents."

Aww, how sweet of the PAP to offer a hand. A friend in need is a friend indeed! However, how desireable this really help is, is quite dubious. Having voted for a candidate with a different set of policies, I wouldn't quite enjoy the idea of a non-identical candidate. Yes it's anal, but it's my right. Ultimately, I'll still be one vote short in Parliament. While it's nice that such help is offered, the more lasting solution is still a by-election. Ultimately, let's not strain the party which has duties elsewhere as well, in the constituents that have "elected" them, to whose representation and welfare they have an utmost responsibility to.

Reason No.4:

"Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Madam Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC) said such a change would vest the minority member with extraordinary veto power.

I suppose that the argument here is - minority members can threaten to resign and force a by-election, giving them extraordinary veto power. Given that GRCs are voted in as teams, i.e. a PAP team or a WP team, what reason would there be for a minority member to threaten to reisgn and not adhere to the party line? Unlikely as it is under the PAP, the occurence of such a situation would mean that this minority member has turned against the PAP.

Yet, as aforementioned, the by-election would ultimately be left up to a vote, rendering the threat ineffective since the PAP team could very well just be voted into power again should the minority MP reisgn. This is thus no reason to refuse Singaporeans their right to by-elections.

The Lie

The article ends with a rather disturbing lie.

"Prof Thio stood her ground but thanked the Prime Minister for his 'serious rather than summary' response to her arguments."

Maybe PM Lee was serious. (just as how the PAP is serious about keeping this issue on their side so they can stay in power) But he certainly wasn't being specific enough, a chronic problem with the PAP. Then again, the choice to be vague is usually made in order to veil true intentions. So PM Lee was probably being very serious about being vague.


Anonymous said...

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