When the expulsion of Yaw Shin Leong in mid-February 2012 triggered Speaker Michael Palmer to declare the Hougang Single Member Constituency seat vacant, there was much hemming and hawing as to what should be done. Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu, represented by human rights lawyer M Ravi, brought the by-election issue up in court.
Justice Philip Pillai concluded on Aug 1, 2012, that “there is no requirement” in Singapore’s constitution to call elections to fill elected Member of Parliament (MP) vacancies, and therefore no prescribed time such elections must be called. Pillai explained that the term "election" in Article 49 (1) in Part VI of Singapore's constitution carries two possible interpretations:
- One, it could refer to an event, making the holding of a by-election mandatory.
- Two, it could refer to the process of election, indicating only that the way in which the process of filling a vacated seat in parliament is by election.
Ergo, Pillai ruled that the Parliamentary Elections Act "merely provides the mechanism to hold such an election (the by-election) should the Prime Minister decide to call one", instead of determining whether or not one should be held, much less when.
In simple Singlish: law say by-election must hor, but didn't say when, leh.
Constitutional law professor Thio Li-ann and adjunct law professor Kevin Tan, both of whom lecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS), as well as assistant professor in constitutional law at Singapore Management University (SMU) Jack Lee, spoke in agreement with Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan, assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law who argued in February 2012 that although the Constitution did not impose a timeframe within which a by-election had to be held, it was not the intent that this should allow elections to be postponed indefinitely. The fact that the Constitution is silent on exactly when by-elections should be called should not be taken as permission not to call them at all. "In short," he wrote, "the 'default' position should be that a by-election should be automatic, although there is no hard and fast rule on the timing."
Jack Lee and Thio Li-ann also pointed out that the issue of by-elections was previously debated in Parliament in August 2008, where Thio herself, in her capacity as an NMP alongside corporate lawyer and then-fellow NMP Siew Kum Hong, argued that by-elections should be called within three months of vacancy of the parliamentary seat.
Former attorney-general Walter Woon bypassed the legal mumbo-jumbo altogether and cut to the chase: he believed the ruling party government's intention was to avoid being held to a timeline to call for a by-election. "Will the voters feel that they have not been treated fairly if no by-election is called? That is the question," he added.
To cut a long story short, a by-election was held, with Nomination Day on 16 May 2012 and Polling on 26 May 2012. Png Eng Huat won with 62.1% of the vote. Huat, ah!
To complicate Justice Pillai's position on the law, there may be a new factor in the "respectable" period of mourning thrown in for good measure. But whatever happens to Tanjong Pagar, Walter Woon's caveat looms large, "Will the voters feel that they have not been treated fairly if no by-election is called?"