PM’s speech in Parliamentary Debate on by-elections held on 27 August 2008



NMP Siew Kum Hong spoke at this debate, where NMP Thio Li Ann proposed to amend the Constitution to have by-elections called 3 months after an MP vacates his seat for any reason. This is the PM’s response where he explains the law and the reason behind the law.

 In this speech, PM explains the reason behind the Constitutional law that there is no time limit for him to call a by-election.


 The issue of when to call a by-election has been discussed in this House several times over the years.  Opposition MPs have raised it, including Mr Chiam.  Each time, the Government has given a full explanation.  Nevertheless, I am grateful to Prof. Thio Li-ann for having raised it again and giving the House a chance to debate it afresh with a fresh team of MPs, and giving me a chance to explain comprehensively the Government’s position on this matter. 

     Let me first state the legal position, which is not in doubt and not in dispute.  Under the Constitution, the Government shall call a by-election when a seat falls vacant.  When does a seat fall vacant?  In a Single Member Constituency, when the MP vacates his office; for example when he dies or resigns.  In a GRC, when all the MPs in the GRC team vacate office. 

     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.  Within a GRC, under the Parliamentary Elections Act, it is explicitly stated that no by-election shall be called unless all members vacate their seats.  And if one member from a GRC dies or resigns, or even two, or three, or four members, in a GRC which still has members left, legally no question of a by-election arises at all, not even if the member is the minority member in that GRC.  And, therefore, what we have been doing – the Government’s practice in dealing with vacancies – is completely in accordance with the law. 

      I cite the law not to argue that, therefore, that is what we should do, but because the law has a reason for it, and it embodies the wisdom and experience of the way Singapore has worked and been governed over half a century.  So, therefore, changes, once we have settled the arrangements, should not be lightly made. Not never, but only very carefully and with very cautious deliberations of why it was done this way, and what has changed.

      I am here not to argue constitutional niceties with a constitutional expert like Thio Li-ann or legal refinements with so many other eminent legal minds in this House, but to set out the political realities of what works for Singapore and how Singapore has to operate in order that this Government will function well for Singaporeans. 

     We have talked a lot about representative democracy.  It is a buzzword.  It even makes its way into song choruses.  But what does it mean, and what does it mean for us?  So let me explain why our system of parliamentary elections works this way.  It works this way, not by chance, but by deliberate design, because of our experience operating this system of government, and refining and improving it, and adapting it to our circumstances over many, many years. 

     What are elections for?  As Hri Kumar pointed out, the elections are to choose democratic representatives of the people to form a government.  There are two limbs to that – to elect the democratic representatives and then to form a government.

     There are two different philosophies of elections, depending on where you put the weight on these two limbs.  The first alternative puts the emphasis on choosing candidates to become MPs as the fundamental element of the whole scheme.  In other words, the MPs are the atoms and the rest are constructs built around the MPs. Voters choose an MP as their representative in their constituency, and then MPs come together and exercise their judgement and form the government.  It is what Prof. Thio Li-ann called Edmund Burke’s model. 

     Usually, the MPs belong to political parties, and they submit to party discipline, which is from the Party Whip.  But once they have been elected into the House, that submission is voluntary.  And they can change parties without penalty – they can change sides but still keep their seats; they can cross over from one side to the other, cross back.  It happens from time to time in the British Parliament.  Winston Churchill famously did it twice.  It has happened in our Legislative Assembly too, before we joined Malaysia. 

     In this model, if the MPs collectively withdraw support from the Government and decide to regroup to form a totally new government with a totally different line-up, it is their prerogative.  They do not have to go back to the electorate; they do not have to call new general elections; they do not have to go back to voters for a fresh mandate.  So it is parliamentary representative democracy but the voter does not have the final say.  The MPs have the final say.   And because the MP is the fundamental element of the whole system, if an MP dies or resigns, one fundamental element is taken out, he has to be replaced, so a by-election has to be held promptly without delay.  Countries like Britain have adopted this model. 

    There is a second way we could realise a parliamentary democracy, a second philosophy by which we design the system.  And that is to put the emphasis on choosing political parties to form the government and to have political parties as the fundamental element in the system. 

    Parties will field candidates to contest in general elections.  They have to be high quality people – with integrity, ability, commitment, drive – all the attributes which we look for in an ideal candidate.  But the candidate is not on his own.  He carries the banner of the party.  When he files his nomination papers, he attaches a symbol – “this is the symbol under which I fight” – and the symbol appears on the ballot paper.  And he identifies himself for the party’s manifesto, the programmes and the promises that the party makes. 

     This is quite different from what happens, say, in Britain where candidates stand under their ownnames.  No party symbol appears next to the name on the ballot paper because you are electing the person, and once he is in, he exercises judgement on your behalf.  It is his responsibility to think for you, not to do for you.  Whereas in Singapore, when the MP represents a party and is elected on a party platform, once he is elected, he is morally obliged to support the party he fought under.

     You can have independent candidates, and every election we have a few, but the electorate know that they have no party to form a government or to help them look after their constituents. They think of people who show up on bicycles or wear slippers, and usually, independent candidates do very badly. 

     In this scheme, if voters in the general election support the party and vote its candidates in, and they form a majority in Parliament, then that party with a majority in Parliament forms the government.  And that party has a mandate, not only because it so happens that this specific group of MPs, at this moment, supports it, but because it stood in a general election and the voters gave it the mandate, and indirectly, through the MP, voted for this party to form the government of the country, and to govern the country until the next general elections are called.  Therefore, the emphasis in this system is on the ruling Party delivering on its programmes and promises.  Therefore, in this system, if the MP changes sides or is expelled from his party, he loses his seat because he no longer represents the party under whose banner he campaigned, under whose symbol he was voted. 

     Similarly, by the same argument, if a seat falls vacant mid-term, then the Prime Minister has full discretion as to when he wants to call the election.  The vacancy does not affect the mandate of the Government, nor its ability to deliver on its programmes or promises.  And this mandate continues until the next general election is called, when the incumbent team will render account to the electorate.  In extremis, even if the MP vacating his seat results in the government losing a majority in the House, which can happen, that still does not mean the government stops being the government.  The Government continues to govern as long as it retains the confidence of the House, as long as there is no motion of no-confidence which is passed against it and which turfs it out of office. 

     So this is the second model.  It is not Edmund Burke’s model.  Prof. Thio said that I supported Edmund Burke’s model.  But ours is different, and is based on this second model.  It is designed to do two important things.  One, encourage voters to think very carefully when they are voting during general elections, because you are not only voting for your representative in the constituency, you are voting for the government in the country.  So, please think carefully which party you want to form the government, and not just whom you want to be your MP.  Two, it is also designed to maximise the chances of a stable, effective government in between general elections.  Because with this system, with the political party given the mandate and in charge, whichever party wins he gets a clear five-year term mandate to govern and produce results.  And it has the time to re-frame the policies for the country to meet changed regional requirements, changed international circumstances, changed social and economic circumstances within the country.  It has the mandate, it has the time, it has the flexibility, it has the responsibility and it renders account at the next general election. 

     And this is what is fundamental in our system of parliamentary government and parliamentary representation, contrary to what Prof. Thio Li-ann said, or Ms Sylvia Lim or Mr Siew Kum Hong maintained. 

     We chose this model deliberately.  If you study the legislative history of how we came to have this scheme, if you study the parliamentary records, if you study the political history of Singapore, you will know why it is designed this way.  Before we entered Malaysia in 1963, there were no deadlines for by-elections to be held under our Constitution for the self-governing state of Singapore. In Malaysia, we had to amend our Constitution to introduce the deadlines because the central government said we had to follow Malaysian practice.  The rest of Malaysia has it, Singapore must have it too. 

     But, after Separation, we re-amended the Constitution to restore the status quo.  And in moving the amendment to the Constitution, the first set of amendments when we constituted our new Constitution after Independence, on 22nd December 1965, MM Lee, who was then PM, explained fully and he said:

     “Article 7 revokes a clause which was introduced into the State Constitution of Singapore when it entered Malaysia.  Members in this House will know that there was no such injunction of holding a by-election within three months in our previous Constitution.  We resisted this particular condition being imposed upon the State Constitution at the time we entered Malaysia, but our representations were not accepted because Malaysia insisted on uniformity of our laws with the other States in the Federation and with the Federal Constitution itself.  Since we are no longer a part of the Federal whole, for reasons which we find valid and valuable as a result of our own experience of elections and of government in Singapore, we have decided that this limitation should no longer apply.”

     So “reasons which we find valid and valuable”, and which I believe are still valid and valuable.  What were these reasons?  The Government in 1965 had learnt from the invaluable experience of the tumultuous years before independence, which Prof. Thio alluded to just now, ie, the instability in the Legislative Assembly during the David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock years before 1959; the tussles during the first PAP Government – first, when Mr Ong Eng Guan and two other Legislative Assemblymen crossed over and formed their own opposition party, and then 13 more Assemblymen broke off and formed Barisan Sosialis and stayed in the House, leaving the House 26 to 25, and then one PAP Minister Mr Ahmad Ibrahim died, making it 25 to 25.  So, no government majority, the House equally divided, and a hair-raising period, because every time the Barisan Sosialis moved a motion of no-confidence, there was great excitement and the Strangers’ Gallery and the Press Gallery were packed with strangers and the media.  It was a spectator blood sport.  It was not like today.

     Therefore, when Singapore became independent, MM restored the law, so that if any MP resigns or is expelled from his party, he has to recontest his seat and by-elections need not be held within any fixed time.  The result?  Less buying and intimidation of MPs to switch sides.  You cannot be bought because, if you switch sides, you are useless.  I cannot be intimidated, because there is no point your threatening me.  If you beat me up and I oblige you, I will lose my seat.  The result?  The party that wins the majority at the general elections has the mandate to govern for the full term, and MPs cannot force by-elections at random mid-term, distracting the country from other more pressing concerns.  Therefore, we have stability.  The public and the media are deprived of drama and suspense because stable government does not make for exciting news.  But Singaporeans are better off without the excitement of these heart-stopping events.  This is a system which serves Singapore well, whichever party is in government. 

     These are examples from Singapore half a century ago, but if you look around you more recently, it is not hard to find more recent examples.

     Let us take India, which recently held a crucial vote of confidence on the Congress government.  It was over a very important matter – India’s nuclear deal with the US – which was the result of very hard bargaining.  The government could not get it through, they had to have a vote of confidence in the House.  It went on for days.  Ministers at international conferences had to come back to vote and go back overseas for the conference while the rest of the world waited for them to come back and participate.  Eventually, the Congress government won the vote, which is good.  But there was a widespread perception, widely reported in the Indian and international media, that many MPs’ votes had to be bought.  How were they bought?  Two ways.  Either policy compromises in other areas, for example, naming a particular airport after an MP’s father, or outright cash payment.  Many Indian political commentators claim to have tape evidence and, if you watch TV, you will see MPs who came to the House and brought suitcases full of cash to show how they had been offered this cash in order to change sides.

     Why could this happen?  Because MPs can change sides freely and parties cannot control their MPs.  So, the elected government is unable to get its policies through.  And you have political theatre. 

     Take the current situation in Malaysia.  I am not passing any judgment on the merits of the political contenders or positions.  I am not suggesting that Singapore’s system of government and parliamentary democracy would be better for Malaysia.  They are a different society.  But look at what is happening in Malaysia.  MPs can change sides without resigning and, if they resign, they can force by-elections within three months.  That is why Permatang Pauh held a by-election yesterday, after the general election was held on 8th March this year.  That is how Mr Anwar Ibrahim is able to try to persuade MPs to cross over from the Barisan Nasional to the Pakatan Rakyat, because you can cross over without having to resign seats.  So I am not commenting on the merits of their position, but I am saying that, for Singapore, there is no doubt that our system has served us well.  It has delivered a strong effective government, one that focuses on delivering results for our people and achieving the best for our country.

     GRCs, which, according to Mr Siew Kum Hong, are the meat of the Motion, do not affect this political philosophy, ie, this emphasis on the party as the key element of our system of parliamentary democracy.  Because even if all six members of a GRC resigned – minority, non-minority, the whole lot – it is no different from six single members resigning from six SMCs.  It does not change the principle that, as long as the Government has the confidence of the Members of the House, it continues to govern.  So, too, if a minority member resigns.  The arguments have been rehearsed.  SM Goh, who was then 1DPM, had explained them back in 1988.  Other Members – Mr Hri Kumar, Mdm Halimah Yacob – have explained why it is not and was never the intention of the GRC system to give a single member in a GRC this whip hand to coerce the other Members to come around to his position.  The GRCs are meant to ensure a multi-racial Parliament.  How do they do this?  By requiring multi-racial teams of candidates in a prescribed minimum number of GRCs during the general elections.  What is this minimum number?  Currently, 14.  How many minority MPs do we have in Parliament today?   23.  So, even if, for the sake of argument, we were to lose a minority member from a GRC, the question of falling below the absolute minimum does not arise by a wide margin.  Therefore, the law says that a by-election shall not be called in a GRC unless all the members of that GRC vacate their seats.

     Vacant seats, in terms of practical problems, these are not insurmountable, whether a neighbour can look after it or whether the other members in the GRC can look after it.  I thank Mr Siew Kum Hong for his high assessment of the responsibilities and burdens of being an elected MP.  I hope this will not deter him from one day trying to be one.  But elected MPs will take this in their stride, and this is part of the arrangement which is known to the candidates and the electorate when the general election is held.  If something should happen to one of us, the rest of us, we press forward.  That is how the system works.  We are doing this now in Jurong GRC, as Mdm Halimah has explained.  In fact, quite frankly, this is another merit of the GRC system, another argument why the GRC system is a good system for Singapore.

     Within the SMC, a neighbour will take care of the ward.  We have done this before in GRCs as well as SMCs, for example, in Eunos GRC when Dr Tay Eng Soon died, and in Toa Payoh GRC when Mr Ong Teng Cheong became President.  It is the party’s duty to look after its constituents until such time as an election is called.  This is how our system works, and this is the basis on which voters elect their MPs.

        I think Singaporeans understand this.  They know that when they vote, they are not just voting for the men or women.  They are voting for the party – the logo, the symbol, the team that that MP belongs to.  And I would say that this is true not only of the PAP but of the Opposition parties too.  Because if you look at the most recent general election in 2006, voters clearly voted along party political lines.  That is why, if you look at the Opposition parties, there is a clear ranking:  Workers’ Party got about 35% of the vote wherever they stood, the SDA got about 30% of the vote wherever they stood, the SDP got about 25% of the vote wherever they stood.  Because the party symbol was what the voters were looking at.  So, even unknown faces fielded by the Workers’ Party received 35% of the vote, not because they had had full disclosure and had been fully transparent and open and be scrutinised.  But despite being totally unknown faces, they collected 35%.  Why?  Because the voters knew Mr Low Thia Khiang and they gave him some credit for his performance in Parliament and for what he and the Workers’ Party stood for.  This is how the system is meant to work.

     The PAP Government has called by-elections in the past.  The Prime Minister of the day has a discretion to decide when he wants to call or whether he wants to call, based on many factors, depending on the economic situation, or the current priorities for the country, or political considerations, eg, the need for leadership self-renewal, political succession.  In just the same way, the Prime Minister has the discretion when he wishes to call general elections, so long as he does so before five years are up.  It is different from the American system where every four years, the second Tuesday in November, elections have to be called.  But in our system, we have the discretion when to call a general election and by-elections, and not hold them on a fixed timetable or date. 

     We have called by-elections even when there had been no vacancies.  For example, in 1992, we called a by-election in Marine Parade GRC.  All the MPs in the GRC resigned and we brought in one new candidate, then Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean.  And from time to time, I would expect that we will need to call by-elections again, though not right now.  For Jurong GRC, there is no requirement to call a by-election at all.  But I am mindful that Jurong GRC is one MP short.  If for any reason I decide to call a by-election during this Parliament, Jurong is certainly one possibility which I will consider and, if I need to do that, I can get all the MPs in the GRC team in Jurong to resign and stand again.

     The MPs, Prof. Thio Li-ann, Mr Siew Kum Hong too, raised many theoretical contingencies, situations which could happen which they would like us to provide for in the Constitution or in the Parliamentary Elections Act.   Many contingencies are theoretically possible.  We cannot cover all of them pre-emptively with provisions in our Constitution and laws, but, as problems emerge and as we consider that they are important ones, we will address them progressively, keeping in mind the longer term direction in which we would like our political system to evolve. 

     Prof. Thio argued that laws tame power, therefore discretion ought to be circumscribed by legislation.  In theory, yes.  But, in practice, look at how constitutional systems have functioned all over the world and ask yourselves whether you can easily find other constitutional systems in Asia or in Africa, which Prof. Thio visited, which have worked better than the Singapore system, however perfect and ideal and comprehensive the safeguards provided for in their Constitutions. Pakistan has had many Constitutions. Thailand has had many Constitutions. The Philippines has the most comprehensive Constitution.  All of the American constitutional safeguards, plus-plus.  Do we prefer to be operating like them?

     Very few Third World democracies have worked. Ours has, by adapting our system to our society and evolving in a radically different direction from the standard Western liberal democracy model. So the Western liberal democracies look at us, they are very unhappy because they cannot say that we are completely an autocracy, because there are elections, there is popular support, there is Parliament, and the system works and is clean.

     On the other hand, we are different from the systems which they are comfortable with and used to, like their own home arrangements.  And so there is cognitive dissonance.  How is it this model works even though it is not our model?  Hence, I think we get slightly more than our proportionate share of flak in the international media.  But it is just one of those things, our karma, which we live with.

     This is how we have developed our system. We have factored in the fault lines and other weaknesses in our society so that we can elect a stable and good Government, a Government which has the time not only to set the right policies but to implement them and to be judged on the outcomes. And progressively we have made changes to the system over the years to achieve this. We introduced GRCs which have proven their worth. If Ms Sylvia Lim moves her motion one day, we will have a fuller debate on them. It is not bad, because it is the 20th anniversary, a good occasion for a debate.

     We introduced NCMPs to ensure a minimum number of opposition MPs, which is also not bad because otherwise, Ms Sylvia Lim would not be in this House.

     We introduced NMPs to raise the level of debate and promote diversity of views. I think it has worked because, with the NMP scheme, we have had two NMPs raise a serious motion and make two good speeches. We disagree with them, but I think they have raised the standard of debate in this House. 

     So we will continue to evolve our system in order to make it work better for Singapore. Feeling our way across the river stone by stone, always.

     But, finally, no laws, no Constitution, no safeguards can protect us against venal leaders or fractured societies. If you elect somebody who is dishonest or a crook or flawed, or if you have a fracture in your society and it is unable to come together and form a consensus as to what is good for the society as a whole and which direction the country needs to go in, and you are split fundamentally, so that whichever party is in, the party which is out campaigns until the party which is in is kicked out, even if you are the minority, then, musical chairs continue just the same but with different actors.

     If you have that, you are finished whatever the laws and Constitution. So better vote for reliable leaders, and keep society united. Each time you vote, think that you are voting not just for a person, not just for an MP, but for the next government. And I would enjoin opposition MPs also to remember this, because in the heat of the elections, they often forget this and they tell people: never mind, you have got the PAP Government, vote for anybody, I am all right. I think that is a very dangerous and an irresponsible line to take.

     Ours is a system which has benefited Singapore. Last week, the Straits Times reproduced a commentary in the China TimesChina Times is a Taiwanese newspaper.  Taiwan has a rambunctious democracy – many, many elections, constantly compaigning, highly participatory, highly representative, not always perfectly functioning. And their thoughtful people look at the world and ask themselves what should they do. China Times published an article called the “Paradox of democracy” by a commentator, Liang Tung-Ping. Lianhe Zaobao and the Straits Times both reproduced it. I think it is worth sharing with Members.

     The writer compared the performance of ASEAN countries with one another and he said in his first paragraph:

     “There are 10 countries in ASEAN. Those that advertise themselves as democracies do not seem to have performed well and these include the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.”

     He then goes on to explain country by country why each of these countries has problems.  Take the Philippines. Mrs Arroyo, he says (this is his view):

     “is as stable as a rock not because she has few opponents, but because after 20 years of ineffective democracy, Filipinos have lost faith in their country and have developed an abhorrence of their politicians and of political rights. Despondent and having lost all hope of change, they just want to run away.”

     “Thailand is another country in the region that claims to be a democracy but since adopting constitutional monarchy, it has changed premiers so often and so quickly, none was able to complete a full term.”  

     I think he forgot Mr Thaksin who completed a full term but ran into other difficulties. Then he talks about Indonesia, and then he says:  

     “Interestingly, the top performer in the region is Singapore, a country constantly flogged by Western human rights groups and media as undemocratic.”  

     So we must never blindly follow others. We must think through our problems properly, and work out our solutions adapted to our own circumstances.  

     How do we judge if our system is right for Singapore? Not by comparing it with Western models or some idealised norms or model of representative democracy. It is quite fun to quote Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, or Solzhenitsyn, or UN declarations. It is even more interesting to quote the chorus of the theme song of the conference on Constitutional Democracy in Africa in the 21st Century.

     In Kenya, which has just had general elections, the result was that the winner had to give up the place and become the Prime Minister so that the President can carry on.  A new post was created. Why? Because of the fracture between the Kikuyus and the Luos and that is how they see the world, and that is why it does not work. So even when they see other Kenyans overseas like Mr Barack Obama, they ask themselves: is he Kikuyu or Luo? How do you make a government or a country work in that situation?

     So, finally, the acid test is what works for Singapore and what improves the lives of Singaporeans.  The proposal from Prof. Thio and Dr Loo fails this test and, therefore, should be rejected. [Applause.]


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