Five empty seats in Parliament is unprecedented; what does this mean for S’pore politics?
There are five empty seats in Parliament - a situation that Singapore has never experienced since its independence.
The vacancies in the House have thrown up questions from Singaporeans: Why are there no by-elections to refill the gaps? Will the work of Parliament be affected, and what does this mean for Parliament, going forward?
It all started in November 2021 when former Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan, who was representing Sengkang GRC, resigned after lying in Parliament.
In July 2023, former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam stepped down from his posts, including as a Jurong GRC MP, and resigned from the People’s Action Party (PAP) after announcing his bid for the upcoming presidential election.
About a week later, former Speaker of Parliament and Marine Parade GRC MP Tan Chuan-Jin and former Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui resigned following their affair, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deemed as an “inappropriate relationship”.
Later that week, former Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera resigned, after a video circulated of him with then senior WP member Nicole Seah, who also resigned. WP chief Pritam Singh said they both resigned after they had lied to the party about their affair.
The Straits Times speaks to political observers to answer several key questions.
1. Is it sustainable for MPs to be covering for their former colleagues for a long period of time?
Dr Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said that as long as a political party and town council have sufficient resources, covering the work of another MP is materially possible.
However, constituents will not have someone directly representing them and their interests in Parliament, he noted.
“Whoever steps in does not have the same electoral mandate as the person for whom they voted. The GRC system mitigates this issue to some degree, but not fully, since MPs are voted in as a team,” he said.
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said he did not think it would be sustainable for an MP to cover for another MP’s duties beyond 12 to 18 months.
“Something’s got to give. On average, an MP looks after about 30,000 voters. It’s feasible only as a stop-gap measure,” he said.
He added that the MP’s own professional work could also suffer, and they would have to spend more time away from family. Party activists and volunteers could also be taxed, as some may have to cover an additional ward.
Constitutional law expert and NUS adjunct law professor Kevin Tan said that whether it was sustainable is a matter of fact, not law.
“Of course, the MPs covering will tell you that it is doable, but technically, constituents sharing MPs will get less attention, whether it is half an MP or two-thirds of an MP or whatever,” he said.
In terms of political representation, he pointed out that this would be a kind of “malapportionment”, which could be “bad for the system and ultimately unfair”.
2. Do the vacancies affect the work of Parliament?
Dr Chong said the current five vacancies and one MP on leave of absence have no practical implication on the work of Parliament.
“Although it does mean that voters from the constituencies with vacant and leave-of-absence seats are not fully represented in the legislative process,” he said.
Transport Minister S. Iswaran has been on leave of absence since mid-July, after he was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which also arrested tycoon Ong Beng Seng.
On Tuesday, the WP said that Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap had been warded the night before for a cardiac condition, and is now in the intensive care unit. He is conscious and in stable condition.
While he is not formally on a leave of absence from Parliament, he will likely be away from work for a period of time to recuperate.
SMU’s Prof Tan said it would be a stretch to say that the five resignations so far in the 14th Parliament have compromised, or will compromise, how Parliament functions.
The other MPs are expected to, and will step up, to fill the gaps created as a result of the vacancies, he said.
“MPs resigning or being expelled, or dying during the term of office are to be expected - such are the vicissitudes of political life,” he added.
Regardless of vacancies in Parliament, quorum is required to be met for regular legislation to be passed.
The Constitution states that quorum is a quarter of the total members.
It also suggests that MPs on leave of absence count towards the number to decide quorum, but not those whose seats have been vacated, said political observers.
The current Parliament hence comprises 99 MPs. There are now 88 elected MPs – five fewer than 93 – two Non-Constituency MPs and nine Nominated MPs.
With quorum defined as one-quarter, this means having just 25 MPs present in the chamber would be sufficient for regular legislation to be passed.
Most Bills require a simple majority to be passed – in this case 13 MPs’ votes out of the minimum of 25.
“Laws passed under such conditions remain technically legitimate. Of course, passing legislation with just a small minority of MPs present can raise questions about the representativeness of the legislation for the public,” said Dr Chong.
However, changes to the Constitution will require a two-thirds majority of all elected MPs, according to Article 5 of the Constitution.
This would mean there needs to be 59 votes out of 88 to be passed.
SMU’s Prof Tan, during his term as a Nominated MP in 2012 to 2014, had raised a point of order in Parliament seven times of there being no quorum.
On one occasion in 2014, he had to do so twice in one day.
On the first instance, the House was one member short, and a division bell was rung to summon MPs back to the Chamber.
On the second instance, then Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen asked for an adjournment, and the Bill was voted on the next day instead.
Prof Tan said in 2014 that this could be due to the “unusual situation” where Monday, which is when Parliament typically sits, is also the day when many MPs have their Meet-the-People sessions.
3. Does a by-election have to be called? At what point should a general election be called?
The five vacancies in Parliament have come from resignations of MPs that belong to group representation constituencies.
Under the Constitution, there is no requirement for a by-election to be called in this situation.
By-elections have to be called for single member constituencies should the seat become vacant, or if all members of a GRC vacate their seats.
There has been no precedent for a by-election to be called when one member of a GRC stepped down, even if that seat was the one taken by someone representing a minority ethnic group.
For example, in 2017, when current President Halimah Yacob stepped down as Speaker and MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, there was no by-election. Then Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, as well the other MPs in the constituency, stepped in to help.
In 2021, when Ms Khan left Sengkang GRC, WP’s Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap helped to fill the void.
However, in the cases of former WP MP Yaw Shin Leong, former PAP Speaker Michael Palmer and former PAP MP David Ong, by-elections were held in Hougang, Punggol East and Bukit Batok respectively, as they were SMCs.
NUS’ Prof Tan cited the legal bid by Dr Wong Souk Yee, where the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC resident had appealed for a by-election to be called in her constituency after Madam Halimah’s resignation.
He noted that the appellate court in 2019 had held then that no by-election is required for GRCs, when a single vacancy arises.
The decision of the court also made no distinction between MPs who are representing ethnic minorities or otherwise.
“So you can effectively have no ethnic minorities in all the GRCs,” he said.
SMU’s Prof Tan noted that even where a by-election has to be called, the Court of Appeal had noted in 2013 that the prime minister’s discretion to do so is not “unfettered”.
The court ruled then that the prime minister “must do so within a reasonable time” and is “entitled to take into account all relevant circumstances”. Only in “clear cases” could the courts intervene.
Prof Tan added that the prime minister’s discretion on when to call a by-election does not extend to an inordinate delay in calling for one.
He noted that the 14th Parliament will soon have completed three years of its term after being sworn in in August 2020.
“It would be a totally different proposition altogether had the seats been vacated within the first year of Parliament’s term,” said Prof Tan.
With regard to a general election, Dr Chong said nationwide polls will need to be called if the president determines that a prime minister no longer has the confidence of the majority of MPs.
This could be because a prime minister loses a no-confidence motion, or if a government collapses because very few or no people are willing to serve in the Cabinet of a prime minister.
In a press conference on July 17 addressing the affair between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, PM Lee said he had no plans to call an immediate general election, which is due by 2025.
He noted that the second half of the present Government’s term had just started, and there is a full agenda for the term that the Government is working at.