Prime Minister ponders 
    tricky by-election test

  Wall Street Journal
February 29, 2012

By Chun Han Wong

TO by-elect, or not to by-elect. And when.

These are increasingly prickly questions for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
to ponder, after the dismissal of an opposition lawmaker two weeks ago threw up the potential of a third electoral fight for Singapore’s ruling establishment within a year.

A by-election – which would be Singapore’s first since 1992 – wouldn’t affect the ruling People’s Action Party’s ability to govern, given its parliamentary dominance, holding 81 out of 87 seats. But analysts say a poll could carry symbolic value, allowing an increasingly vocal electorate to pass fresh judgment on the PAP platform after two bruising bouts last year – the ruling party’s narrowest-ever general election victory in May, and an August presidential election in which the government’s  favored candidate, a former PAP stalwart, barely scraped a win.

The prime minister’s conundrum began when the Workers’ Party – which won six seats in May – expelled longtime member Yaw Shin Leong after he was accused of marital infidelity and declined to answer questions about the matter. Under constitutional rules, the expulsion also cost Mr Yaw his seat in the single-member Hougang ward.
Mr Lee — who is ultimately responsible for deciding when or if to hold an election —
has postponed his decision, saying there are “many other issues on the national agenda right now.” Singapore’s constitution requires single-member wards vacated during a
parliamentary term to be filled via an election, but is silent on the timeframe for doing so.

The Workers’ Party has indicated it expects a by-election to be held, but hasn’t specified a desired date.

The PAP government has in the past decided against by-elections, claiming sometimes that the proximity of the next general election made a separate vote unnecessary, while arguing on other occasions that seats vacated in a so-called group
representation constituency – a winner-take-all bloc of four to six seats – need not be filled until the next general election, as long as other parliamentarians in the ward pick up the slack.

In the case of Hougang, critics are accusing Mr Lee of dithering to score political gain.

“Our gut feel is that Lee is considering dragging his feet until his party stands the best chance of success in the by-election,” Alex Au, a prominent political blogger, wrote. “This is wrong and would be an abuse of the discretion vested in him.”

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the public debate.

The ruling party has a patchy record in Hougang, having failed to regain the ward since losing it to the Workers’ Party in 1991. Mr Yaw was elected last year with a nearly 30 per cent majority over a PAP candidate – a lead many observers consider difficult to overturn despite the circumstances of Mr Yaw’s exit.

“One consideration (of the PAP) is that many people might decide to interpret the by-election as a referendum on the government and what it has done after the general election,” political analyst Derek da Cunha said. “A further erosion of the PAP’s vote in Hougang – which cannot be discounted – would be an embarrassing result,” he said.

But delaying a by-election for too long or opting against one – leaving about 25,000 voters without parliamentary representation for up to four and a half years – will invite further criticism and hurt Mr Lee’s public standing, analysts say.

“The ruling party can simply sit this out. The passage of time would ensure that the issue would no longer make the headlines,” Mr Da Cunha said. “However, not holding a by-election would…indicate that for all the talk that the ruling party was receptive to changing with the times, it had not changed at all.”

Meanwhile the lively public sparring has continued on Mr Lee’s constitutional powers over by-elections.

In a letter to the Today newspaper, PAP lawmaker Hri Kumar Nair defended Mr Lee’s
position, saying that Singapore’s parliamentary system doesn’t cater for automatically
triggered by-elections, as its focus is letting voters pick political parties to form a government, rather than individual candidates to represent their constituency.

“Therefore, when a seat falls vacant, there is no requirement to call an immediate by-election, unless the vacancy affects the government’s mandate,” Mr Hri Kumar, a  corporate lawyer, wrote.

But his arguments drew criticism from some readers, who wrote back saying Mr Hri Kumar
ignored voters’ rights to parliamentary representation, and didn’t account for hypothetical scenarios in which independent parliamentarians vacate their seats.

“The Prime Minister’s prerogative to decide on the timing of the by-election does not enable him to delay it inordinately or to the point of not even calling for a by-election,” nominated parliamentarian Eugene Tan said.

It isn’t clear when Mr Lee might issue a decision, but Mr Tan said this ought to be done within the next three to six months.

Although some analysts think the delay suggests the PAP is more concerned with the ramifications of a by-election loss than upholding voters’ rights, the party may be “reading too much into its electoral fortunes in Hougang,” said Mr Tan, an assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

“Hougang is the jewel of the opposition crown,” Mr Tan said, which means it may be unlikely for the PAP to make inroads there, anyway.