By-election ruling still gives PM discretion

By-election ruling still gives PM discretion

SINGAPORE - Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Prime Minister must call an election to fill a vacated parliamentary seat within a reasonable time.

The ruling overturned an earlier one by the High Court, which said that the Prime Minister had full discretion over whether to hold an election.

The case began in March last year when Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu made a bid to get the court to declare that the Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion to decide whether and when to call by-elections.

She did so after the Hougang seat fell empty when the Workers' Party sacked then MP Yaw Shin Leong. Elgin Toh speaks to lawyer and MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Hri Kumar Nair and law professor and Nominated MP Eugene Tan on the ruling. They debated publicly on whether and when by-elections had to be called after the seat was vacated last year.

Don't confuse PM's legal duties with what people think he should do:

MP What is your reaction to the ruling? Were you surprised by it?

The Court of Appeal took a view on Article 49 of the Constitution (regarding a vacated seat), and the scope of the Prime Minister's duties thereunder. There is no issue of surprise.

What is the significance of the ruling? Has anything really changed for the Prime Minister?

The ruling does not contradict Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's statement in Parliament in March last year, shortly after the Hougang seat was vacated.

The PM stated that he had discretion on when to call a by-election, and when exercising that discretion, he would consider all the circumstances of the matter, including the interests of the voters of Hougang. That is how the Court has framed his duty.

There was previously confusion in the media because some commentators suggested that calling a by-election was "automatic" or should be "immediate", and that the PM must publicly explain if he delays calling one. That is not the law.

So even after this ruling, you believe the PM does not have to give a public explanation for delaying a by-election?

We must not confuse the PM's legal duties with what some people think he should do politically. The PM is not legally required to publicly explain his decision process or what matters he is taking into account.

When Parliament was debating in 2008 a motion to set a time limit for holding by-elections, Mr Lee said "the Prime Minister of the day has a discretion to decide when he wants to call or whether he wants to call (a by-election)".

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