Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Speech on "Parliamentary Elections": 27 August 2008

As most or all of you would know, Prof Thio Li-Ann and Dr Loo Choon Yong filed a motion to ask Parliament to call on the Government to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act, to provide for by-elections in certain circumstances. This was a Member's motion, not an adjournment motion. I will explain the difference in greater detail, as well as talk about what happened in Parliament today, in a later post.

But for now, the videos of my speech are below (courtesy of TOC), with the prepared text of my speech which I have updated to reflect the actual delivered speech as closely as possible (although I know I made some other changes on the fly which are not reflected here) below them. Also, the results of the TOC street poll can be found here.

Part 1:



Part 2:



Speech on the motion on by-elections filed by Nominated Member Prof Thio Li-Ann and seconded by Dr Loo Choon Yong


1. Mr Speaker Sir, thank you for allowing me to participate in this debate. I rise in support of the motion.

2. This motion was filed by Professor Thio and Dr. Loo, in the wake of the passing away of Dr. Ong Chit Chung, an elected Member for Jurong GRC. The Government has indicated that it will not be calling for a by-election in Jurong GRC. Instead, the other elected Members in the GRC will take turns to cover the duties of Dr. Ong. This was the same approach taken in 1993, when Dr. Tay Eng Soon, then an elected Member for Eunos GRC, passed away, and in 1999 when Mr Choo Wee Khiang of Jalan Besar GRC resigned.

3. The motion has three parts. Firstly, it calls upon this House to affirm the importance of representative democracy. Secondly, it proposes a fine-tuning of the electoral system, to provide for by-elections in certain circumstances. Finally, it calls for all by-elections to be called within 3 months of the date of vacancy, unless general elections are imminent.

Representative democracy

4. Sir, the first part of the motion on the importance of representative democracy must surely be beyond doubt and beyond debate. We are a parliamentary democracy, and the elected Members of this House represent the people. The people have voted the Government into power, and that is where the Government draws its legitimacy from. Without representative democracy, the Government would have zero legitimacy, and that is the source of the Government’s right to rule.

5. I cannot imagine any Member disputing or disagreeing with the importance of representative democracy, and I cannot imagine any Member not agreeing with this first part of the motion. Indeed, any elected Member who is reluctant to affirm the importance of representative democracy should consider whether he or she should continue as a Member of this House.

Time-frame for calling a by-election

6. I will now touch briefly on the third part of the motion. As I cannot do better than the learned Professor Thio here, I will simply say that I fully endorse her speech on this aspect.

7. The Nominated member has described to this House the different approaches of a number of countries. With such a divergence of practice, the proposed 3-month timeframe seems to me eminently reasonable, especially when the motion also envisages the need for an exception where general elections are imminent. So I also support this third part of the motion.

8. Mr Hri Kumar points to the UK, and says that the 3-month timeline cited by Professor Thio is only a convention. Well, as Mr Hri Kumar no doubt knows, the UK does not have a codified, written Constitution, and Westminster conventions are regarded as being as good as law.

When a by-election should be called

9. I now move on to the second part of the motion, which in my view represents the meat of the motion. This second part asks this House to call on the Government to fine-tune the electoral system, by introducing amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act requiring a by-election in certain stipulated circumstances. These circumstances are where a Member of a GRC belonging to a minority community within the terms of section 8A(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act vacates his or her seat for any reason; where half or more of the elected Members for a GRC vacate their seats for any reason; or where the elected Members for a single member constituency vacates his or her seat for any reason.

10. Sir, my own view is a little different. I firmly believe that a by-election should be called whenever there is any vacancy in a GRC, not just when the vacancy is left by the minority Member, or when half or more of the elected Members vacate their seats. I would therefore argue that a by-election should be called in Jurong GRC, as a result of the vacancy caused by the passing away of Dr. Ong Chit Chung.

11. It does seem from the previous speakers’ speeches, that I may be alone in this House in this regard. And I also recognize that this specific point, of whether there should be a by-election where there is a single vacancy in a GRC, has been debated in the past. Nevertheless, I ask for the indulgence of this House, while I spend a few minutes on what I call the “3 Ps” – Principle, Practicality, and the People.

The first P: Principle

12. Sir, the starting point must surely be the principle of representative democracy, as recognized in the first part of the motion. This principle is the first P. I think Mr Hri Kumar said that there is no universal definition for this. But I disagree. I see this very simply.

13. In Singapore, the people elect their representatives to Parliament. Where the seat in a single member constituency is vacated for any reason, the people cease to be represented. To avoid this situation, a by-election should be called.

14. The logic is simple and clear for single member constituencies, and I think there should be no dispute or disagreement insofar as the motion calls for a writ for by-election to be issued in the event of a vacancy in a single member constituency for any reason.

15. The situation is muddied somewhat by the GRC scheme, because there would remain other elected Members for that GRC. And that is the nub of the issue here.

16. As I have said, elected Members have the legitimacy of the people’s endorsement, of representing the will of the people. The mandate from the people is fundamental to a functioning democracy.

17. So when the electors in a GRC elect a team of candidates, what is the mandate being given? Well, in the 2006 general elections, I was a voter in Ang Mo Kio GRC, voting for a team of candidates. And to me, the mandate was to the team as a whole.

18. I think the mandate is for the team of candidates, as elected by the voters, to represent the GRC in Parliament. And if the composition of the team changes for any reason, then it by definition becomes a different team. It ceases to be the team elected by the voters. In that situation, surely a fresh mandate from the voters is necessary.

19. Jurong GRC was uncontested in the 2006 general elections, and so the team there entered Parliament by way of a walk-over. But this does not change the fact that the team today is different from the team that was nominated, and that entered Parliament, in 2006.

20. So on principle, I would say that a by-election is required in Jurong GRC.

The second P: Practicality

21. I think that the principle of representative democracy should by itself settle the issue. But some have cited reasons based on practicality, in arguing against having a by-election. In the first place, I do not think that practical considerations should ever be allowed to trump a principle that is so fundamental to the concept of democracy. But even if we are to accept that this second P of practicality is relevant to the discussion, to my mind, it also points in favour of a by-election.

22. The first reason that some may cite to justify not calling for a by-election, is that the law does not require it. Well, Professor Thio has spoken on what the law is, and she has done so far more ably than I ever could.

23. But I do not believe that this House should feel bound by what the law today says. This House makes law for Singapore. It would be odd – no, it would be nothing less than sheer abdication of Constitutional responsibility -- for this House to say that it is bound by existing law and to stop there, instead of considering what the law should say, and then changing the law to say that.

24. The law should reflect correct principle, and we should not distort principle to accommodate existing law or contort our thinking to justify incorrect law. If the law is unclear or just plain wrong, then this House is duty-bound to clarify or correct it, instead of hiding behind such an unclear or wrongful law and perpetuating an undesirable state of affairs. So I would not place too much weight on the fact that the existing law does not require a by-election.

25. Another reason that has been cited is that a by-election would distract Singaporeans from the pressing issues posed by a slowing economy and rising inflation. This was also the reason cited when Dr. Tay Eng Soon passed away in 1993.

26. Sir, surely this argument cannot stand. It implies that voting and elections are luxuries, that they are really just so much fun and games to be left for good times, and inappropriate and unnecessary in bad times. It suggests that the right of voters to be represented by the team they have elected, is in reality a privilege and not an entitlement. It means that the principle of representative democracy is not fundamental to our society, and can be waived by the Government of the day when deemed inexpedient.

27. I think that cannot be right. Either a by-election is necessary, or it is not. Either the people have a right to be represented by the team they have elected, and hence the right to select a fresh team if the elected team changes, or they do not. Either the principle of representative democracy is important, or it is not. The prevailing economic conditions should have no role to play in this, and certainly should not be allowed to trump these considerations.

28. A third reason that is often cited is that the remaining Members in the GRC can cover the duties of the Member who has vacated his or her seat, and so voters are none the worse off.

29. Sir, this argument belittles the contributions of elected Members. Exactly as Professor Thio has said, ever since my own appointment as a Nominated Member, I have come to appreciate the heavy duties and burdens of elected Members. I, as an unelected Member of this House, am utterly dismayed by the suggestion that it is perfectly all right for the remaining Members in a GRC to cover the duties of a Member who has vacated his or her seat, and that nobody should think twice about it. It trivializes and downplays the contributions of elected Members, in a way that I think is unfair and unjustified. Do the elected Members of this House really stand for this view? What are they saying about what they do? So I do not accept this argument either, and I urge my elected colleagues not to accept it either. I therefore echo the call of Dr. Loo for the Whip to be liefted, so that the elected Members can vote freely on this.

30. Furthermore, as Professor Thio and Dr. Loo have said, how can Parliamentary duties be covered by other Members? Are those who rely on this argument, saying that all elected GRC Members in this House are interchangeable?

31. Instead, I would argue that practicality demands a by-election, and certainly in Jurong GRC. Of the four remaining Members, two are full Cabinet ministers, one is a Senior Minister of State in two ministries, and the fourth is a veteran backbencher with numerous appointments. It is a question mark whether they can adequately discharge the duties in connection of the vacated seat. Even trying to do so, will impose a tremendous burden on them. Just as an example, do we really want to risk over-burdening the Minister of Finance in these trying economic times? Surely it would be more practical to call for a by-election, to ensure a full complement of elected Members in Jurong GRC.

The third P: the People

32. Sir, my third P refers to the people. Much has been said about the question of whether a by-election is required in Jurong GRC, whether in the press, on the Internet, and in this House today. But what do the people themselves think?

33. Madam Halimah, who is from Jurong GRC, has talked about the MPs’ discussions with the grassroots leaders in Jurong GRC. But the grassroots leaders are not the people.

34. The Singapore blogsite The Online Citizen decided to find out what the people thought, from them directly. It conducted a street poll last Saturday, to find out whether Singaporeans, and in particular residents of Jurong GRC, think there should be a by-election. I was one of the volunteers who helped conduct the poll, and as I understand it, the results were published a short while ago today.

35. The question asked was a simple one:

Dr. Ong Chit Chung passed away recently. Do you think that there should be a by-election in Jurong GRC?
36. A total of 478 Singapore citizens were polled, of which 312 were residents of Jurong GRC and 166 were non-residents. Of these 478 respondents, 122 or 25.5% did not know. Of the remainder, 214 respondents, or 60.1% of respondents who had an opinion either way, felt that a by-election should be held in Jurong GRC. 142 respondents, or 39.9% of respondents who had an opinion, disagreed.

37. So much for Singaporeans as a whole. What about Jurong GRC residents? Well, of the 312 residents polled, 85 or 27.2% did not know whether a by-election should be held. 129 residents, or 56.8% of residents who had an opinion, thought that a by-election should be held, while 98 residents, or 43.2% of residents who had an opinion, did not think so.

38. This was a street poll. It was anonymous, it was random, and it does not purport to be statistically valid or representative of Singaporeans or any other group.

39. But I think the results are nevertheless very interesting and very instructive. Putting aside all those respondents who did not have an opinion -- and here I must say it was a disturbingly high number -- the majority of Singaporeans, and the majority of Jurong GRC residents, felt that a by-election should be held. Even including those respondents who did not have an opinion, it is quite clear that more Singaporeans and more Jurong GRC residents wanted a by-election, than those who did not.

40. Sir, we are here today to debate the nature of democracy in Singapore. Democracy is about the people, about how they have the power. And the people have spoken. They have spoken, their voice rings loud and clear, and they want a by-election.

41. So on principle, on practicality and on the voice of the people, based on these 3 Ps, I believe that a by-election should be held for a GRC, whenever there is even a single vacancy, regardless of whether it is the minority Member or not.

The motion

42. Be that as it may, the issue of whether a by-election should be called when there is a single vacancy in a GRC has been debated before in this House, and I do not expect the Government to change its position today. The motion before this House also advocates a different position.

43. Nevertheless, I support the motion. My position is more expansive than this motion, and so my position encompasses this motion. There is no inconsistency. Just as I believe that there should be a by-election when there is a single vacancy in a GRC, I also believe that there should be a by-election when there is a single vacancy in a GRC caused by the minority Member vacating his or her seat, and I also believe that there should be a by-election when half or more of the Members in a GRC vacate their seats. I see the motion as positive movement in the right direction, and so I am comfortable supporting it.

44. To me, this motion is fundamentally about setting in place the right principles for calling by-elections when there are vacancies in a GRC, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the Government of the day. The motion goes about this in a deliberate and measured manner. It calls for a by-election when it is the minority Member who vacates his or her seat. It also calls for a by-election when half or more of the Members in a GRC vacate their seats. Both are eminently reasonable.

45. It is important to lay these foundations now, so that we do not scramble or leave things to discretion if and when the situations envisaged in the second part of the motion arise. We profess to be a forward-looking state. Well, this is too important an issue to not look forward on. We should set the policy now, so that we have a consistent approach to such situations moving forward. When the day comes, we will know what to do, and nothing is left to discretion or chance.

46. Professor Thio has outlined an explanation grounded in logic and in law, for why a by-election is required when a minority Member in a GRC vacates his or her seat. That must surely be so, given that the fundamental justification and purpose of GRCs is to ensure some minimum amount of minority representation in Parliament. I disagree with Mr Hri Kumar’s comments on this. I cannot see how any other position can be sustainable, as it would severely undercut and undermine the foundations of the GRC scheme.

47. Ms. Sylvia Lim, Madam Halimah and Mr Hri Kumar have spoken about the potential for a single member in a GRC team to hold the rest of the team, or even the Government, to ransom. My short response to that, is that the political parties have to select their candidates carefully. Extending their argument further, a group of elected Members can get together and blackmail their party. Where do we stop? Party discipline is the mechanism to address this issue, not an imperfect law.

48. Similarly, where half or more of the elected Members for a GRC vacate their seats for any reason, then surely there can be no doubt that it is no longer the team that electors have voted for. And surely it cannot be argued that the remaining Members can perform the duties of the other Members who have vacated their seats. It would stretch reason and credulity to argue that a by-election is not necessary, even if half or more of the elected Members for a GRC have vacated their seats.

Conclusion

49. Sir, this motion presents an opportunity for this House to advance the cause of representative democracy in Singapore. I support it, even if it does not go as far as I would like it.

50. Sir, with that, I support the motion.

16 comments:

Chee Wai Lee said...

Good and clear speech. I hope the government pays attention and stops being so hard-headed about these issues.

I would personally go further and say that this is indicative of how broken the GRC system is. Having no good solution to minority representation (my belief is that the "political environment should encourage it" under the single seat system, which in effect says nothing), my personal stand on the GRC issue is to compromise and suggest the scheme to be reversed to the 3-member GRCs of the past where it at least made sense.

I thank you once again for doing a good job highlighting these issues to the government and the public.

Hannes said...

Dear Mr Siew - its good to note tis rather vigorous debate questioning quite openly the entire GRC system - and your speech is fabulous.

However, when I tried to look at toher parts of this debate on the CNA webpage, I find that the Parialment section with video clips is gone! Is it really or do I not find it? Do we now look at our parliament debates in Youtube from now on?

Thanks

ExExpat

Salary said...

Parliament video:

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/parliament/videoarchives.htm

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/parliament/

Seems they are still up.

However, we need to archive the video with services like Youtube to keep them available to the public.

Sad that the MSM does not feel it is a good national service to let the public has free access to the news report and video in its archive. Hope things will change when NLB's news archive is finally up.

Salary said...

Now I have question:

If a MP stands up to declare he / she oppose the party position even when the Whip is not lifted, will it be counted as a NO vote or it will be ignored?

Rambling Alcoholic said...

Sir I salute your support of the motion.

Unfortunately, the Govt which has perhaps killed too many "sacred cows" this National Day Rally is not prepared to kill this one as yet.

I look forward to the time where we as citizens can exercise our right to vote and the ruling Party is not afraid of its position because of the good work it has done.

Mercia said...

Dear Mr. Siew,

Thank you for all you've done in Parliament. It is truly heartening to see someone dedicated and eloquent to lend voice to our thoughts. Soldier on, if for anything but your many supporters who applaud your tenacity and passion to the human spirit, even in Singapore.

Mercia

Challenger said...

Mr Kum,

Thanks for setting up this blog!

Its so insightful to read of a NMP's experiences and thinking!

LuckySingaporean said...

Mr. Kum,

A number of Singaporeans have lost their lifesavings possibly due to misselling on the part of banks of structured products linked to Lehman Bros.

Tan Kin Lian (tankinlian.blogspot.com) has taken the initiative with the help of a few of his friends to try to get the group organised to seek redress and urge the MAS to do more to help investors.

Is there something more MPs or NMPs can do to help?

Siew Kum Hong said...

To all: Thanks for your kind words. I must apologise for not responding to all of you earlier, but I've been quite busy over the past month.

To salary: As I understand it, the Whip is something imposed by the party and not part of Parliamentary rules. So it should be entirely possible for someone to stand up and vote NO, and that vote will be recorded as such. But there will, of course, be consequences from the party after that.

To luckysingaporean: Judging from questions that have already been filed, this will be a hot topic at the next Parliamentary sitting. Of course, Singaporeans can -- and should -- approach their elected MPs directly and ask for assistance. I think the effectiveness of that is often under-estimated.

Kaffein said...

Hi,
Can you assist to bring up two urgent questions:

1. Why is there an electricity when prices of oil are falling, or SP is using natural gas which has not really increased significantly, and SP is earning a huge profit and yet the government allows the hike?

Why 21%? Can this be justified?

2. Why did DBS HK give a full refund for investors but till now, we have not heard from DBS SG?

Many many thanks. I'm sure a lot of people will appreciate the answers to these questions. Actually the truth is I was smirking as I typed.

Heh...

Thanks,
Kaffein

Siew Kum Hong said...

To kaffein: Actually, a number of MPs (Ellen Lee, Lee Bee Wah, Sylvia Lim and Ho Geok Choo) have filed PQs on the electricity fee hike. So this issue will certainly be debated next week.

As for DBS, some PQs have also been filed on this. I myself have filed one. Next week's sitting will also debate amendments to the Securities and Futures Act and the Financial Advisers Act, so you can expect this issue to be raised. I will be speaking on both and, yes, will touch on both. But to be clear, DBS HK has not said that it will give a full refund to all customers, but rather only where misselling is established. I believe that since your comment, DBS SG has come out to say the same thing.

Kaffein said...

Just visited a blog (but can't find the link). It says:
"
I read in the Straits Times a while back, when oil prices were high and Comfort Delgro had just introduced a fuel surcharge on taxis, that "We will drop the surcharge if the price of fuel falls below $109."

Well, well, well: isn't it marvellous the way such promises are conveniently forgotten when it comes time for them to be kept? Today, the price of oil has fallen to $73 a barrel - but the fuel surcharge on Singaporean taxis remains. So, too, do the absurdly high taxi fares, remain untouched.
"

Another topic for debate and discussion.

Kaffein

Siew Kum Hong said...

To Kaffein: I agree with you completely. However, taxi fares are deregulated and outside of the Government's purview, and so it will take some finesse to raise this. But I will try to think of something. :)

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