Sunday, January 20, 2013


Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has held a total of 11 Parliamentary By-Elections (BEs).  The Punggol East BE would be the 12th. 

The first nine of the 11 BEs took place during the 16-year period from independence in 1965 to 1981.  After 1981, there was only one BE in 1992 and no BEs for the next 20 years, until 2012 when the Hougang BE was held. 

BE 1981 – A Watershed 

JBJ won the 1981 Anson By-Election
In 1981, Member of Parliament (MP) for Anson, C. V. Devan Nair became President and vacated the seat.  BE 1981 turned out to be a watershed.  The PAP's candidate lost to opposition candidate, J. B. Jeyaretnam in a three-cornered fight.  Jeyaretnam become the first opposition MP, ending the PAP's then 15-year monopoly.

After that, there were no BEs for 20 years even though there were several occasions when seats were vacated by death, resignation or disqualification.

Seats Left Vacant

In December 1983, MP for Havelock, Hon Sui Sen, passed away in office. No BE was held in the ward.  His seat was left vacant for the next 12 months till December 1984 when General Elections (GE) were held.  In GE 1984, the Havelock seat was erased from the electoral map.

In November 1986, Jeyaretnam’s seat in Anson was vacated after he was disqualified from holding a seat in Parliament. The following month in December 1986, the Geylang West seat became vacant after its MP, Teh Cheang Wan committed suicide.  No BE was held for either of those two vacated seats till the next GE, held in September 1988.  In GE 1988, the wards of Anson and Geylang West were erased from the electoral map.

For nearly two years, Singaporeans residing in Anson and Geylang West had no MP of their own while Parliament was short of two elected MPs.  Before those two seats become vacant, Parliament had 79 elected MPs.  Did 77 elected MPs do the job as well as 79?  Yet, for GE 1988, the number of elected MPs was increased from 79 to 81. 

Inception of GRCs

In 1988, Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced.  Under the newly enacted laws applicable to GRCs, it provided that the government would be obligated to hold a BE only if ALL the MPs in a GRC vacated their seats. [1] There would be no obligation to hold a BE if one GRC seat was vacated.   The effect of this is that all GRC seats are virtually guaranteed to remain in place and GRC territory would not be up for grabs despite any vacancy, until the next GE.        

Since GRCs were introduced, more and more areas became GRCs and the number of Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) drastically shrank over successive GEs.  For GE 1988, there were 42 SMCs.  For GE 1991, the number of SMCs shrank to 21.  For GE 1997, GE 2001 and GE 2006, the number of SMCs were 9.  For GE 2011 it was slightly increased to 12.    

BE 1992 in Marine Parade GRC

The 10th BE was held in Marine Parade GRC in December 1992.  This BE was called by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who wanted to bring new blood into the PAP’s ranks and also secure a stronger mandate after PAP lost an unprecedented four seats at GE 1991. 

On this occasion, the entire group of PAP MPs at Marine Parade GRC resigned, paving the way for a BE.  This was the first and only time in Singapore's political history that a BE for a GRC was held.  PAP won back Marine Parade GRC in a four-cornered contest.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 1997

On 5 August 1993, MP for Eunos GRC, Dr Tay Eng Soon passed away.  Also in August 1993, MP for Toa Payoh GRC, Ong Teng Cheong resigned from PAP to run as Singapore's first elected President.  Those being GRC seats, the PAP government was not obligated by the law to hold any BE and did not do so. Those two GRC seats remained vacant for the next 3 years and 5 months until GE 1997.  In GE 1997, Eunos GRC and Toa Payoh GRC, which stood for almost a decade since 1988, disappeared from the electoral map. 

For GE 1991, the number of elected seats was 81.  When those two GRC seats were vacated in 1993 by Dr Tay Eng Soon’s passing and Ong Teng Cheong’s resignation, Parliament carried on with less than its full cohort of elected MPs till it was dissolved by GE 1997.

So if 79 MPs could do the job as well as 81, did we need 81 MPs? Yet, the total number of elected seats was increased to 83 in GE 1997.
GRC seat vacant till GE 2001

In December 1999, MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Choo Wee Khiang resigned from his MP position and PAP membership before pleading guilty to cheating charges in court. With Choo's resignation, then Acting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the other Jalan Besar GRC MPs would continue to serve the constituents. The GRC seat was left vacant for the next 1 year 10 months till the next GE held in October 2001.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 2011

In July 2008, MP for Jurong GRC, Dr Ong Chit Chung passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 2 years 10 months till the next GE held in May 2011.  On 27 September 2010, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Dr S. Balaji passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 7 months till GE 2011.  As those seats were not filled, the total number of elected MPs in Parliament dropped from 84 to 82. It seemed 82 MPs could do the job as well as 84.  However for GE 2011, the number of elected seats increased to 87.  

BE 2012 in Hougang 

On 15 February 2012, Workers’ Party MP for Hougang, Yaw Shing Leong was expelled from his political party, which left his seat vacant.  The next day, the Prime Minister told the press that there was no fixed time within which he must call for a by-election. [2]  Concerned about the prospect of having no MP indefinitely, Hougang constituent Mdm Vellama d/o Marie Muthu applied to Court on 2 March 2012 to challenge the government’s position that the timing of the BE at the Prime Minister’s discretion.  On 9 May 2012, the Prime Minister called for a BE in Hougang, the first in 20 years.  In a one-on-one straight fight with the PAP, the Workers’ Party won back their Hougang seat.

Prime Minister’s Discretion

For GRCs, statute provides that the government has no obligation to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.  Even so, academics have weighed in to say that “a strong moral and political case - on the principle of representative democracy - can be made for holding a BE in a GRC when one member has vacated his seat.”[3]  What if it was the minority MP who vacated his GRC seat?  What if the GRC loses not one but two of its MPs? So it may not be all that certain the government does not have to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.
As for SMCs, the PAP government has made clear their position that “The timing of the by-election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed time frame.” [4]  Mdm Vellama’s challenge is currently being heard by the Court of Appeal[5]

On all those occasions when the Prime Minister exercised his discretion and decided not to hold any BE to fill the vacant seat, did the Prime Minister exercise his discretion in the interest of the electorate, or otherwise?  What about the constituents’ democratic right to be represented in parliament by one whom they have elected?  

In her article, "Snap polls a sign of change in PAP's approach?" published in the Straits Times on 10 January 2013, opinion editor Ms Chua Mui Hoong said that PAP has a "track record of not holding by-elections, unless it was for its own planned succession". 

If Ms Chua Mui Hoong is right, then all those times when the PAP government decided not to hold any BE to fill vacant seats, those decisions were self-serving.

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss


[1] Section 24(2A), Parliamentary Elections Act, Cap. 218
[3] “By-Election” The Straits Times, 1 August 2008 see link at
[4] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reply in Parliament on calling a by-election in Hougang SMC (9 March 2012)  see link at
[5] Vellama d/o Marie Muthu v Attorney General (Civil Appeal No. 97 of 2012)


  1. Maybe by elections are not good for PAP.

    On 29 April 1961 a by election in Hong Lim saw Ong Eng Guan (who was expelled from PAP) of United People's Party winning 73% of the votes. Jek Yuen Thong represented the PAP.

    On 18 July 1961 David Marshall (Workers' Party) won Anson.

  2. I wonder if you could clarify this for me:

    1 of the key reasons for having a GRC (if not the key 1 at the time) was to ensure minority representation in Parliament. 1 of then PM Lee's argument (or whichever other Minister), was that with all seats being SMCs only, we could have a stage where all minorities candidates (irrespective of party) lost to a Chinese one, if the voters voted only on racial lines. Or just simply, the majority being Chinese would find it easier to relate and communicate with a Chinese speaking candidate, and would always favour one.

    This would mean the Malays and Indians might not have a single MP who could raises issues involving their respective communities by virtue of being 1 of them himself.

    So the GRC was introduced to supposedly fix this flaw or prevent it from ever arising. 1 of the safeguards if I remember correctly that ties in with your article, is that the PM is obliged under law to call for a by-election in that GRC if the minority member vacates his seat under whatever circumstance. If a Chinese member of that GRC vacates, the discretion to hold a by-election is up to the PM (never exercised since).

    So was there such a law then (or still in place today), that commands the PM to have a by-election to ensure a minority MP is always on hand in the GRC?

    We could have had a clear answer in 2010 with Dr Balaji's passing, but there was no real issue of lack of minority representation because his GRC had another minority MP - Inderjeet Singh.

    But if that GRC required a Malay MP as the minority MP, and if Dr Balaji (for argument's sake) was a Malay, then MP Singh's presence would not have the same impact as it did in 2010.

    So what's the law now about minority representation? Has it been tweaked or changed, that no longer requires an exact quid pro quo replacement, that unless all MPs of the GRC vacate their seats, no by-election is needed? Or does such a law still exist (or did it ever exist in the 1st place) to require a by-election for vacation by minority MP.

    If it does exist, then again aren't we still back at square 1? Although the PM can (even if the word used is 'shall' under law) call for a by-election to replace a minority MP, by having one for the whole GRC or fill a fully vacant GRC, he's not obligated to do so within any time frame under law and the discretion to call for one is entirely up to him.

  3. Dear Sir

    The question you posed (what if a minority GRC MP vacates his seat), was among the issues discussed in an ST article, "By-Elections Pragmatism or Principle" published in the ST on 1 Aug 2008, found at this link:

    The Bill which introduced the GRC scheme in 1988 contained (at Clause 3) the proposed rule that no BE would be held to fill any vacancy unless all the members of that GRC have vacated their Parliamentary seats.

    "This is to ensure that no Member who has been elected under a GRC will be forced to vacate his seat through the departure of his team-mates, for whatever reason." - DPM Goh Chok Tong, Second Reading of the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill, 11 Jan 1988 at Column 188.

    Clause 3 of the Bill eventually became part of the new laws as Section 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, Cap 218 which provides:

    "In respect of any group representation constituency, no writ shall be issued under subsection (1) for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament."

    I don't think there was ever a law requiring a BE for vacation by a minority GRC MP.

    According to the said ST article, Prof Thio Li-ann said that if an MP from a minority race in a GRC dies or resigns, this would test the GRC scheme, which was introduced to ensure multiracial representation in Parliament.

    I think it would fair to conclude from reading the remarks of the various academics who were interviewed for the ST article, that despite Section 24(2A), it is not all that clear that the government has no obligation to call for a BE when a GRC seat is vacated.

    Thanks for your comments!