SINGAPORE: Suggestions to delay the General Election due to the COVID-19 outbreak and to have the president form a caretaker government are unconstitutional, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 25).
Such suggestions are “misleading and unhelpful”, said Mr Teo in response to questions by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza.
Mr de Souza had asked about the Government’s position on these suggestions made by Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock, who made them in a video statement posted on the opposition party’s Facebook page on Mar 14.
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Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, said that “to delay an election beyond the required date in such a manner is unconstitutional”, based on advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).
The only circumstances in which the elections can be put off beyond the required date is when a state of emergency is declared, Mr Teo added.
“The president’s power to declare an emergency can only be exercised on the advice of the Cabinet. Even if the president proclaims an emergency, given that the incumbent Cabinet remains in office during an emergency, there is no legal basis or practical need for the president to form a new government,” said the minister.
“It is not helpful to mislead people into thinking that such an option exists – to put off elections indefinitely and for the president to form a new government – when this goes against the Constitution,” he added.
Mr Teo pointed out that a global pandemic is taking place, and an “unprecedented global crisis”. Singapore faces “twin crises – health and economic” and “even after we deal with this pandemic, the economic repercussion will last longer, with significant and longstanding impact on both lives and livelihoods”, he said.
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He said “we do not know when the COVID-19 situation will stabilise” but that an election “must take place by Apr 14, 2021”, which marks the end of the term of the 13th Parliament.
“The longer we wait, the more unpredictable, difficult and dangerous it could be.”
Said Mr Teo: “Today, more than ever, we need a government that the people has expressed confidence in, to take us through this unprecedented health crisis, stabilise the economy, and safeguard our people’s lives and livelihoods.”
“When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is and that he will not be changed halfway. You want to make sure that he is there – together with you, working with you, guiding you through the storm,” he added.
Mr Teo noted that even if a state of emergency was declared and a caretaker government formed, “it would by definition be a caretaker”, “hobbled by the fact that it lacks the explicit mandate of voters and would therefore not be in a position to take major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans.
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“This is the reason why constitutional convention requires that a caretaker government not make any far-reaching or long-term measure,” said Mr Teo, adding that “this is the fundamental problem”.
How can a caretaker government be in the best interests of the country if what the country needs is a “government with a clear mandate to pull out all the stops in a crisis”? asked Mr Teo.
“To suggest this shows a disregard for, or lack of understanding of the Constitution. Putting forward constitutionally unworkable proposals at a time of serious national crisis can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans, to the detriment of Singaporean and Singaporeans,” he said.
“This discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on our elections is an important one. It goes to a matter of principle.
“This Government is ever mindful that what is at stake are jobs, businesses, lives and our decision must be based on what is in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans and how we can move forward together,” he added.
HOLDING ELECTIONS DURING COVID-19 OUTBREAK
Mr de Souza had also asked about measures to ensure the safety of Singaporeans should the elections be held in the midst of the pandemic.
“Ideally, we would like to conduct elections in normal conditions. The present situation is not ideal for holding an election, but that does not mean it makes an election impossible,” said Mr Teo.
The minister said “necessary extra safeguards and precautions must and will be taken … at every step: nominations, campaigning and voting”.
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“For example, for campaigning, we can have livestreaming of speeches on the Internet and adequate TV time for candidates,” said Mr Teo. “For voting, we already have special express lanes for seniors and those who need them. We can also have social distancing while queuing, proper hand hygiene for voting paraphernalia and hand sanitisers for voters.”
“We will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections even during this ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. All these measures and precautions are required to protect Singaporeans. Whatever measures taken will affect all political parties equally,” Mr Teo added.