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Unconstitutional for GE to be held after April 2021 deadline unless state of emergency declared: SM Teo

SINGAPORE — It would be unconstitutional for the Government to hold a general election (GE) after the deadline of April 2021 unless a state of emergency is declared, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament on Wednesday (March 25).

Unconstitutional for GE to be held after April 2021 deadline unless state of emergency declared: SM Teo

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said that some suggestions which have been raised are “misleading and unhelpful”, such as the idea to delay an election beyond the April 2021 deadline and for President Halimah Yaacob to form a caretaker government consisting of a few Members of Parliament.

SINGAPORE — It would be unconstitutional for the Government to hold a general election (GE) after the deadline of April 2021 unless a state of emergency is declared, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament on Wednesday (March 25).

He was responding to a question by Mr Christopher de Souza, Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency, who had asked about the calls by some, such as Progress Singapore Party leader Tan Cheng Bock, to form a caretaker government and hold elections after the Covid-19 health crisis ends.

The term of the current Parliament must end on Jan 14, 2021, and an election must be held no later than three months after that date — April 14.

In response, Mr Teo, who is also the Coordinating Minister for National Security, said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has not made a decision on the timing of the GE, and that the overriding concerns for what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans will affect this decision.

“Today, more than ever, we need a government that people have expressed confidence in, to take us through this unprecedented health crisis and stabilise the economy and safeguard lives and livelihood,” he said.

“When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is and that he will not be changed halfway.”

He added: “The present situation might not be ideal, but it does not make an election impossible.”

The suggestion to hold elections at the tail-end of the pandemic is the dilemma that the Government now faces, said Mr Teo.

“The Prime Minister has laid out the choices clearly: We can hope and pray that things stabilise, but we do not know when the Covid-19 situation will stabilise, whether within the next year, by January, or by April 2021. What we do know is an election must take place by April 14, 2021.

“The longer we wait, the more unpredictable, difficult and dangerous it could be. Compounding this would be the uncertainty of when the election will be held as we go through the year trying to face this crisis together.”

Early elections would give the Government the full mandate and the ability to make tough decisions in Singaporeans’ interest, said Mr Teo.

Singapore should not close off any options, he said, but added that some suggestions have been “misleading and unhelpful”, such as the idea to delay an election beyond the April 2021 deadline and for President Halimah Yacob to form a caretaker government consisting of a few MPs.

Mr Teo said the Attorney-General’s Chambers sees this as unconstitutional, and that the only circumstance under which a GE can be put off is if a state of emergency has been declared. The President can declare an emergency when advised by the Cabinet, he added.

Singapore has weathered many crises since its independence, but it has never extended the Government’s term past the constitutional limit, he noted.

“Declaring an emergency and putting off elections indefinitely is not a precedent we should set lightly,” said Mr Teo.

A caretaker government would also be hobbled by its ability to make decisions because “it lacks the explicit mandate of voters and is therefore not in the position to make major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans”.

“Just when we need a government with a clear mandate to pull out all the stops in a crisis to implement strong mitigation measures, mobilise all its resources and implement strong economic stabilisation measures to save jobs and livelihoods to steer the country through a Covid-19 crisis, a caretaker government would not have the mandate to do so,” said Mr Teo.

To suggest this shows a disregard or a lack of understanding of the Constitution, he said, adding that putting forth such proposals in a time of serious national crisis can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans to the detriment of Singapore.

HOLDING AN ELECTION AMID COVID-19 

Responding to a second question by Mr de Souza on holding elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Teo said a GE would not disrupt any of the measures taken at the borders or at healthcare institutions, schools and workplaces as well as the safe distancing measures that have been implemented to limit the spread of the virus.

“But Covid-19 has created a new norm, whether elections are held early or later, we will still have to work on the basis that the next election will necessarily be different from past elections,” said Mr Teo.

What this means is that the necessary safeguards and precautions must be taken, no matter when elections are held. Political parties must make the necessary arrangements so that nominations, campaigning and voting can be done effectively and safely, he added.

“For example, for campaigning, we can have live streaming of speeches on the internet, adequate TV time for candidates. 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, hand sanitisers for voters.

“We will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections even during this ongoing Covid-19 outbreak,” said Mr Teo.

Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh then asked about the stepped up political outreach in light of the release of the Electoral Boundaries’ Review Committee report earlier this month.

Referring to the stepped-up safe distancing measures announced on Tuesday (March 24), Mr Singh said: “The concern in view of yesterday’s announcement is that some of these outreach activities can easily lead to the formation of large social gatherings of more than 10 individuals in close proximity. Does the minister not agree that such continued outreach could interfere and contradict directives of the taskforce, particularly yesterday’s new directives?”

In response, Mr Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce that is tackling the Covid-19 crisis, said the taskforce has been clear in its measures that congregations of more than 10 persons are to be restricted.

Mr Wong, who is also National Development Minister, said: “That’s a rule or advisory and guideline that we put out to all organisations and all political parties in this House (and) outside this House will therefore have to abide by these guidelines and make adjustments to their activities.”

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