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Wednesday 29 February 2012

Shall, May, Must, Ought - A By-word on a By-Election

I have been following with interest the recent exchange of letters between Hri Kumar and Eugene Tan in the TODAY newspaper, regarding the issue of calling a by-election in Hougang.
With all due respect to lawyers and legal academics, the debate on the constitutional requirements of having a by-election is irrelevant to most ordinary citizens. The legal interpretations that turn on the words ‘shall’, ‘must’, ‘may’,  ‘at convenient speed’, and whether an election can either be a General Election or By-Election is frankly over the heads of non-legally trained people (and frankly it does not interest us as much).
I think the operative word that has been lost in the debate is ‘ought’. Ought the Prime Minister call a by-election as soon as possible? In my opinion, this is a more important question than the constitutional debate by legal experts. 
In this case, I think it is an unequivocal yes. However one interprets the constitution, Hougang is a Single Member Ward that has no other elected Member of Parliament serving its constituents. This is very different from a GRC where the loss of one member still means that other elected team members can serve the people that elected them. 
Therefore, the Prime Minister ought to call a by-election as soon as possible.
But the most important fact that people are missing is that the PM never said that he will not call a by-election, just that the nation has other pressing issues that need attending to. And in case people have not noticed, the Yaw Shin Leong affair happened just before the Budget Debates and his seat was only declared vacated on the first day of the Budget Debates.
This was two days ago. 
We should have more patience than to jump to conclusions that the PM is not going to call a by-election or he is delaying the calling of one. I re-iterate – the seat has only been officially vacant for TWO DAYS.
I am sure that once the Budget debates are over, the Prime Minister will make a decision to hold a by-election.
In the meantime, we should focus on a very important Budget debate, instead of getting carried away with the ‘shalls’, the ‘musts’ and the different shades of ‘mays’.


  1. You are right that PM has never said he will not call a by-election. But neither did he give any assurance that a by-election shall be called soon. Instead he went on some vague excuse of national agendas, and having his legal guns speaking to the nation instead. What do you think such an elusive action by the Leader of a nation demonstrate here?

    I don't blame the electorate going on guessing spin.

  2. You are not wrong to interpret it this way.
    But, don't you think the onus is on the PM to make it clear from the start with his very first statement? The impression that he and his party are reluctant is unmistakable. Please read his statement again. I am sure legal academics like Eugene Tan, Thio and Kevin would not have felt the necessity to point this out unanimously.

    Hri Kumar's counter in 'defence' of PM Lee's remarks to Eugene Tan's statement has removed any shadow of a doubt that the implication behind Lee's statement is unmistakable.

    Why would Hri have to defence it the way he did since Eugene's comments are in fact factual. And I applaud Eugene for pointing it out as a reminder if will to the govt as it demonstrates that he is fully aware of his term of reference as an NMP.

    By the way I would not be surprised at all if Eugene would not be welcome for a second term as an NMP even if he would want to or find that his term is suddenly shortened by all sort of trumped up reasons even before his current term ends. We all know too well what can happen to people who are unafraid to speak the truth in a parliament dominated by the ruling party. Our legislative/parliamentary history is not without its share of such infamous conduct.